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Commentary: On the Media

Everything San Francisco's fit to print

The 144-year-old Chronicle is a 'quirky' newspaper for a 'quirky' city.

March 01, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

When a newspaper goes belly up, journalists tend to talk about the loss of a government watchdog, declining civic engagement and the threat to our democracy.

So when those sober words came flowing out of Denver last week over the collapse of the Rocky Mountain News, the sentiments didn't strike me as surprising, or wrong. Just inadequate.

Maybe that's because I was in San Francisco, sitting shiva on another newspaper with a death rattle and thinking, not about public service and the 1st Amendment, but about Herb Caen, about "the Last Man on Earth" and about a man who met his destiny with a stripper, atop a trick piano.

Newspapers tell stories for a living. But as we tell our own, we sometimes get all earnest, instead of telling people what we believe on our best days: that newspapers and newspapering can be provocative, irreverent and fun.

Yes, we get government policies changed and send crooked officials packing, but why save all the best, drag-queen-bites-dog stories for our mates in the newsroom? Doesn't verve still sell?

That brings us to the San Francisco Chronicle, the imperfect vessel for this perfectly self-centered city. The 144-year-old newspaper has never been accused of being great, but it somehow seemed to fit its place.

It's a "quirky, rambunctious, untraditional paper for a quirky, rambunctious, untraditional city," says Jon Rochmis, a journalism lecturer at San Francisco State and once top editor of the website connected to the Chron.

No one has ever replaced Caen, the man whose column constituted the city's diary for nearly 60 years until his death in 1997. The one-liners he crammed between ellipses could make or break . . . restaurants . . . stage plays . . . or the mayor. And he burnished the civic myth -- telling locals that the Golden Gate Bridge toll could never rise too high, because the ride into his beloved city was worth any price.

The Chron might have been thin on foreign and national news, overloaded with wire copy and loosely edited at times, but it knew how to wallow in the city's cherished stew of high and low culture.

So I recall, from the years I lived in the Bay Area, the front-page headline that blared Placido Domingo's 11th-hour flight to the city to fill in as "Otello" on the city's night of nights, the opening of the opera.

That same year, 1983, the paper gave great deference to the tale of the bouncer who, while in flagrante delicto with a stripper atop a piano, accidentally kick-started a hydraulic system. The piano lifted him to the ceiling and crushed him to death. She lived.

All that, and a sports section printed on green paper, a feature tab printed on pink, and that signature icon marking the best-reviewed movies -- cartoon man, clapping and leaping from his seat.

I laughed about those memories last week with a couple of the newspaper's most venerable reporters, David Perlman, 90, and Carl Nolte, 75, who are still cranking out sharp copy, after decades at the paper.

The two old swashbucklers recounted an infamous Chronicle gimmick from 1960, when flamboyant editor Scott Newhall sent outdoor editor Bud Boyd into the Trinity Alps. With Cold War Armageddon looming in the public mind, Boyd was to survive in the wild as if he were "the Last Man on Earth."

He dutifully filed stories of his harrowing scrapes in the great outdoors, until the rival San Francisco Examiner sent its own investigative reporter, who discovered that Boyd sustained himself, not off nature's bounty, but piles of canned food and soda pop.

The paper has not forsaken the romance of the road in more recent years, though on more legitimate missions. After more than half a century at the paper, science writer Perlman trekked to Ethiopia with a renowned UC Berkeley researcher seeking the roots of mankind. The feisty Nolte retraced the transcontinental route of the 49ers, to tell the stories of the men and women who built San Francisco.

"I've been a newspaperman my whole life and still am -- as long as there is any paper left to be a man of," said Perlman, from his corner nook overlooking Mission Street. "It's fun. I can't stop having fun."

Not that the paper hasn't done its share of serious work. Reporter Randy Shilts kept hammering away about the danger of a new "gay pneumonia" when public health officials wouldn't mobilize against the illness that became known as AIDS.

Taking on the Bay Area's top superstar, Barry Bonds, reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada led the country in chronicling how steroids have corrupted big-time sports.

Even more than other struggling big-city papers, though, the Chronicle has been hammered by the loss of advertising to the Internet. Its parent, Hearst Corp. -- which has sunk $1 billion into the paper over the last eight years, by one estimate -- announced last week that more severe staff cuts were coming.

That's painful news for an editorial staff that, since its 2000 merger with the rival Examiner, has already been slashed by more than half, to about 275.

Analyst and blogger Alan Mutter, the former No. 2 editor at the Chronicle, thinks the paper will absorb the cuts and survive awhile longer. He understands the inexorable push of information onto the computer screen.

But Mutter, like a lot of newspaper folk, mourns the potential loss of "intimacy, warmth and personality" associated with the printed page and not, yet, the computer screen.

While that feeling may elude many young people, it didn't get past a grade-schooler who wrote to the staff after touring the paper. His note is posted on the newsroom bulletin board: "I was impressed by the fact that the newspaper, a daily living object . . . was so magnificent."

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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