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From AJR,   January/February 1999  issue

Continuation of The Battle Of the Bay   


By Cynthia Gorney
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.      

Translation: Forget the San Francisco Chronicle, and while you're at it, forget San Francisco, too. Tony Ridder is known for being a genial and non-pugnacious interview, despite his reputation as a ferocious business rival; he does not much stoop to publicly dissing the competition, and over two longish conversations I was never able to prod him into proclaiming that the Chronicle's days of Bay Area domination were over. He was more keen to talk about "making these papers as strong as we can make them." From certain perspectives this is akin to collecting three of the four railroads on the Monopoly board and then discussing your plans for transit improvement, since over the last three years Knight Ridder has acquired not only the Contra Costa papers but also the dailies in Monterey, 120 miles south of San Francisco, and in San Luis Obispo, another 150 miles south of that. You can trace the Knight Ridder holdings in California now with a finger moving down from Walnut Creek: nice curved line, each marker separated from the next by a direct length of freeway.

The Monterey and San Luis Obispo acquisitions set off some elaborate speculation about just what Ridder was up to. The papers became Knight Ridder property in a 1997 swap with E.W. Scripps: two Scripps California papers, the Monterey County Herald and the Telegram-Tribune, for Knight Ridder's Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is regarded as an exceptionally lucrative small-newspaper city, the kind of place a company might be unwilling to abandon unless some grand design were pulling it elsewhere, but Tony Ridder says the trade was initiated by Scripps, which also owns the Denver Rocky Mountain News and is locked in mortal combat against Dean Singleton's Denver Post. "They approached us about giving us Monterey if we would give them Boulder," Ridder told me. Ridder had always liked the idea of buying the newspaper in Monterey, he said; he had looked longingly at it back in the late 1960s, when he was still too green to have much sway with his corporate superiors. Even in those pre-synergy days he could see the logic of owning the two biggest papers along one hundred-mile stretch of California--"I thought it would sort of help fill in the territory," he said--and when the Herald finally sold to Scripps in 1992, as Ridder put it, "I thought: 'Lucky them. I keep missing this at every chance.' "

Nonetheless Knight Ridder wanted more than a simple Monterey-for-Boulder swap, even though both papers run about 35,000 circulation. "I specifically told them about San Luis Obispo, that that would have to be part of the deal," Ridder said. So Scripps, evidently intent on securing that extra fortification in Colorado, threw in the 34,000-circulation Telegram-Tribune. "Nice market," Ridder said. "And it's the next medium-sized market as you move south, down the coast."

Then last spring, Knight Ridder announced that the company's corporate headquarters was moving from Miami to a 17-story building in downtown San Jose. ("Knight Ridder people," Tony Ridder explained at the time, in a company press release, "simply must be immersed in the kind of futuristic and entrepreneurial thinking found in Silicon Valley.") Then in August, Knight Ridder announced that the company had bought the Hills papers, a 90,000-circulation collection of mostly free weeklies, biweeklies and shoppers that are tossed into driveways in some of the tonier neighborhoods of northern Alameda County. Ridder was studiously nonchalant when I asked him about the Hills acquisition; by Knight Ridder standards, the purchase price was chump change, he said--"between 5 and 10 million is as close as I'd want to go"--and if Knight Ridder hadn't bought the papers, he added, Singleton would have. "We compete with Dean Singleton fiercely in eastern Alameda County," Ridder said. "They were either going to go to him or to us."

It doesn't require much imagination to see a pattern shaping up here, what with Ridder fielding questions from the brand-new corner office in a granite San Jose skyscraper whose street-level outside wall is graced with giant steel letters that read Knight Ridder. The company only intends to occupy three floors, two for Knight Ridder offices and one for the New Media division, when the move is completed this summer; still, it's hard to avoid the looming quality of the new corporate presence, and when I asked Tony Ridder whether he had designs on the northern end of San Francisco Bay, too--say a swap for a Marin or Sonoma County paper, thereby almost entirely surrounding San Francisco with the KR stamp--he hesitated for a second and then said, "No comment."

