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An open letter to Ted Fang


early 20th Century: Newspaper Row —  Third and Market

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southeast corner, Hearst Building


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northeast corner, site of the de Young Building


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southwest corner, Call Building


early 21st century: Newspaper Row North — Chronicle/Examiner, Fifth and Mission

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early 21st century: News-paper Row South — Independent/Examiner, 1213 Evans Avenue

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march 27, 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 to home.

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 unionization.

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.