A Glimpse of The City's New News Scene
San Francisco Papers
By Susan F. Rasky
Susan F. Rasky, a former New York Times Washington correspondent, teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
I T ENDED WITH CHAMPAGNE and Kleenex and a one-word headline in almost 300-point type bidding readers "Goodbye!" The final copy of the old San Francisco Examiner, William Randolph Hearst's once mighty Monarch of the Dailies, rolled off the presses at 3:20 p.m. November 21, closing not just a chapter, but an entire era in newspaper history.
This being San Francisco, a psychologist and a masseuse were on duty to ease the grieving process for some 220 Examiner newsroom employees, who had lovingly put together a commemorative section of the last edition under the Hearst Corp. The staff had been more or less in mourning since Hearst announced 15 months earlier that it would be buying the paper's century-old rival, the San Francisco Chronicle, for $660 million and merging the two news staffs. Folks at the Chronicle had merely been in shock.
The mutually contemptuous newsrooms, known to each other as Brand X and the Comical, put out very separate and very different papers, despite the joint operating agreement they had shared since 1965. Hearst eventually conveyed the Examiner to the politically well-connected Fang family, along with a three-year subsidy of $66 million.
All of which is to say that on Wednesday, November 22, Bay Area readers found themselves with essentially three new dailies: a Hearst-owned morning Chronicle that promised to be "bigger and better"; a Fang-owned morning Examiner that promised to be "a voice for those whose words have been muted in the past"; and a p.m. version of the new Chronicle that promised to carry "the very latest in breaking news" and overnight reviews from the paper's arts and entertainment writers.
Whether all or any of that comes to pass is still wishful thinking, and in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I am far from a disinterested observer. My friends and former students are working at both the new Chronicle and the new Examiner. Here's how things look so far:
The new Fang-owned Examiner debuted, alas, not as a morning paper, but as an inadvertent p.m., plagued by massive production problems and hitches in the distribution system. Only about half of the scheduled run of 100,000 copies ever made it off the presses for limited home delivery and eventually to newsstands and boxes in San Francisco. There were typos, pixilated photographs and dropped lines on some pages because of computer system problems. The paper's Web page was still under construction.
But that was not the worst of it.
The new Examiner's general appearance was painfully thin, full of house ads to compensate for meager paid classified or display advertising, and composed of pages that seemed to be about three-quarters the size of standard news pages--which only added to the sense that this was a high school paper rather than the big-city daily Publisher Ted Fang so wanted it to be. His page one letter to readers didn't help.
"Forged in a crucible fired by the white hot flames of San Francisco, the new Examiner has emerged purified of the lawsuits, dealmaking, greed and politics that threatened to close it forever," wrote Fang, also publisher of his thrice-weekly freebie paper, the Independent.
Two weeks after the paper's debut, Editorial Page Editor Susan Herbert quietly resigned. The embarrassing production errors, including at one point misspelling Wednesday as "Wenesday" on the paper's front page, continued. And after only three weeks of publication, Executive Editor Martha Steffens was out and veteran Bay Area editor David Burgin was in. Four days later, Managing Editor Robert Porterfield was fired, Porterfield says.
Burgin, who held the editorship of the old Examiner from 1985 to 1986, is also a former editor of the Oakland Tribune and the Bay Area Alameda Newspaper Group. He had been taking a five-year reprieve from the news biz. Burgin, 61, says he's flattered to accept the position, but adds that he's aiding a transition. "My reign will not be long." He might stay a few months or two years, "but no more than that." He's there to train Fang, whose title, after all, is editor and publisher. "I think he wants to be more editor."
What's particularly ironic about the paper's appearance is that highly regarded designer Roger Black had been called in to give the new Examiner a sleek, modern look. Black's vision--lots of vertical lines and boxes with an almost magazine-ish feel--seemed somewhow at odds with the copy, particularly in the first few days, when the paper appeared to be struggling to find enough to fill pages.
It is probably too early to judge the new Examiner, but even as some of the early production problems seem to be easing, they suggest more worrisome difficulties in the paper's underlying structure. If the masthead is correct, Fang employs almost nobody in the mid- to senior editing ranks to guide copy flow or daily assignment. The total of about 50 mostly young newsroom staffers in theory compete against a Chronicle newsroom of 560 well-seasoned veterans. Burgin has said not to expect more hires.
Fang has outsourced almost every conceivable function at the paper, including printing, coverage of Sacramento and large portions of business news.
By comparison, of course, the Chronicle is fat and happy, its pages bursting with Christmas advertising--thus enlarging its newshole.
Happy is probably not the correct word to describe two once hostile staffs literally thrown together to work on beats that each side once covered on its own. But at least so far the noises from 5th and Mission streets, where the former rivals had long shared an office building, have been conciliatory. Staffers say the transition to a single paper was aided by vast quantities of food that Hearst management provided throughout the first week--everything from Thanksgiving dinner to dim sum.
The Hearst Corp. tapped an alumnus with deep roots in the Bay Area, John F. Oppedahl, to be publisher. Oppedahl, 56, spent his first year as a reporter at the Examiner in 1967. He left his job as publisher at the Arizona Republic for the new post.
Other senior appointments suggested Hearst's desire for a management team that would genuinely reflect the internal cultures of both papers. Matthew Wilson, former executive editor of the Chronicle, was named executive vice president for news and associate publisher. His Examiner counterpart, Phil Bronstein, was named senior VP and executive editor of the new Chronicle, and Jerry Roberts, the old Chron's managing editor, is ME and a vice president at the new paper. Sharon Rosenhause, who was managing editor at the old Examiner, was named editor of the new Chronicle p.m. edition.
Dramatic changes in the Chron probably won't happen until late winter. The paper has added a total of four new pages, one of which is comics, and new coverage of high school sports. For now the most notable change seems to be a preponderance of triple and quadruple bylines.
In the long run, the full complement of reporters and columnists could be ominous, depending on how much money Hearst is prepared to pump into the Chronicle's staffing level, as opposed to capital improvements. An industry rule of thumb suggests one newsperson for every 1,000 papers in circulation. The Chronicle's circulation is 465,535, which would put the new staff size well above the mark.
While Fang's challenge of starting a serious daily paper from scratch is probably the more daunting, the one to watch over the coming months is the Chronicle as it stretches to adapt to what may be the most competitive newspaper market in the country.
The paper remains dominant in the city of San Francisco, despite Fang's initial threats of direct competition from the new Examiner. But the Chronicle is ringed by Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News in the south, and Knight Ridder's Contra Costa Times and Dean Singleton's Alameda Newspaper Group in the lucrative East Bay. Singleton recently purchased the Marin Independent Journal just over the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, and the Mercury has been making an aggressive effort to pick up sales inside the city, particularly among San Francisco's burgeoning dot-comers.
It's the kind of environment Hearst himself might have relished.