"No comment," I repeated, slightly rattled; I'd expected something more along the lines of, We're just making these papers as strong as we can make them. "I'd certainly consider it," Ridder said. "I have to tell you that when Santa Rosa was bought by the New York Times"--that would be the 93,000-circulation Press Democrat, up in Sonoma County, sold to the Times Co. by the Finley family in 1985--"I was deeply disappointed. I mean, I had been spending a lot of time with Everett Person, who was the publisher. His wife was really the owner of the paper. And he had assured me that if he ever decided to sell it, he would call me. So after he sold it to the New York Times, he was very apologetic: 'I got this offer, I just couldn't believe how high it was, I accepted it.' "

It must be said at once that there has been no public noise, even of the gossip variety, about any impending change of ownership either at Santa Rosa's Press Democrat, which the New York Times still appears to consider a highly satisfactory property, or at the Marin Independent Journal, the Gannett-owned 41,000-circulation daily in the Marin County communities of San Rafael and Novato. The greater Bay Area still supports a long roster of papers that Knight Ridder doesn't own, in fact, including independents and alternative weeklies and the five Singleton papers, which Dean Singleton swears he has no intention of giving up. ("Not going to happen," Singleton said firmly, when I called him at his MediaNews headquarters to ask about the persistent rumor that he is poised to sell Knight Ridder his Alameda News Group papers. "One of our key franchises. Very dear to our heart.") For that matter, Tony Ridder has continued to declare that he has no plans for an attack on San Francisco itself--that there will be no Bay Area Mercury News or Contra Costa and San Francisco Times. "When I was publisher here, I used to have people in corporate who would come out and say, 'Now, the Mercury News is clearly the best newspaper, better than the Chronicle, better than the Examiner, so what you ought to do is just take over the Bay Area,' " Ridder said. "But that has never been my goal, to take over the Bay Area."

His goal, Ridder repeated patiently, was to make each regional paper as strong as Knight Ridder could make it. Newspaper analyst and AJR columnist John Morton had suggested to me that perhaps Knight Ridder now regards Northern California as a kind of laboratory, one great experimental workshop in which the company can investigate various modern corporate trends in newspapering: synergy, clustering, new media, swapping, and freebie acquisition come readily to mind. But when I tried that out on Ridder, he replied with some asperity that "laboratory" suggested efforts that might not work. "We are going to make it work," he said.

And the nasty truth, were one to be assessing this prospect from behind a Chronicle executive's desk, is that in order to make it work Knight Ridder doesn't really need the city of San Francisco at all. So far most of the synergy between the Contra Costa Newspapers and the Mercury News has taken the form of an infusion of Knight Ridder money and expertise at the CCN headquarters in Walnut Creek, where corporate-dispatched people arrived, shortly after the Knight Ridder purchase, to lead the Contra Costa staff through a readership market study considerably more ambitious than anything ever undertaken during the Lesher days. Once they had gotten past the working-ladies-in-Suburbans phase and moved on to thornier questions of habit and taste--why do you buy this paper, what do you like in that one--one of the many things they learned, says the Contra Costa market research head, Don Olmstead, was just how big a percentage of their readership (including, presumably, those folks who put checkbooks in the Suburbans before driving to the Jaguar dealership) took the Chronicle in addition to their Contra Costa paper.

In the business this is referred to as "duplication," and it used to be considered a pretty ordinary suburban arrangement: one paper for the large news and big-city columnists, one paper for the police blotter and school lunch menu. But it made advertisers cranky, Olmstead told me. Why should they bother paying for Contra Costa Newspapers ads in suburbs where the Chronicle's penetration was high enough for them? And there's another factor, too: Buying two daily papers costs more than it used to, even with the screaming price discounts now showing up as part of many new-subscriber campaigns, and there's all that reading and bundling and recycling to contend with. With harried two-worker families already distracted by television and the Internet, people are warier than they used to be about renewing that second subscription. "The Chronicle's strategy has been to drive duplication in our market," Olmstead said. "From our point of view, now, it's just the opposite. You've got to drive duplication out."

You can see where this is going. "The issue is," Olmstead added, "can we make this paper attractive enough so it will become, for a substantial number of people, The Only Paper They Need? Five years ago I don't think you could make that statement, because the product wasn't there."

Now it is, or so Olmstead and John Armstrong would like to think, particularly after the Knight Ridder people guided them through a 1997 redesign that spiffed up the Contra Costa page fronts and consolidated the five local Sunday papers into one 202,000-circulation edition, with thicker, more elegantly packaged versions of the things people expect of a serious Sunday paper: book reviews, business, entertainment, world news. It's not been an entirely smooth transition--one hears complaints inside and outside the Contra Costa newsrooms about the papers abandoning their community identities--but all you have to do is scan the absorbed faces on one of the crowded morning BART trains to see what the Chronicle is up against if it means to hold the Evil Empire back. Don Olmstead has been working at Bay Area newspapers for 12 years now, five with Contra Costa and the previous seven with Singleton's Alameda News Group, and he reminded me that suburban papers had been sparring for readers and ad dollars long before Knight Ridder descended on Walnut Creek. "Wasn't that much different from now," Olmstead said. "Except that--to use the war metaphor--the guns got bigger."

