The San Francisco Examiner, 1887-2000

Underfunded and outmanned, the scrappy afternoon paper could sometimes prevail over the competition -- but couldn't survive its own mismanagement.


Scott Rosenberg
March 21, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

When William Randolph Hearst III unveiled his redesign of the San Francisco Examiner in the late 1980s, he restored the newspaper's 19th century slogan, "Monarch of the Dailies," and plastered it right above the paper's front-page masthead.

For anyone who knew the Examiner well, the boastful label was more than ironic: It was delusional. The latter-day Examiner, despite a scrappy attitude and some talented staffers, was trapped in a low-circulation afternoon slot and stuck in a long-term decline. Even loyal readers who preferred it to its more staid morning competitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, would shake their heads when you asked them what they thought the Examiner's prospects were. The paper was "monarch of the dailies" only in the sense that the legendary San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton was monarch of the United States.

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To be sure, San Francisco loves its delusional eccentrics -- and so Friday's news that the Examiner had been sold spread gloom through the town. To anyone who once worked at the Examiner -- as I, like the rest of the group that founded Salon, did -- the "Monarch's" fate, however inevitable and long-predicted, feels particularly insulting, a sort of lhse majesti, even if the majesti was a joke.

If Hearst had simply shut down the Examiner, the newspaper's family and friends could have held their wake and the world would simply move on. Instead, a kind of impostor paper looks likely to appear, at least for a few more years.

The sale was the final leg of a deal that had been brewing since last summer, in which the Examiner's owner, the Hearst Corporation, purchased the morning Chronicle from its squabbling family owners. That purchase was being held up by antitrust concerns; since the Chronicle and Examiner had shared facilities and profits since the 1960s under a complex, federally regulated joint operating agreement, any deal that led to a one-paper town might be blocked.

Last week's sale offered an end run around that issue. Now Hearst will run the Chronicle and offer the Examiner's staffers jobs there, while the Examiner's name and legacy will pass into the hands of the Fang family -- local businesspeople who have used their free newspaper, the Independent, as a political mouthpiece. That closes some kind of historical circle, since it was a similar kind of influence-seeking via unapologetic partisan journalism that William Randolph Hearst established as his trademark a century ago -- with the Examiner as his flagship.

By 1984, when Hearst's grandson, known as Will, took the paper's helm, the flagship had begun taking on water; circulation was sinking and quality had sunk. Will Hearst took a stab at invigorating the paper, expanding its staff and attempting to reach out beyond its traditional blue-collar conservative readership to the Bay Area's funkier and more progressive elements: He hired gonzo godfather Hunter Thompson as a columnist (and then needed to hire another editor just to turn Thompson's column into readable English); he added the absurdist brilliance of Bill Griffith's "Zippy the Pinhead" to the comics page. Sensing one of the weakest points of the competition at the Chronicle, he also beefed up the Examiner's arts coverage by hiring an energetic crew of young writers.

When I arrived at the Examiner in 1986 as its theater critic, I had my doubts: Wasn't writing drama reviews for the grandson of the original Citizen Kane asking for trouble? (If you remember the movie, Kane's paper's theater critic gets fired after panning a performance by "Kane"/Hearst's aspiring-actress wife.) But integrity was never a question at the Examiner: In close to a decade of reviewing plays and movies for the paper, I never once faced meddling or interference from on high -- even when the most influential theater producer in town, Carole Shorenstein Hays, called to complain that my review of an August Wilson play wasn't sufficiently positive, or when I found myself in the uncomfortable position of reviewing a film funded by Will Hearst himself.

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Integrity, though, doesn't weigh very heavily on a balance sheet, and it was in the accounting department that the Examiner's fate would play out. Thanks to the joint operating agreement -- under which the Examiner and Chronicle split profits 50-50, no matter what -- the newspaper's performance bore little relationship to its profits. Quality was cleanly divorced from the bottom line.

The Examiner published four daily editions and held responsibility for most of the joint Examiner/Chronicle Sunday edition, requiring a 24-7 newsroom; the Chronicle, by comparison, kept banker's hours. Sunday gave Examiner staff their one shot at a decent-sized readership (around three quarters of a million on Sunday, compared with 100,000 to 120,000 on a typical weekday). But most Chronicle subscribers never quite understood that they were really reading an Examiner on Sunday, anyway.

Though the Examiner always took pride in offering better, tougher coverage of local politics than its competition, Chronicle readers loved their paper's columnists and didn't seem to mind that vast swaths of their morning reading were ripped off the New York Times and Washington Post wires. Both papers were cursed with a kind of stagnation that individual journalists might transcend but the entire institution was unable to shake.

