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Chronicle Entering Ambitious Hearst Era

November 17, 2000|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — The Hearst Corp. took two major steps to end a fierce 100-year newspaper rivalry and launch what it promises will be a world-class newspaper Thursday night. It named a new publisher and top editing team for the Chronicle, which it will begin publishing Wednesday, and it released a report exonerating its current newspaper, the Examiner, of charges that had undermined its editorial integrity.

The report was the result of an investigation by former federal Judge Charles Renfrew. Hearst executives requested it after controversial testimony by Timothy White, then publisher of the Examiner, during an antitrust trial that sought to block Hearst's purchase of the Chronicle.

White testified that he engaged in a bit of horse trading while talking with Mayor Willie Brown, offering him "more favorable treatment" on the Examiner's editorial page if he would support the purchase.

White later said he was tired and confused when he testified and did not mean to suggest that the paper would compromise its coverage. Nevertheless he was suspended as publisher and the newsrooms of the Chronicle and Examiner were embroiled in controversy.

Renfrew's report, based on interviews with White and 32 others and an examination of 1,677 Examiner articles, concluded that the Examiner "did not at any time or in any way compromise its coverage of the mayor--either in its news or editorial pages."

Because of the turmoil engendered by White's testimony, Hearst felt compelled to delay moving forward with publication of the Chronicle.

When the new Chronicle debuts under Hearst ownership next Wednesday, it will be led by publisher John Oppedahl, who began his journalism career as a reporter for the Examiner in 1967 and was most recently publisher of the Arizona Republic.

He will be assisted by several longtime Chronicle and Examiner news executives, among them Matthew Wilson, executive editor of the old Chronicle, who will become executive vice president for news and associate publisher; Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the Examiner, who will become senior vice president and executive editor of the Chronicle; and Jerry Roberts, managing editor of the old Chronicle, who will retain that title in the new paper and also become a vice president.

Although publishers virtually always select their top editors, Oppedahl said Thursday night that he had yet to speak with Wilson, Bronstein or Roberts because of restrictions imposed by Hearst's sale of the Examiner to the Fang family.

"It was clear that the leaders of the corporation liked and admired Matt, Phil and Jerry and wanted to find a structure that would encourage them to stay," Oppedahl said.

Wilson, Bronstein and Roberts, speaking to the newsrooms of the two papers after the official announcement Thursday night, all pledged to produce a great paper and urged their staffs to "let go of our long-standing rivalries," as Wilson put it.

"It won't be easy, but it is necessary," he said.

The Chronicle and the Examiner have been partners in a joint operating agreement since 1965, sharing business operations and joint revenues 50-50.

Fang Family to Publish Examiner

On the same day that Hearst publishes the new Chronicle, in yet another twist worthy of Shakespeare or Sophocles, the Examiner--which a century ago repeatedly warned readers of the "yellow peril" and insisted that the exclusion of Chinese immigrants was an unalterable demand--will begin publication under its new owners, the Fangs, a family of Chinese immigrants.

Ted Fang, 37, editor and publisher of what is being called the "new" Examiner, says his paper will be strictly local, "a second voice for the people of San Francisco." He promises strong community coverage by a staff that reflects the city's broad diversity.

But the Fangs' primary journalistic credentials are ownership of free newspapers including the thrice-weekly San Francisco Independent, which regularly uses its news columns to promote (or attack) the political causes and candidates its proprietors feel most strongly about.

That record has led many in the Bay Area to worry that the paper will be little more than a short-lived journalistic attack dog, kept afloat by the $66-million subsidy Hearst agreed to pay the Fangs over the next three years in order to obtain Justice Department approval of its purchase of the Chronicle.

The Hearst Corp. also has its critics. None of the 12 papers it owns--including the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer--has ever been regarded as among the nation's best.

Despite their past, Hearst executives say they have big ambitions for the Chronicle.

The Chronicle, heretofore perhaps best known for publishing the late columnist Herb Caen and for conducting a citywide, Page 1 search for a decent cup of coffee, will become a great newspaper, they say--a world-class newspaper, the kind of newspaper San Franciscans have long thought they deserve but have never had.

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