So the Chronicle is shooting back. Some days you can see it all over the paper, some days you can't. Here's a Chronicle from early last October, an ordinary Tuesday two years into the jihad: five stories on the front page, all of them serious, all Chronicle bylines, two from the paper's bureau in Washington, D.C., one a local enterprise story about the malfunctioning San Francisco transit system. Ten pages of staff-written business news, not including the stock listings, and not including the page one high-tech story describing the industry spillover out of Silicon Valley. Five zoned regional sections, four of them aimed directly at the suburbs, each featuring a different local columnist and showcasing, with accompanying graphic, the same thorough and well-written enterprise piece about the public school shortage of math and science teachers. "We fight on the air, on the land, and on the sea," Jerry Roberts told me drily that October day, as I was studying the little map that runs atop each of the new regional sections to indicate which suburban areas it's aiming for. "It's in some sense a defensive maneuver. This far and no farther."

Roberts had already presided over three editorial meetings in a row that morning; there would be a fourth and fifth before the day was over, and from a corner of the crowded glass-walled conference room I had watched Roberts stand up, sit down, pace back and forth, crack jokes, roll up his shirtsleeves, squint at tacked-up newspapers, scratch his beard, rub his forehead, pull his glasses off, put his glasses back on, and write story slugs left-handed onto a giant planning board on the wall. Roberts and I had known each other for many years, in a collegial, fellow-reporters sort of way; he has friends in nearly every city room in the Bay Area, and it had taken me some moments to adjust to the sight of Jerry at the editor end of the table--the smart, cynical, battle-scarred political correspondent now trying simultaneously to choreograph a better newspaper, figure out just what it is those 475,324 people want to read, and worry about the 8,894 who went away this year, maybe because the competition is sucking them up, maybe because the subscription price increased, maybe because the coupon-printing company threw a snit about wanting lower rates and temporarily yanked all the coupons from the Sunday paper. When I asked Roberts about the circulation drop, he sighed and assumed his On the Record voice: "Circulation is extremely complicated, and it's difficult to pull out what's an editorial piece from what's a business piece. I remain convinced that the changes we're making editorially, in the long run, are the right changes to build readership."

He doesn't exactly know, in other words; nobody does, and in the meantime there's nothing to do but push on with the Change. That's how it's written, capitalized, in the multi-page newsroom memos that have issued over the last two years from Matt Wilson's office: the Change Project, encompassing Content Change, Special Projects Change, Values Change, Public Image Change, and a long list of other Changes that would sound preposterously ambitious if they had been presented to the city room by a pricey consultant. They weren't. Chronicle reporters and editors thought them up. For many months after the 1996 planning meeting at which John Curley delivered his pushed-into-the-sea speech, the Chronicle newsroom was lively with committees and subcommittees, staff people branching off into investigatory teams to interview their own co-workers, complaints and proposals piling up: "More pressure on slackers." "We need a better sense of political and social history of the region and county." "The competition provides more features for families and for young people to read." "Don't punish reporters by giving them more low-impact work just because they will do it well."

In point of fact the San Francisco Chronicle--which has won five Pulitzers of its own, by the way, three during the pre-Newhall years and two over the last decade (criticism, 1990, to architectural writer Allan Temko, and a 1996 special citation to Herb Caen)--had begun a concerted internal effort to improve the paper as far back as the mid-1980s, first with some aggressive new editorial hires, and then, to the relief of most in the newsroom, with the exit of Richard Thieriot. Thieriot was removed as editor and publisher in 1992 as part of a corporate housecleaning instigated by the younger and more liberal wing of the Chronicle family. His successor in the publisher's office, a retired Capital Cities/ABC executive vice president named John Sias, quickly established himself as a serious newsman intent on undoing the financial mess created by years of executive featherbedding and inept San Francisco Newspaper Agency management. And inside the Chronicle newsroom, the top editorial chairs shuffled with Thieriot's departure: Bill German's title was changed from executive editor to editor, despite the fact that at 75 he was past what would have been most newspapers' retirement age; and Matt Wilson, the paper's 37-year-old managing editor, was given German's job.

