Unclear on the concept
I keep rooting for Ted Fang’s Examiner
to make it.
Really I do.
It’s not just that I’m hot for “keeping
San Francisco a two-newspaper town,” although that’s not
a bad idea.
It’s that I like the all-American image
of a fighting small-time journalist who dared to take on the
But supporting the Ex-paper these days is
worse than being a Cubs fan. At least Chicago-ites have the
possibility of a wild card slot to reward them for their
years of patient devotion. The Examiner ain’t even trying.
I know, because — with the possible
exception of Florence Fang — I’m the paper’s most
faithful reader. Day after day I return to it, telling
myself that this time things will be different. But every
time I open its meager pages, I feel like Charlie Brown
trying to kick the football. Once again Lucy Fang dashes my
hopes, pulling aside the connection with the world of
journalism that its venerable masthead suggests.
As I was reminded by the Chronicle’s
website — the new Examiner has not yet managed to
electronically archive its contents — the challenger
fumbled its way onto the streets on November 22, 2000. Nine
months later, it’s still fumbling. If it was a human baby,
it would be out and yelling for its dinner by now. Maybe the
gestation period for newspapers is different.
Nine months. What have we got?
A paper that gives new meaning to the
phrase “Mess on Market.”
Take last Monday’s edition. OK, it was
Labor Day weekend, but that was no excuse to give the entire
staff a vacation. Whoever was minding the store took us back
to the good old days of last November, when stories jumped
to the wrong page and typos danced merrily.
The head for the lead story read, “Bloody
union victory.” The story itself began, “The Labor Day
showdown between BART and its unions that has 335,000
commuters bracing for the possibility of an unpleasant,
highway-clogging strike…,” but small type below the head
revealed that the bloody victory in the “news” took
place 100 years ago. Staffer Nick Driver, the author of the
piece, may have been relieved by the blank white space at
the end, which said simply, E-mail
Nick Driver at
The comedy of errors continued in the
digest on page 2, where news from “The State” included
“Word from Washington: President Bush, facing conservative
opposition, abandoned announcing an agreement to grant legal
status to 3 million Mexicans in the U.S.” “The Nation”
contained an electrifying story, condensed from page 1, that
began, “Doctor busy? Try consulting your genetic
counselor, who checks your family tree for diseases that did
your ancestors in.”
It gets better. “The City” included an
item about the U.N. conference on racism, held “In Durbin
[sic] Fair City,” and a mind-boggling one that
noted, “The 101-year-old Queen Mother Elizabeth was in
Scottland [sic] but missed the Highland Games on
What of the real-life drama that was
playing out closer to home — the negotiations between BART
management and two transit unions?
In the bottom right-hand corner of its
front page, the Examiner dutifully ran a “BART Strike
Watch” box outlining the positions of each side.
It got them wrong.
According to the Ex-paper’s version,
when negotiations halted the evening before, BART was “offering
workers a 20 percent wage increase over four years”; the
unions were asking “21 percent over three years.” The
Chron and the Contra Costa Times both weighed in with Bart:
18.5 percent and unions: 20 percent for the same time
For a brief moment the next morning, glory
seemed headed in the upstart’s direction, as the Examiner
actually came up with a scoop, reporting an agreement
between BART and the unions while the Chron was still
following the trail of maneuvering politicos. Beginning with
the announcement, “The looming transit strike is a
non-starter,” staffer Nicky (no e-mail address) Penttila
outlined the terms of the new contract, “with wage
increases of 6 percent the first year, followed by 5
percent, 5 percent and 6 percent…. The wage benefit is a
24 percent increase over four years.”
type of amateurish confusion may all be past history,
however. Last Wednesday’s edition of the Examiner
announced “big changes” in the editorial staff. In
addition to editor & publisher Fang and holdover chief
editor David Burgin, the paper is now being managed by a new
executive editor, editorial page editor, features editor,
city editor, managing editor, and assistant managing
editor/group editor. That’s eight men and women.
By my count, that’s about the number of
active reporters the paper employs, including the three or
four who cover sports. The rest of the “news” — in
this instance, a broadly defined concept — comes from
illustrious sources such as the Associated Press, Newsweek,
and the (London) Independent.
It’s a hodgepodge. Side by side on the
same page, we’re likely to encounter discussions of an
impending execution of foreign missionaries in Afghanistan,
a bombing in a Belfast school, a description of a mammoth
refugee camp in Pakistan, the search in Bulgaria for the
possible site of the biblical Great Flood, and the
demolition of an illegal statue of a dead cult figure in the
Fascinating stuff, every last word of it.
It creates the impression of a page of giant fillers,
selected for their length rather than their content.
Meanwhile, real news, city news, local
news, the news that draws readers to a paper — real news
is sadly absent.
Absent from the pages of the Examiner, not
from the city it pretends to serve. A person interested in
what’s happening in San Francisco need only pick up one or
two neighborhood papers to discover — what you knew all
along — that the place is teeming with excitement.
This month San Francisco Bay Crossings
(the freebie aimed at ferry travelers) carried a long Q
& A where Supervisor and Mayor-wannabe Gavin Newsom laid
out his thoughts on the future of the waterfront and the
bay. The Potrero View ran a piece by anthropology professor
Dave Matsuda, the first in a series containing “autobiographical
interviews [that] link the lives of Potrero Hill homeless to
essential services, procedures and policies and
decisionmakers in San Francisco and beyond.” The New
Mission News examined the ethnic make-up of the district it
covers, finding that “as a whole the 60,000 or so people
who call the Mission home are statistically little different
from ten years earlier.”
This is news. And it’s relevant to the
lives of everyone in the city, not merely to people who ride
ferries or those who live in the Mission or on Potrero Hill.
When Mark Simon wrote recently in the
Chronicle, “I’m a fourth-generation San Franciscan, and
yet it seems that the city is decreasingly important to me
and to the rest of the Bay Area as a cultural, economic and
social center,” it struck a sympathetic chord in many
Nevertheless, despite trans-bay hypesters
like Simon, San Francisco is still a city to be reckoned
with. But the Chronicle is too concerned with world-class
matters to chronicle the day-to-day events that make it
special, and the Ex-paper hasn’t a clue. As far as
newspaper coverage goes, there is indeed no here here.
So what’s a poor publisher like Ted Fang
to do? With a limited subsidy of $66 million from Hearst, he
isn’t rolling in funds to cover his new paper’s start-up
costs. The money to pay dozens of reporters’ salaries isn’t
pouring from the vaults.
May I offer a humble suggestion?
Mr. Fang, you can continue to play
newspaperman, placing copies of your AP-Lite paper in perky
white newsracks around the city, particularly in heavy
touristed areas. The out-of-towners will think the new
Examiner is even harder hitting than the old one, and they’ll
never guess that the city you’re covering isn’t the one
Or you can make friendly overtures to the
scores of neighborhood associations dotting this city and
ask to be added to their mailing list. Pay careful attention
to the info they send you, because it’s your regular
readers’ lifeblood. Hire a couple of hotshot rewrite
people to turn this raw data into the most dazzling display
of city life on the face of the planet.
The Call doesn’t have $66 million —
heck, it doesn’t even have $66 hundred — and that’s
what it would do.
Betsey Culp (firstname.lastname@example.org)