The State of The American Newspaper
The Battle Of the Bay
Surrounded on all sides,
the long-somnolent San Francisco Chronicle has declared war. The enemy it fears most? Knight Ridder.
The grail? The lucrative suburbs.
By Cynthia Gorney
John Curley's Jihad speech, which he found himself delivering impromptu to a roomful of colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle's 1996 all-day planning retreat, was so earnest and impassioned that as he finished, it seemed to him entirely plausible that someone might begin snickering or pelting him with crumpled sheets of paper. There had been some hilarity just a few minutes earlier, somebody saying So let's sum up our conclusions, then, and somebody else cracking Our conclusions are that we have to keep the newspaper safe for the family's profit margin, and amid the laughter and hooting Curley had risen from his chair, not wanting to lose the moment, not wanting the day to dissipate into wiseass reportery banter about the fractious rich people who still own the Chronicle. Curley stood there until the room quieted down. He looked at the display easels with their big newsprint tablets scrawled up in marking-pen headings: Content Committee. Rewards & Incentives. Hiring & Training. Job Redesign.
Cynthia Gorney was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1975 to 1991, based for much of that time in San Francisco. She was the paper’s South American bureau chief from 1980 to 1982. Her critically praised book “Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars,” was published in 1998 by Simon and Schuster.
Then Curley, who was the Chronicle's sports editor and therefore not by job description inclined to deliver pronouncements of this nature, made his face serious and talked about going to war.
Extraordinary cir-cumstances had brought
them all here, Curley said. Not for 35 years had the competition for readers and advertising money appeared so formidable, the chief opponents so sumptuously armed. Across San Francisco Bay to the north, in Marin and Sonoma counties, the rival papers were owned by Gannett and the New York Times; to the south, in the peninsula split crosswise into San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News had tightened its lock on Silicon Valley and was continuing its northward press into long-held Chronicle territory. To the east, Dean Singleton's Alameda Newspapers group was flogging its dailies at annual subscription rates a fraction of the cost of the Chronicle. And now Knight Ridder had arrived en masse on the east side of the bay as well, scooping up five suburban dailies with its $360 million purchase of the privately held Contra Costa Newspapers chain. "We're surrounded," Curley said. "For us this has got to be--a jihad. Because unless we take this up, we're going to be pushed into the sea."
Pushed into the sea, that was actually the way Curley phrased it, and the moment the words came out of his mouth he was struck by the deep improbability of the whole tableau: the rented conference center, the written-up tablets on the easels, the editors and reporters draped companionably over sofas and armchairs, and the sports editor exhorting them all to holy war. John Curley had worked at the Chronicle for 14 years, most of them spent in the fraternal isolation of the sports department, and aside from the occasional inspirational speech to beat writers or his assignment desk he had never gotten publicly worked up about the Future of the Paper; no one did, that was the point about the Chronicle, and it required a veteran's tenure at the newspaper to understand why an event as conventional as a newsroom planning retreat might feel so dramatically out of character.
The Chronicle didn't do retreats. The Chronicle didn't plan, not in the big-time way that ambitious modern newspapers plan. The Chronicle didn't invite reporters and managers to spend the day talking and arguing and thinking large thoughts. The Chronicle certainly didn't retain management consultants to shake up the proceedings by playing a booming recording of "Leader of the Pack" while the executive editor strode in wearing a bandanna and sunglasses and a motorcycle jacket. Since the current executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a young Chronicle lifer named Matt Wilson, is a soft-spoken bow-ties-and-plain-suits man whose thin unlined face generally makes him look like an underaged computer whiz, this particular bit of theater had provided a moment of high comedy earlier in the day, but Wilson had been a good sport about it, doing his best to stride, a gait that does not come naturally to him, and holding aloft the plastic tricycle that had been handed to him as a prop. The message was as plain to Curley as he supposed it was to his assembled colleagues in the meeting room:
That was why Curley said what he did, and why the reaction in the room interested him as much as the somewhat unsettling fact that he had said it at all. No one laughed at him. Susan Sward, a city room veteran widely regarded as one of the toughest and most capable reporters in town, was gazing at Curley with sober, consuming interest; Carl Hall, the ardently pro-union reporter serving as president of the Newspaper Guild local, was listening with what appeared to be unfeigned respect. "There weren't even any stifled giggles," Curley says. "Which you've got to take as a good sign, right? There wasn't a hint of: What a jerk, what a management stooge. And people's eyes were bright. I think they were looking for someone to unfurl a banner."