In the Examiner Style section we worked our butts off, trying with a smaller staff to cover more than the Chronicle did, faster and smarter. Sometimes the paper's new critics clashed with our more jaded colleagues: I can recall one editor who was simply confounded that I expected to be told about substantive changes to my copy, and several copy editors who insisted that a review should be trimmed from the bottom, regardless of how carefully its conclusion was structured. Caring about quality was something we took for granted -- but there was always a clear line at the Examiner between staffers who still cared and those who'd simply given up and were just collecting their union paychecks.

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It was sometimes difficult to tell on which side of that line the paper's leadership fell. When I joined the Examiner it was being run by Larry Kramer, a genial executive editor who seemed more interested in entrepreneurism than editing (and who is now CEO of CBS Marketwatch), and managing editor Frank McCulloch, a legendary journalist who lent the paper some class and experience. Within a few years both were gone, replaced by Phil Bronstein, the paper's swashbuckling former Philippines correspondent, and Sharon Rosenhause -- a perpetually scowling managing editor who, as far as I could tell, never left her office and, in the years we worked for the same paper, never chose to say hello.

Bronstein had perhaps watched too many old movies about the news business, and seemed to think that hurling curses at his subordinates was an effective management technique. Once, after I'd dared post a message on the staff computer bulletin board arguing that the critiques of our work he was distributing from our colleagues ought to be signed, he called me into his office, propped one of his cowboy boots on his chair and hollered, "Prima donna motherfucker!" I kind of liked the epithet, but I'll never forget the look of outrage on his face: His newsroom, he was making clear, was a place for following orders, not exchanging ideas.

That spirit was precisely at odds with the kind of freewheeling, talent-oriented journalism Will Hearst had embraced, and the Examiner never really resolved the tension between its publisher's renaissance ideals and its editor's bully-boy machismo. Paralysis ensued. It didn't help that, no matter how many unorthodox moves Will made, he couldn't budge the Examiner's circulation: Hearst Corporation officials had essentially doomed the paper when they accepted the afternoon slot back in the '60s.

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That left the Examiner a newspaper on the artificial life support of a law, the Newspaper Preservation Act (which shaped the joint operating agreement). As far as we in the newsroom could tell, this seemed to suit the parent corporation just fine, as long as it continued to rake in its share of the monopoly's take. After the brief expansionary period in the '80s, the Examiner returned to its parsimonious ways; and the recession of the early '90s brought staff cuts that eliminated any pretense of competing with the morning paper in any category other than ballsiness.

The daily Ex had become a disturbingly thin product even before the strike of November 1994. But that two-week affair killed off the last vestiges of idealism at the paper. Will Hearst had always talked of his newspaper as one big family -- after all, for him, that's exactly what it was -- and he appeared honestly hurt that his employees viewed the relationship differently.

In the strike's aftermath, while the Chronicle management reached out to its staff in a conciliatory spirit, the Examiner's editors mostly greeted their returning workers with glares. Mean-spiritedness -- along with narrow corporate bean-counting -- had triumphed, and within a few weeks Will Hearst had left the paper for Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins.

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A lot of people thought the Examiner would soon fold, but there was no incentive for the Hearst Corporation to shut the paper down as long as the joint agreement remained in place. Still, as the presses kept rolling, day after day, most of the Ex's remaining talent fled -- some cherry-picked by the morning paper, more lighting out for the new territories on the Internet. On the day I turned in my resignation in 1995, the paper's editors couldn't even be bothered to give me an exit interview.

The Examiner's failure, however heartbreaking to the people who once worked there, has had one salutary effect on the world of journalism: It has seeded the fledgling world of Internet "content" with newsroom veterans determined to bring their values into the new medium.

Salon, certainly, wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the Examiner. Its founding editorial team, Examiner exiles all, was eager to leave behind the paper's stifling authoritarianism and its ambivalence toward its own staffers' talent. But we also hoped to salvage the best of the paper's tradition -- its willingness to take risks and mix up intelligent coverage with tabloid vivacity.

Today, optimistic pundits are suggesting that the new, Hearst-operated Chronicle, drawing from the combined staffs of the old Chronicle and Examiner, might finally give the Bay Area the "world-class newspaper" it has so long been promised and so long lacked. But where in the Hearst Corporation's recent history is there any sign that this is one of its goals -- or that it might have the skills to achieve such a goal, once set? This is a media company that has gradually run its newspapers into the ground, allowing both the Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner to spiral downward into mediocrity and oblivion. If it understands how to create a "world-class newspaper," it has kept that ability well hidden to date.

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Periodically during my years there, the Examiner brass would become transfixed by some trendy innovation in newsroom practices that was supposed to solve all the paper's problems in one managerial swoop. Each time, I remember that Frank McCulloch would lean back and (I hope my imperfect memory is quoting him, of all people, accurately) declare, "There's only four ways you can improve a newspaper: You can report stories better, write them better, edit them better and illustrate them better."

Will San Francisco finally get the newspaper it deserves? That will depend on whether its new newspaper proprietors -- the new owners of the Chronicle or the new owners of "the Monarch" -- show any understanding of McCulloch's maxim.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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