The ascension of Wilson raised some eyebrows around the paper, not because Wilson was personally disliked--he is by nearly all accounts a cordial and thoughtful person--but because he looks so spectacularly wrong for the part. Wilson bears a strong resemblance to the pictures one sees of the young Bill Gates, as Chronicle friends of mine have been observing to me for years, and by that they mean not only the boy-genius face with the wire-rimmed glasses, but the whole affect: reserved, cerebral, disinclined to use bad language, head full of numbers and data and systems designs. Wilson's father had been a longtime Chronicle editor himself, so in some sense Matt was primed for the life; his only actual reporting experience was as a Chronicle sports stringer in college, but he had been at the paper ever since, working his way up from summer copy boy to various editorial and computer systems positions, where he made a name for himself, as Wilson puts it, as a guy who could do a lot of different things pretty well. "There was always somebody better than me at any one thing, but I could do more things at a useful level of competence than most other people," he told me. "I wasn't the best headline writer, but I could write a headline. I wasn't the best copy editor, but I could edit copy."

What Wilson is extremely good at--maybe better than anybody else who has occupied that office, as it turns out--is assessing the long view, and not in the gut-driven Newhall fashion, but instead by doing his homework. He reads 300-page regional planning studies. He composes newsroom-wide lists of goals and accomplishments, which seems a modest enough personnel tactic unless it's being introduced in a workplace where nobody has ever done such a thing before. He writes an upbeat, resolute, biweekly newsletter, which also includes job postings and ergonomic tips. And having read those 300-page regional planning studies, he has been worrying about the suburbs since even before Knight Ridder bought the Contra Costa Newspapers; indeed, Wilson assured me loyally, much of senior management had worried about the suburbs, but nobody had felt moved to do very much about them when the across-the-bay competition still looked so puny. "That, in a way, had been our problem before," Wilson told me. "How could anybody take all that seriously the San Ramon Whatever-it-was as a single entity? You couldn't."

Which is not to pretend that the Change has proved a completely rollicking success. There are those pesky circulation numbers to contend with, for one thing, and the advance into the suburbs has been both costly and perplexing. Over the last two years the Chronicle has added 40 new full-time staff positions to the coverage of Bay Area suburbs--that's reporters, photographers, artists, bureau chiefs, copy editors, assigning editors and an editor who spends all week coordinating the new servicey, listings-filled Friday sections, a completely different edition for each zone, which tend to display as their centerpiece some featury account of an admirable community effort. "The unqualified success has been the Friday sections," Roberts said. "There's a utility to them. That's the place where we can reach a level of localness that we can't get into the daily paper."

The daily regional sections, which are supposed to load metro news into a tailored-to-your-area blend of the immediately local and the area-wide, are more problematic. If you're really trying to convince Mrs. Suburban-driving Upscale that the newspaper printed in Walnut Creek is not The Only Paper She Needs, what do you offer her by way of a substitute? When she tells a pollster that one of her highest priorities is "local news," as newspaper readers so reliably do these days, what exactly does she mean? Does she want the results of the previous night's city council meetings (which in each of the Bay Area suburban regions might encompass 10 or 12 city councils), or a compelling read out of some suburb down the road, or the old Chronicle great-columnists-in-a-quirky-paper package that Knight Ridder will never be able to deliver? "It's not an easy problem by any means," Roberts told me. "We cannot bring you the school board minutes from every district in Contra Costa County. But we told the reporters we didn't want a lot of meetings. We wanted scoops, and smart stories."

The art of landing those scoops and smart stories, with bureaus staffed at a fraction the size of the local competition's city staffs, still eludes a little more often than the Chronicle editors would like. The week I sat in on news meetings, the AME Linda Strean, a hard-working former Examiner editor whose new Chronicle jurisdiction encompasses all local news, was blunt in her dissatisfaction: The regional sections had lost their way over the previous weeks, she told one roomful of assembled editors. "We've been falling back on feel-good features instead of news," Strean said, to nods all around; that very day's paper had led two of the regional sections with a pleasant volunteers-help-repaint-rundown-suburban-high-school piece, as though this were the East Bay's pressing story of the moment.

It's not always that dour at the regional desk; some days' sections have considerably more bite to them, the education reporting is often terrific, and the paper now addresses commuting like the area-wide obsession it truly is. But it's vexing, trying to understand how best to look more local while the local papers are trying to look more sophisticated, and at the Chronicle the whole enterprise is made doubly frustrating by the Sunday problem. For all intents and purposes there is no Sunday paper for the news departments of the San Francisco Chronicle; there's a big Sunday thing that comes with a rubber band around it, but the only editorial sections the Chronicle contributes are an entertainment and book review tabloid, the TV listings and a quasi-op-ed section called "Sunday," which has evolved into a gracefully written, gently paced collection of features and personal essays.