Thus it was that a waterfront conference center on the northern lip of the bay became the launch site for the San Francisco Chronicle's ambitious, edgy and exceedingly high-stakes campaign to remake itself into a newspaper at war. The martial imagery was not dreamt up by John Curley; three months earlier, in June 1996, Matt Wilson had circulated an open call-to-arms memorandum declaring that the Chronicle was at risk of being beaten into submission by Knight Ridder and the other hostiles now massing around San Francisco Bay. "Our historical position of leadership is at serious risk," Wilson wrote. "Within a decade, Knight Ridder's Bay Area newspapers may have more readers than the Chronicle... Circulation dominance will translate into advertising dominance... In short, the Chronicle is in a war with the Mercury News and Knight Ridder. Whoever wins the war will become the Bay Area's dominant provider of news and advertising information."
It was not Knight Ridder alone that ought to be scaring the Chronicle, Wilson had written; online services and other stepped-up forms of competition were changing the nature of daily information delivery so rapidly that the Chronicle newsroom needed a radical overhaul if the paper was going to make any serious effort to keep pace. "CULTURE SHOCK," Wilson's memo read, and "THE CRISES," and "THE NEW ORGANIZATION." The Manifesto is what Managing Editor Jerry Roberts calls Wilson's 1996 war memo now, and when Roberts begins describing what's gone on at the Chronicle over the months since the Manifesto--the zoning, the regional columnists, the big-display enterprise projects, the business section expansion, the beefed-up high-tech reporting, the $1.5 million gamble on new bureaus and reporters in the suburbs--he, too, slips cheerfully into the jargon of a field marshal rousing the troops. Roberts likes to call Knight Ridder The Evil Empire. He uses phrases like "ground campaigns," describing the Chronicle push into Knight Ridder-dominated suburbs, and "pincers movements," describing Knight Ridder advances up the flanks of what used to be Chronicle territory. He says: "I think they want to surround and squeeze us," and: "I think they want to turn us from a three-county paper into a one-county paper," and: "Well, basically, I think they want to take over the world."
Roberts busts up laughing when he gets to the Take Over the World part, but he and Matt Wilson and John Curley are all dead serious about the gravity of the enterprise. By contemporary media standards it's a rare and wonderful phenomenon we have going on out here, an actual big-time brawl for the daily attention of people who read newspapers. The expansion of Knight Ridder's Bay Area holdings has helped turn San Francisco into one of the few genuinely competitive markets in the country, with newspaper companies putting real money and editorial muscle into improving their papers.
And the real prize, as the mapping of the ground campaigns and pincers movements has demonstrated, is no longer the celebrated city itself. With a daily circulation of 475,324, the Chronicle is still the biggest West Coast paper north of Los Angeles, but almost three-quarters of those Chronicles are sold outside San Francisco, in the huge suburban market north, east and south of the city limits. Nine counties abut San Francisco Bay: That's six-and-a-half-million people; three-and-a-half million jobs; four dozen cities; six major newspaper owners; too many online news services to keep track of from one week to the next; and a spectacular amount of aggregate newspaper money. (One market researcher recently estimated the annual regional spending on recruitment classified advertising alone--that's just the newspapers, and just the employer ads, only one subsection of the lucrative classifieds business--at $200 million.)
The Chronicle's circulation, amid this riot of potential readership numbers, is dropping. Eight thousand eight hundred and ninety-four--that was the bold-faced decline-in-circulation number when the half-year audit totals were released last October. And as Jerry Roberts commences his third year as managing editor, a job he took on with some trepidation after a long career as a Chronicle political reporter and editor, he faces from one worrisome audit report to the next a set of challenges that may sound familiar to similarly embattled compatriots in other urban newsrooms. How does a family-owned paper beat back a behemoth like Knight Ridder? How does a metropolitan daily attract both central city readers and those desperately needed suburbanites who may be deciding their two-paper days are over? How does a cadre of editors and reporters who genuinely love their newspaper haul its large, unruly, famously somnolent self into the new era of grown-up competition for an increasingly distracted audience?
