2000. You finally did it! Whether it was a feat of business acumen or
simply the luck of the draw, you’ve managed to grab the brass ring and
the Examiner is yours, to make or break. The Call — the newest,
tiniest kid on the newspaper block — wishes you godspeed. It also
wishes to follow the time-honored tradition of fourth estates everywhere
and offer up a few words of advice.
There’s no such thing as bad publicity. The epithets in the
mainstream and not-so-mainstream press have been scathing. Marching
along in the Chronicle’s united front, William German brought his
muddy hands together to applaud Ken Garcia’s prediction that "the
Fangs certainly will soil their spot in the journalism world." The
Weekly’s John Mecklin added his contempt, deploring an arrangement
that will "give the [Fang] family control of a medium that can be
used to spew, on a daily basis, the type of lopsided venom the
Independent is known for."
In the interest of historical perspective, it’s only fair to
mention that, in 1879, mayoral candidate Isaac Kalloch characterized the
owners of the Chronicle as "nearer than any persons mentioned in
history, whether man or devil, to the monstrous model of consummate and
unrelieved depravity." And publisher Osvald Garrison Villard noted
that William Randolph Hearst ran the paper you have just acquired by
"gathering garbage from the gutters of life."
You couldn’t pay for this kind of advertising! It’s up to you to
turn the taunts on their head and produce a newspaper that is
irresistible to the subscribers and advertisers of San Francisco.
Newspapers draw sustenance through their roots. The
soon-to-be-reborn Chronicle has announced its aspirations to world-class
status. Don’t even think of trying to lock horns as it begins its
ascent toward the stratosphere of global journalism. News from outer
space interests only UFO spotters and free-floaters who have no loyalty
The truly exciting stories are the ones that unfold each day on the
streets of our city, not so much because they transmit local gossip but
because they illustrate concretely and vividly the complex course of our
lives. When Al Chapuis remembers checking stock at the Taraval Quality
Market, he’s posting a marker of economic and social changes in the
Sunset. When Fran Taylor worries about the tannery that stood where
Bernal Dwellings is about to rise, she’s bringing up important
questions about health, economics, and the environment.
Local stories can be — should be, must be — exciting and
meaningful. Look at the two most compelling writers to grace the
Chronicle in recent years — Herb Caen and Armistead Maupin. Would San
Franciscans have opened the pages of the newspaper so eagerly if they
had written about some other city? Why do readers relish the sports
pages? Because they find stories there about real flesh-and-blood people
with lots of warts, presented in a lively personal style and accompanied
by some of the most dramatic photographs around. Why have papers like
the New York Daily News attracted generations of immigrants seeking to
improve their English? Because they published stories that were relevant
to the newcomers’ lives, written in ways that held their attention.
And when local incidents nestle in the natural context of state,
national, or international developments, the whole world comes down from
the stratosphere and knocks at our door.
You’ve acknowledged that this is the right path to follow: "We
[San Franciscans] pride ourselves in our diversity of voices, in having
differing opinions." But we San Franciscans are also unusual in our
lack of any ethnic or racial majority. Once your hard-won jubilation at
succeeding the Father of the Yellow Peril wears off, it will be time to
search for a new definition of who constitutes the city, one that
reflects its true ethnic, racial, class, and gender diversity.
Newspapers also draw sustenance through the roots of their employees.
In San Francisco, newspaper ties to organized labor go very deep, and to
cut them short is to lop off a major source of your paper’s lifeblood.
If you would show the staff members of the new Examiner the same respect
that you obviously intend to show its readers, you’ll support their
Advocate! Advocate! Advocate! Since all journalism is advocacy
journalism, it can’t hurt to be up-front about it. After all, you’re
taking over the paper of the man who said of an impending conflict in
Cuba, "You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war."
You’ll be going head-to-head with a paper that, according to former
labor editor Richard Meister, has, advocated by omission, systematically
blacking out labor news — in a city where unions are frequently
characterized as being too powerful.
Advocacy is really what media gatekeeping is all about. It attracts
readers, either to read confirmation of their own views or to gasp in
horror at your outrageous opinions. And it serves the good old-fashioned
democratic virtue of fostering discussion.
But unexamined support of officials or parties in power isn’t
advocacy; it’s propaganda. And it won’t be taken seriously. Nothing
less than a conscientious and consistent position of opposition should
be acceptable in a major metropolitan paper.
Many column inches have been devoted to the mysterious terms that
marked the Examiner SOLD. It may be — why should it not be? — that
Hearst has set you up to fall flat on your face in three years, leaving
the Chronicle no other choice than to go it alone. But it also may be
that we are witnessing not a manipulative sale by a powerful giant to a
naïve newcomer, but rather a deal between two publishers who both know
what they want. It may be that you’ll prove the critics wrong and
usher into the world a new kind of newspaper, worthy of a new age and a
new kind of city. And if you do, it might not hurt to keep in mind the
advice of the old scoundrel who set the Examiner in motion: "We
must be alarmingly enterprising, and we must be startlingly original…
and do new and striking things which constitute a revolution."
If you don’t, we’ll all be the losers. If you don’t, perhaps
somebody will come up with a few million dollars, and the Call will show
you how it’s done.