Certainly, the opportunity is now there. The Chronicle has a new, visionary publisher, a dominant competitive position, freedom from a 35-year profit-sharing agreement with the money-losing Examiner and the experience and resources of the Hearst Corp., an international media conglomerate that had $2.4 billion in sales last year and that, in addition to its newspapers, publishes 16 U.S. magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Good Housekeeping.
The Chronicle will also have virtually the entire 200-member news and editorial staff of the "old" Examiner, which has been added to the Chronicle's existing staff of 360. The terms of the Chronicle sale promised all Examiner staff members jobs with the Chronicle.
That gives the Chronicle the second-largest newsroom contingent on the West Coast, after the 1,100-member news and editorial team at the Los Angeles Times.
"This is the moment of moments," said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley.
But for Hearst to truly take advantage of that moment would be a notable change, not only for the corporation, but for the history of San Francisco journalism.
This magical, mythical city by the Bay--one of the most sophisticated, best-educated in the country, where such cutting-edge magazines as Ramparts and Rolling Stone were born and where the Internet communications revolution has spawned online pioneers Salon.com, Wired.com and Redherring.com--has never had newspapers whose quality even remotely approached the aspirations of its populace.
"Why is this literate city . . . saddled with the most mediocre daily journalism in the country?" a writer in Salon.com asked last summer, echoing a question that has long been batted around the Bay.
"For decades, San Francisco's failure to produce a daily paper on the level of the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe or even (the horror!) the San Jose Mercury News has been a source of deep local shame," the article said.
The Chronicle is better than its reputation. But most San Francisco media observers think Hearst's Examiner was, even at the end, more aggressive than the larger Chronicle in its coverage of City Hall, among other areas. And both papers have tended to rely more on wire service copy than original enterprise reporting. Neither has ever had the staff, editorial budget or news bureaus of the nation's best papers.
Surrounded by Competitors
To complicate matters, the paper faces an intense competitive situation against the Santa Rosa Press Democrat to the north, the Contra Costa Times and Alameda Newspaper Group to the east and, especially, the San Jose Mercury-News to the south.
The Mercury-News--like the Contra Costa Times--is owned by Knight Ridder Corp., and it has been growing in stature and size in recent years. It is widely regarded as providing the best coverage of any daily newspaper of Silicon Valley and the dot.com revolution. In July, the Mercury-News began publishing a San Francisco edition that now sells about 4,000 copies a day, publisher Jay Harris said.
Oppedahl's experience in the competitive environments of Detroit and Dallas is likely to be useful as he gears up the Chronicle for that battle. He also has previously supervised the merger of the newsroom staffs of the Republic and its sister paper, the Phoenix Gazette.
The new publisher is known in the industry as an innovator and risk-taker, someone who was an early advocate of the Internet and the need to forge cooperation across the wall that traditionally separated the news and business operations at most good newspapers.
In 1997, using research that showed Saturday was the day when people worry about their 'cocoons"--their houses and gardens, their families and their futures--he shifted primary coverage of personal finance and gardening to the Saturday paper, thus turning the Republic's Saturday editions from the week's worst financial performer--as Saturday papers are at many newspapers--into the week's second-most profitable.
In the summer of 1999, he also started a beach edition of the Republic in San Diego, where many people from Arizona go on vacation.
As a publisher, Oppedahl is not without his critics. In Phoenix, some present and former Republic reporters say, the paper's attempts to leverage the news to maximize profits made it reluctant to cover major advertisers aggressively. Oppedahl denied those charges.
However strong his credentials, however, Oppedahl would have had little chance of becoming publisher of the Chronicle, were it not for White's testimony in the antitrust case. A man generally liked and respected in San Francisco, White was originally thought to have the inside track to the publisher's office at the new, Hearst-owned Chronicle.
With Renfrew's report, Hearst managers can hope that the furor surrounding White's testimony will become just one more chapter in a long and colorful history for the San Francisco newspapers.