"It's just a lot of work," Roberts told me one day last fall, a particularly shoulders-sagging sort of day, when the circulation numbers were aggravating him and neither he nor his metropolitan editor had been crazy about the front page. "For a long time, when I was at the Chronicle, there was just this smug superiority: We're the big paper, it doesn't matter what we do, we don't have to try hard. And to change the culture of the newsroom so you do, you do want to beat the other guy, you are aggressive and you are competitive and you want to act competitive on every story, and to stand in front of my colleagues and say that stuff--you've got 300 skeptical cynics. And you have to try to convince them."
For this is part of the jihad, too, maybe the hardest part--this internal and external assault on a national reputation more than three decades in the making. The San Francisco Chronicle is a legendary newspaper, and no one in the newsroom has any illusions about what it's legendary for; there's not another paper in the United States that has the distinction of having been insulted for laughs in a movie meant to glorify the hard-working press. (The movie was "All the President's Men," in 1976, and it was a throwaway line, but in certain circles it stuck.) "I knew it only from the reputation: 'Send it to the Chronicle,' " John Curley told me, remembering how the paper looked to him from a distance before he was finally persuaded to leave the Los Angeles Times in 1982 to take a Chronicle editing job. "I believe in the book it's 'Send it to the San Francisco Chronicle. They'll publish anything.' In the movie, it's 'Send it to the San Francisco Chronicle. They need it.' Not that we have any self-consciousness about our reputation, you understand."
Curley was drawing on the top of a notebook as he said this, his gaze fixed on the ballpoint hatch marks filling the left-hand corner, but he was smiling; he's part of the cadre. He's left the sports department and moved into a glass-walled AME office at the top end of the Chronicle city room, where he now spends his days fanning life into the rigorously competitive paper the Chronicle is working so hard to become. It's not that competition in itself is a novel idea at the Chronicle; San Francisco remains one of the few American cities with two mainstream dailies, and for a long time reporters at the Chronicle have paced themselves against their counterparts at the San Francisco Examiner, the Hearst-owned afternoon paper to which the Chronicle has been contractually bound by a joint operating agreement since 1965. The Examiner on its best days is a very good city newspaper, rowdier and faster-paced and more visually striking than the Chronicle, but since the Chronicle has four times the circulation and the revenue generated by both papers goes into a single pot, the Chronicle-Examiner rivalry is a playground spat beneath the shadow of the Evil Empire. "Jesus, if we think the Examiner is our competition," Curley said, "then we're in big trouble."
In a high-ceilinged community hall in the East Bay town of Pleasant Hill, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco and deep in the heart of the hard-fought suburban readership territory called Contra Costa County, 13 Chronicle editors and reporters sat side by side at a long table one evening last October, looking out a little nervously at the men and women who had come to hear what the newspaper people had to say for themselves. The event had been advertised in the Chronicle as a community forum in which the locals might meet in person the large new bureau now covering their county, and the paper had gone to some trouble to put on a nice show: A Mexican caterer dished out free plates of enchiladas and tamales, microphones had been placed in the aisles between the rows of audience chairs, and the newspaper people's table was decorated with a long bright banner that read "The Chronicle."
The words "San Francisco" were notably missing from the banner, and the sample metro section blown up for display also bore no reference to the city of San Francisco. The section's masthead read "Contra Costa," its centerpiece story was about a championship Catholic high school football team based in the Contra Costa County town of Concord, and as the reporters took turns introducing themselves to the audience, half of them began by proclaiming their local roots--that's local as in born-in-the-suburbs, not shipped in from across the bay. Tanya Schevitz, the bureau's energetic young education reporter: graduate of the Concord public schools. John King, the thrice-weekly columnist for the Contra Costa section: born and raised in Walnut Creek, the county seat. Erin Hallissy, head of the new bureau and senior reporter in the crew: born and raised in Concord, a credential underscored in the glossy four-page Meet the Staff brochures being passed around at the forum ("Our Contra Costa bureau chief is a lifelong resident with local roots that go back several generations").
