Fog City Blues
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, June 2000|
Fog City Blues
Hearst's pursuit of the Chronicle takes some decidedly unlovely turns.
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
WHEN YOU THINK OF great newspapers these days, the name Hearst rarely springs to mind.
There have been some hopeful signs. The company seems committed to revving up the long-lackluster San Antonio Express-News. When its editor was poised to jump to the Miami Herald last year, Hearst promised him 25 new hires--25 new hires!--if he would stay.
But the chance for the big breakthrough was San Francisco, where it all began for Hearst.
True, the circulation of its afternoon Examiner, kept alive by JOA life support, has shrunk to 109,000. The enchilada is the much-larger morning Chronicle. For years Hearst coveted the Chronicle. But it wasn't for sale. Until last year.
The owning family was finally ready to cash out, as newspaper-owning families tend to do. And Hearst was on it like white on rice, handily outbidding such big boys as Knight Ridder and Gannett.
Of course, there was the little matter of federal approval, but that hardly seemed a cause for concern. It had been years since the antitrust crowd at the Justice Department had run into a media deal it didn't like. But against all odds, the feds put serious pressure on the company to find a buyer for the Ex, rather than simply letting it go through the motions before shutting it down and bringing on monopoly city, baby.
That focused Hearst's attention, and it ultimately put together a deal in which it would "sell" the Ex to one Ted Fang, owner of the alternative San Francisco Independent and close ally of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.
Hearst proved to be a generous seller indeed: It would subsidize Fang--a man whose newspaper runs a cartoon lampooning Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein as "Mr. Sharon Stone"--to the tune of $66 million over three years to take the Ex off its hands. Do you get the feeling Hearst really wants the Chronicle?
No matter that to many this seemed like a fig leaf, a transparent ploy that simply amounted to delaying the inevitable. Go ahead, boys, said the feds, knock yourselves out.
Enter San Francisco political operative Clint Reilly. Reilly, an unsuccessful bidder for the Examiner, went to court to block the sale, arguing that it would give Hearst an illegal monopoly. A federal judge temporarily held up the transaction so he could sort things out.
That led to Hearst's darkest hour.
Timothy White, the Examiner's editor and publisher, sent out from Albany, New York, to close the deal, was summoned to the witness stand. His shocking testimony included some truly discouraging words, words that cast a large shadow over the entire fetid farrago and plunged the already whipsawed Examiner newsroom into deep despair.
White testified that at a lunch last August, he indicated to Brown that he'd be open to "horse trade" positive treatment of the mayor on the Examiner's editorial page if Brown rallied behind Hearst's acquisition of the Chronicle.
It was a bombshell. Bartering the paper's integrity to advance its parent's economic interests? On a scale of one to 10 in the world of journalism no-ways, it's an 11. Sure, newspapers routinely use their editorial pages to push pet projects. And unscrupulous owners have used their editorial pages--and their news pages--to reward friends and punish enemies.
But selling your soul to seal a deal?
Hearst shifted quickly into damage control mode. The company issued a statement saying it has never been Examiner policy "to trade favorable coverage for any gains...." Besides, White had been "tired and confused by the question." Hearst suspended White indefinitely.
But this "shocked, shocked" response wasn't all that reassuring, since White had told his superiors about the lunch at the time.
The shape of San Francisco's future newspaper landscape was obscured by fog at AJR's deadline. But one thing was certain: What had started out as a glorious opportunity for Hearst had been seriously tarnished.
I WAS AT THE University of Wisconsin last February, keynoting a journalism conference, when I heard a panelist saying some of the most insightful things about online journalism ethics that I had encountered. Her name was Barb Palser, and she was with Internet Broadcasting Systems, which builds Web sites for TV stations.
I asked her to write a piece, and she did, and it was terrific. But once was hardly enough. So Barb, who trains online news editors, will be AJR's regular new-media columnist. We're very glad to have her on the roster.
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