The rest of Sunday's editorial product, although many Chronicle subscribers never quite figure this out, is written by the San Francisco Examiner. The Examiner and the Chronicle maintain a feuding-cousins relationship that is fiercely cherished by both sides (each news staff still takes special pleasure in getting wind of some long-developed project that's about to appear in the other paper and immediately assigning a spoiler piece on the same subject). This means there is no sensible weekend collaboration at all, that the Examiner will occasionally run Sunday pieces that appear to duplicate the following week's story in the Chronicle, and that the whole we're-your-regional-paper effort vanishes every Sunday, since the more sparsely staffed underdog Examiner pitches itself as the hip, aggressive voice of the city of San Francisco--"the un-Chronicle," as Examiner Editor Phil Bronstein wrote in a staff memo last year.

If this split-personality flavor is mystifying to Chronicle subscribers, it's almost equally mystifying to Chronicle staffers, who are prohibited by legal contract from putting out a front-page news section in what is supposed to be the highest-impact paper of the week, the 593,518-circulation Sunday paper--which is down by more than 5 percent, by the way: 31,588 from last year. And that brings us nearly full circle back to the joint operating agreement, which every newspaper person in town agrees has turned into a life-support system for an afternoon daily that long ago lost the ability to breathe on its own. Frank McCulloch, a retired done-all California newspaper man many Bay Area reporters think of as the only certified grownup we know (McClatchy editor, L.A. Times managing editor, Time Saigon bureau chief, etc.), drew me a Bay Area map at his kitchen table one day, pointing a big black arrow at the squiggle that was the city peninsula. "That's San Francisco, surrounded by water," McCulloch said. "Look at the problem here. This area will support one newspaper, not two. The resources simply are not there."

It's not that the Examiner is a flimsy paper, McCulloch said; for six years in the late 1980s he was cajoled out of retirement to work as managing editor there, and he still admires the pleasure those reporters take in smoking the Chronicle as often as they do. But the geography of the region and the realities of modern life are too much for a p.m. to contend with on its own, McCulloch said: Between evening television news and the afternoon bridge-and-freeway traffic, it's too hard to deliver the paper and to sell it in the first place. Like most American cities these days, San Francisco is realistically a one-big-daily newspaper market--but it's a splendid one-big-daily market, for whichever paper eventually wins it, and one of them will.

The JOA expires in 2005; what happens after that has become the central guessing game in Bay Area journalism, since with each passing year the principals grow charier about revealing their plans. The Mercury News got into big trouble over this two years ago, when a reporter quoted unnamed sources as declaring that Hearst and the Chronicle family were "about a week away" from concluding a deal to shut the Examiner and publish a jointly owned morning paper. The prediction turned out to be wrong, prompting jubilant Examiner staff people to demand a retraction, which the Merc took more than two years to cough up. At the Examiner there were T-shirts made up, on the one-year anniversary of the erroneous Mercury News piece, that read We're still here.

But they won't be forever, at least not in their present configuration. The waning of the JOA leaves the Hearst and Chronicle companies three principal options; there's a great deal of money involved whichever way they go, and since both companies profess powerful sentimental ties to newspaper publishing in San Francisco, it's intriguing trying to lay odds. The least plausible, given the potential for pocket-emptying on both sides, involves a phenomenally messy Examiner-Chronicle divorce, trucks and presses and office equipment and Newspaper Agency employees somehow divided up the middle, followed by an all-out scramble for the Bay Area's morning audience. More likely is the one-fish-swallows-the-other scenario: The Chronicle family could buy out the Examiner, purchasing Hearst's half of the jointly owned property as well as the newspaper itself. This would plainly involve some serious dickering over price: As a big-city paper with a circulation of only 113,198, the most valuable asset the Examiner has to offer the Chronicle is its absence. Or the Hearst Corp., which ultimately has a lot more money at its disposal, could make the same deal in reverse, buying out the Chronicle and publishing a San Francisco morning paper--a morning Examiner, if the company really wants to hang onto the old masthead, or more likely a Hearst-owned morning Chronicle.

Some form of joint ownership is not out of the question, either; the maligned Mercury News story was presumably based at least on conversations in that regard. I asked Jerry Roberts whether he might be content to see an Examiner-Chronicle hybrid emerge to carry on collectively the battle for survival against the big guys down south, but in his Patton role he was having none of that. "No," Roberts said. "The Chronicle survives. Because there won't be any question about it. We'll have the best news, the best local news, the best sports, the best entertainment, the best columnists. We'll be the paper."


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