Hallissy's picture was in the brochure, too, along with her e-mail and telephone number and a dozen comparable illustrated bios of her bureau colleagues. And when the Chronicle's local news AME Linda Strean took her turn at the microphone, everything she said radiated sincere goodwill and the wish that the people of Contra Costa might guide the Chronicle in serving them better. "We want to know what you like, we want to know what you hate, and we really welcome your suggestions," Strean said.
Both Strean and the Chronicle's regional editor, Vlae Kershner, had fought their way through the miserable late-afternoon commute out to Pleasant Hill from the Chronicle's city room in downtown San Francisco. Jerry Roberts was supposed to be there, too, but he had been out sick that day, and for a while Roberts' nameplate remained on the Chronicle table, a small reminder of the seriousness of the paper's intentions: Here's nearly the entire editorial chain of command, from managing editor on down, showing up in your suburban community center to ask all 45 of you--there were several rows of empty seats--whether the paper is doing a good enough job. The ad guys also stood and introduced themselves (the new Contra Costa bureau includes three full-time salespeople to attract retail advertising from local businesses), and a man from circulation got up to make encouraging remarks about "penetration" and "retention," and as I sat in a back row, eating my free enchilada and taking notes about new tactical weaponry in the war for territorial domination, I found myself thinking almost wistfully about Count Marco.
Count Marco was Old Chronicle. You have to be over 40 to remember Count Marco, and to have grown up in a household where the Chronicle was delivered to the doorstep so that your mother could open the women's pages to Count Marco and begin pounding the table about what an idiot he was. The Chronicle had hired Count Marco in 1959--in real life he was a hairdresser named Marc Spinelli--to assume the voice of a fussy Continental aristocrat in a regular column that railed about "you American women," who Marco liked to complain were fat and whiny and insufficiently attentive to their husbands. ("I'll make a deal with you libido-orationists," read one typical Marco passage. "Do as I suggest and I'll go along with your bleats and pleas, even to the point of encouraging you to strangle femininity to death.") As actual newspaper copy it was ludicrous, but as San Francisco Chronicle material it was choice: arch, silly, flamboyantly uninterested in bourgeois sobriety, and aiming, I'm guessing, for precisely the sort of reaction it elicited from my mother, who loved being infuriated by Count Marco as much as she loved reading George Murphy's front-page stories about the scandal of English muffin redesign. The English muffin stories ran in 1969, when I was a teenager:
A bakery blasphemy is abroad in San Francisco.
Foster's English Muffins are being sold sliced.
As everyone here knows, English muffins are never touched by a knife.
"You must tear, tear," says the San Franciscan to the benighted visitor.
Actually, the true English muffin devotee first takes the muffin whole and inserts the tines of a fork about the perimeter.
Now, having achieved purchase, he takes thumb and forefinger (there are some two-handed muffin-tearers, but they are in the minority; mostly the one-handed approach is favored) and delicately separates the top from the bottom...
In a sense the whole paper was written in those days for my parents, who were literate, funny, well-traveled people who had moved to San Francisco because the city--that shorthand, The City, was and has remained the standard terminology around here--seemed to them unlike any other place they had ever been. San Francisco's visual appeal was famous, the crowded wooden-house-covered hills bathed in golden light and ringed on three sides by water, but the geography also helped reinforce a kind of exuberant self-absorption that Scott Newhall, the most famous editor the Chronicle ever had, understood exactly how to exploit. Scott Newhall is part of the reason the Chronicle became so terrible. But Scott Newhall is also part of the reason my parents and a great many people like them took such enormous pleasure in living in San Francisco, and to get this story right--to follow the sorrowful tale right down to the trough-bottom days of "Send it to the Chronicle"--you have to go back about 45 years, when Newhall masterminded the last publicly declared Bay Area Journalism War, which Newhall won, and rather brilliantly, too.
