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In S.F., Battle of the Old Media

The city's reconstituted dailies struggle for prominence and readership in a tight market.


SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Examiner, or rather its new incarnation, sits upstairs from a seedy theater-turned-rock club in the Tenderloin. The lobby is the size of a walk-in closet. Taped-up signs near the one good elevator offer directions to the relocated newsroom. Wind wafts down the rickety stairwell, which smells unmistakably--and intensely--of cannabis.

On the mezzanine level, a fellow tenant turns out to be running a medicinal marijuana dispensary. A homeless man in a wheelchair whips the newspaper out of his bush jacket. It's as flimsy as junk mail. "What're they doin' up there, anyway?" he slurs. "They used to be a pretty good paper. Now--" The man suddenly spots a goateed young attendant and decides not to wait for an answer. "Hey, buddy! Gimme $20 of that high-grade Mexican!"

Well, the news is just one among many diversions in this storied city. Still, the question of what, exactly, they're doing up at the Examiner--and across town at the dominant Chronicle, for that matter--has become a minor civic pastime here. In the nearly three months since San Francisco's two best-known rival dailies formally launched themselves separately from the joint operating agreement that had bound them since the mid-1960s, their paths have generated headlines, if not always readers:

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 7, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Educator's title--Cynthia Gorney was misidentified in a story Monday about San Francisco newspapers. Her title is associate dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

"Glitch Delays Debut of New S.F. Examiner." "Morning Sickness: Where's the 'World-Class' Chron?" "Examiner Continues Rocky Start, Replaces Executive Editor After Three Weeks."

"Fun Couple Freak Out," the Examiner snickered this month in a column that posed the burning question: Did the Chronicle's new executive editor, who is married to Sharon Stone, demote a columnist for having written snotty things about the actress? (No, the executive, Phil Bronstein, told a media Web site. And it was a lateral move, from news to sports, where he has spent much of his career, says the columnist, Scott Ostler. Although Ostler admits that Stone did upbraid him once when she ran into him at the ballet.)

The Examiner is certainly trying, resurrecting both the late Herb Caen's old Chronicle logo and Hunter S. Thompson. On the other hand, there has also been a now-famous epidemic of computer-glitch-based typos, which continue to be enumerated in the city's alternative weeklies. Entries have included the day the paper misspelled the names of its own editors; the day it misspelled "Wednesday" on the front page; and the day the paper's masthead--which is supposed to read, "Keeping San Francisco a two-newspaper town"--misspelled "San Francisco" so that it sounded like "San Frank Sicko" when read aloud.

"It's certainly been interesting," laughs Susan Rasky, senior lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. So far, though, she adds, it isn't yet clear whether the city's evolving newspaper choices will finally connect with the "noisy, funny, diverse, parochial, extremely sophisticated" city that has carped about the quality of its Old Media for so long.

Nor is it clear, in an era of hourly updates via broad-band transmission and targeted e-mail newsletters, that even the best efforts of the city's ink-and-paper crowd will be sufficient. News is, as noted, just one among many diversions. Even among newspapers, "San Francisco is an extremely competitive market," notes media industry analyst John Morton of Morton Research Inc.

The new merged Chronicle and the new Hearst-subsidized Examiner face competition in and out of San Francisco, from alternative weeklies, suburban dailies and national papers (the New York Times, at last count, was selling more than 36,000 papers in the San Francisco Bay Area each Sunday). The San Jose Mercury News recently launched a San Francisco edition. Rumors are rampant that Denver-based newspaper magnate Dean Singleton, owner of the group that publishes the Oakland Tribune, other East Bay papers and papers around the country, plans to make a foray into the city.

From this fray, separate questions have emerged for the two reconstituted San Francisco dailies since Hearst Corp. bought the Chronicle. The deal shuffled the papers' staffs and assets, folding the Examiner's staff into the Chronicle while transferring the Examiner's name and remaining assets, along with a $66-million subsidy, to San Francisco's politically connected Fang family, which owns small newspapers and real estate.

For the Chronicle, the question has been: Will it deliver a newspaper, at last, that is as worldly and successful as its city?

For the Examiner, it's: Will it deliver a real newspaper at all?

Or did its new owners just take on the Hearst's flagship for all the free money they'd get, with the legal stipulation that it be spent on the Examiner?

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