Scott Newhall was named executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1952, when the paper was running a dismal fourth in circulation behind the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco News Call Bulletin and the San Francisco Examiner. The News Call Bulletin and the Examiner were both Hearst papers, but the News Call Bulletin was an afternoon daily; it was the morning Examiner, the flagship paper in the Hearst publishing empire, that Newhall decided to attack head-on. He had been at the paper for 17 years by that time, not counting the stretch in 1936 when Newhall and his wife both quit their jobs, sailed out the Golden Gate on a 42-foot ketch, wrote cartoon-illustrated newspaper dispatches from the Mexican interior ("Horse Gets Colic, Bed Crashes, It Rains"), and finally came home with Newhall so sick from a bone abscess that American doctors amputated his right leg. After a while on crutches Newhall learned how to get around vigorously on a wooden leg, thereby adding to his aura. He was by all accounts an utterly charming and quick-witted man, fiercely opinionated, given to fits of impulse and passionate about the sound of the writing on the pages he edited.
"His idea of a perfect headline on a mysterious murder of three people on Market Street, if that were to happen, would be: A Strange Occurrence at Night," recalls William German, the paper's longtime and now mostly emeritus editor, whose spacious carpeted corner office in the city room still contains a few items of Newhall vintage, like the massive leather-topped desk. "He took the cannon with him when he left," German says. "This guy was a complete wacko. But a very talented wacko. And probably right for the time."
The paper Newhall inherited from his predecessor, a high-minded visionary named Paul Smith, was often described by Smith himself as a West Coast version of the New York Times. It was stodgy, distinguished and dense, and it was losing money. When Smith was relieved of his duties and replaced by the editor who had filed those dispatches from Mexico, the paper began what Newhall would later refer to as "a long trip back up": Newhall wanted the paper read, and read in greater numbers than the San Francisco Examiner, and the come-on he chose was a front page that could not possibly be mistaken, by the time Newhall was finished with it, for any other front page in the United States.
Newhall's Chronicle sent Count Marco, accompanied by a real reporter who did the deadline work incognito from the back of the courtroom, to cover a sensational Los Angeles murder trial. ("Carole has changed the tint of her hair from sun bronze to copper tone. I consider this action an important switch indicating her present state of mind and perhaps her own future.") It ran highbrow limerick clues, most of them composed by Newhall's wife, Ruth, to the Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt, an annual citywide search for a buried $1,000 medallion. It carried a run of hugely displayed stories about a comedy writer's campaign to combat the moral disgrace of rampant animal nudity, illustrating one of the front-pagers with a drawing of suggested undershorts for cows. In 1963 the paper commenced its own civic campaign to improve the quality of San Francisco's coffee, accompanied by a lead editorial titled "Decent Coffee--A Basic Right."
We have documented the shameful manner in which ignorant, money-grubbing, hole-in-corner restaurateurs of San Francisco crudely ravish this peer among brews. The offensive, long-simmering swill they pump out of their tarnished boilers is a disgrace to the city.
Easterners casting about for material with which to make fun of the Chronicle always come up with the coffee campaign, but they miss the essence of it: The essence was "swill." What other newspaper would use a word like "swill" to describe bad coffee in a front-page headline? (Just for the record, the famous and often slightly misquoted head was "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill." There was also "Coffee Horror," and "The Recipe for Horror"--it was a series, after all--and numerous subheads, like "4 O'Clock Varnish" and "Heady Brew.") The paper managed to be lyric, loopy and unbelievably parochial all at the same time, a great private joke that San Franciscans liked to imagine only we really understood, and although professing outrage about the Chronicle became a popular civic pastime, circulation soared. On the day in 1960 when the Chronicle's circulation made its first official surge past the Examiner's, Newhall walked out of his office, according to the veteran Chronicle reporter David Perlman, and cried, "Well, we've done it." Then Newhall ordered up champagne for the newsroom.
That David Perlman tells this story with such affection--he was there, and got his share of the champagne--is a testament to Newhall's ability to keep some dedicated newspapermen working pretty happily in the midst of the carnival acts. Perlman was then and remains today a nationally admired science writer (he's 80, looks 20 years younger, and has no imminent plans to retire), and when I asked him whether he had minded watching his copy appear alongside pictures of livestock in boxer shorts, he smiled and adamantly shook his head. "Oh, no, it was too much fun," he said. Perlman learned to adapt his leads to the squiggly boxes, as did his junior colleague Charles Petit, who came to the Chronicle in 1972; the squiggly boxes were front-page wavy-line rules that flagged the reader to stories about sex or weird behavior, thus assuring extra attention on the newsracks.
"If you somehow got the word 'bizarre' into your lead, you got a wiggly line," Petit told me. "So I tried to find every way to do it. Science is perfect for that. I could slip the word 'bizarre' into a story about strange bacteria or weird plants or exotic diseases. They're all bizarre."
But by the time Charlie Petit got to the Chronicle the paper had begun its slide into the post-Newhall era, and the joke was wearing thin. Before Petit left the Chronicle in 1997 to join U.S. News & World Report, the paper gave him a framed copy of the front page that ran on the August 1972 day he was hired; as we were talking Petit pulled it from a closet and gazed at it with fond resignation. "Look at this," he said. The lead was an Associated Press story about George McGovern. Lower right, a New York Times story about nuclear strategy; page middle, an AP Vietnam War story; and off-lead on the left, a squiggly box--150 WED AT MARIN RANCH. Illustrated, too: Marin County ranch ladies, in long skirts and bonnets, preparing for their Synanon-arranged group wedding. "The only thing we contributed was a goofball photo of a bunch of people getting married," Petit said glumly. "It's like being the best sitcom on TV. You're not '60 Minutes.' You're not 'Nova.' But damn, you're funny."
The paper still had its strengths. Petit, like Perlman, was a dedicated reporter whose "bizarre" leads usually sat atop serious science and medical stories. The beloved Herb Caen, who had turned three-dot reporting into an art form no other newspaper was ever able to match, had defected temporarily to the Examiner but was now back home at the Chronicle, with the little San Francisco skyline logo that always ran above his column head. The Chronicle's columnists and cultural writers were memorable, the sportswriters were very good, and the Two-Handed Muffin-Tearers school of newspaper prose still showed up from time to time to dress up the front page. But even on its best days, the Chronicle was an awfully fast read. "There was substance, but it was irrelevant substance, and it generally went for the gag," Petit reflected. "Serious journalists made fun of it. But readers liked it. It was amusing. It was a diversion from serious matters."
Part of the problem at the Chronicle--the heart of the problem, according to the standard modern-day Chronicle version of events--was the 1964 joint operating agreement that formally ended competition for the San Francisco morning newspaper audience. From January 1965 on, under the terms of the deal signed by the Hearst and Chronicle Publishing companies, a single jointly owned production facility would print, distribute, sell advertising and manage circulation for both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The agreement closed the News Call Bulletin. It declared that the Chronicle would publish as a morning daily, that the Examiner would publish as an afternoon daily, and that on Sundays the joint facility would print a paper called the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, with most of the news sections to be produced by the Examiner. Editorially, the two papers were to function as "separate, distinct and independent newspapers," in the language of the JOA, but their business operation was now to become a single entity, collecting all advertising and subscription revenues and allocating any after-cost profits "to Chronicle and Hearst, in equal shares."
A 50-50 split, in other words--no head-to-head competition, everybody makes money together, and at the end of the day each side gets half the take. The Chronicle-Examiner deal was somewhere around the 20th JOA in American newspapers, according to University of California at Berkeley law professor Stephen R. Barnett, who has written extensively about joint operating agreements, and opinions around here vary as to which entity was ultimately worst served by the terms of San Francisco's: the Examiner newsroom, suddenly stuck with the shrinking audience for afternoon papers; the Chronicle newsroom, stripped of any real competition and forced to watch half of every profit dollar tossed over the wall to the other guys; or the reading public, its one morning daily gradually losing interest in itself as the jolly war years gave way to something darker and more tedious.
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