News & Views from 465 California Street

Chronicle gone-icle!

Clint Reilly

Two weeks ago, Maitland “Sandy” Zane – a longtime writer at the San Francisco Chronicle – died of cancer at 80 years of age. Sandy never won a Pulitzer.

But, like many of the great characters who passed through the old Chronicle before it was purchased by the Hearst Corporation, Sandy had more fun than the entire newsroom of the rival Hearst Examiner combined.

He loved to brag about the time that journalistic ethics forced him to personally confirm for an exposé he was writing that a certain escort service’s girls actually did have paid sex with patrons. The punch line was that the Chronicle had to reimburse his expenses.

I have been reading the Chronicle ever since I was a young boy. Initially, I started looking for the paper to see if Carol Doda – the North Beach high priestess of topless dancing – was on the front page again, or to follow the exploits of Willie Mays.

In those days, the “Chron” was edited by Scott Newhall, who loved to titillate and entertain rather than overwhelm readers with profound analysis.

When I grew into adulthood and became a political consultant, I would buy the next day’s Chronicle right off the presses at the Fifth and Mission headquarters almost every night. It was called the “bulldog edition,” and it was delivered to select locations around the Bay Area where hardcore newspaper addicts waited for their daily fix.

Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Stan Delaplane and Charles McCabe were among a stable of columnists who were notorious characters as well as talented writers. To a young campaign manager, Political Editor Earl “Squire” Behrens seemed ancient but he was still powerful. His “Political Notes” column was about the only coverage of local politics beyond the mayor’s race.

In later years, Jerry Burns became political editor and then city editor before dying prematurely of cancer. Burns was replaced by Jerry Roberts, who rose all the way to managing editor in the 1990s.

In between, stars such as Thomas Albright wrote about art and Allan Temko provided some of the country’s best architecture and design criticism. Writers like Michael Harris and Jerry Carroll built reputations for their hard-nose reporting and lyrical prose.

But this great run came to an end almost exactly when the Chronicle was bought by the Hearst Corporation and taken over by San Francisco Examiner editors in 2000.

In recent weeks, Hearst has announced that it may sell or close the Chronicle due to headline-making losses incurred since the paper was purchased from the Thieriot/de Young family in 2000.

Intense negotiations are underway with the Newspaper Guild and the Teamsters to radically slash a reported $60 million annual loss. The Guild, which represents journalists and advertising personnel, quickly agreed to allow 150 job cuts. Now the Teamsters are beginning talks. According to Hearst executives, the Chronicle has to break even to avert a death sentence. Hearst has more than $1 billion invested in the Chronicle.

The announcement has ignited a firestorm of speculation in Bay Area political and journalistic circles.

I filed a lawsuit in 2000 to block Hearst’s purchase of the Chronicle. In 2006, I filed a second antitrust suit to stop a possible business combination between MediaNews Group and Hearst, which would have led to one partnership controlling virtually every Bay Area daily newspaper. Given my history with the subject, I have been asked for my reaction to these events.

My crusade is to save daily newspapers, not bury them, and to promote competition among news gatherers in order to ensure that readers receive a diversity of facts and viewpoints. When newspapers die, access to vital information about current affairs, local government and civic institutions also are lost.

But my lofty principles will be left on the shelf.

I do not believe that the Hearst Chronicle will die. Hearst will never shutter the paper and walk away from its billion dollar investment. MediaNews may be staggering under a mountain of debt, but Hearst will never sell the Chronicle.


Comments (9)

  • The internet gave print a run for it’s money. Advertising switched from print to web. Young newspaper boys (and girls) no longer had to contend with rottweilers and dobermans on a daily, rainy morning basis with the advent of the “i’net” ! Even they can be wooed with milk bones. I’m talking about the canines for those unsure. ;)

    The internet connects people just like the newspaper did. However, the internet is instantaneous and has the attractive capability of interaction (and pics, .gifs, .jpeg, streaming video media, relative links, relative hyperlinks, blogs, instant messaging, rapid email). But it’s up to readers (humans) to decide what to do with all that shared knowledge and technology.

    Freedom of speech, ideas, and even that of the press live on because of technological innovation and people like you who stand firm to protect the rights of the individual, the right to dissenting viewpoints, to continually further, promote, and protect the basic principles that this cool but not perfect nation was founded upon. That basic virtue finds itself needing preservation time and time again throughout history (as unregulated capitalist media conglomerates need to be regulated from time to time too), as the First Amendment to the US Constitution, founded in the Bill of Rights. Thanks!

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

    Go Green!

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | March 17th, 2009 at 12:39 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly;

    Goodness! Something we agree on: The OLD Chronicle. However, I do have to
    disagree with you on the timeline: the demise of The Chron began with Nan
    McAvoy not Hearst. Ms. McAvoy turned The Chron from a scrappy, no-nonsense
    newspaper into a pathetic propaganda organ for the communist party, oops,
    democrat party, which led to the purchase of The Chron by Hearst. The
    “wonderful” Hearst Corporation (the newspaper corporation that has gotten
    this Country into more wars than even the politicians) completed the
    destruction of The Chron and turned it into a joke of a newspaper
    laughingly called Das Khommikal.

    That moronic bozo spokes-it for Hearst stated: “The Chronicle has lost
    money every year since we purchased it in 2001″. Well, did that MORON
    ever stop to think that MAYBE it was Hearsts management style that caused
    the loss of money? DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUH, it’s such a no-brainer.

    The sad part is that there are still very good reporters and writers
    working for what’s left of the chron, and management is not only letting us
    down by their pathetic management of this once great newspaper, they are
    shortchanging the staff big-time. My suggestion is that the cutbacks start
    at the top, with bozos in management getting a boot out the door, and the
    sooner the better.

    Too bad what’s left of the Chron can’t be sold to a corporation that will
    take what’s left of the Chron back to the days when no crooked politician
    was safe (mostly democrats), and stop being a leftist propaganda organ
    catering to the loony fringe and drugged out losers from the 70s anti-war
    protests. It’s LONG past time that The Chron went after the corruption in
    the City and especially the mental cases posing as City supervisors.

    Maybe if what’s left of the Chron actually was more conservative and
    eschewed the Castro life-style it might pick up the subscribers and
    advertisers needed to keep the Chron living.


    Mike M

    Posted by: Mike M. | March 17th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

  • I grew up reading the Chronicle too, loved all that Scott Newhall craziness, the Emperor Norton treasure hunts, etc etc. I tried to get a job there when I graduated from Cal but no luck. Instead, I worked for free at the Independent, then landed a job, which lasted a very short time, at the Examiner, which I think I got more because of my Irish name than my Cal degree. Your column really resonated with me – I loved Alan Temko, and Frankenstein, the art and then music critic, and the Sunday section that Paul Smith started (the name of it escapes me) etc. I loved the writing, the irreverance and the color. I wouldn’t have become a journalist had I not grown up reading the Chron. Nice column.

    Happy St. Pat’s day


    Posted by: Pete | March 17th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

  • I enjoyed your column about the San Francisco Chronicle. I was born in
    S.F. and grew up on the Peninsula.

    I too mourn the diminishing of newspapers. I’m a news junkie and
    like to follow national and international affairs. When i sit down in the
    Strada Cafe in Berkeley in the morning and read the N.Y. Times it’s an
    efficient use of space and time to get all the information from the paper. It would take me forever and a day to get the same amount of information off the internet. I hope the younger generation of Americans will come to
    see things the same way. How long will it take them to wade through the
    Wall Street Journal on the Internet?

    Posted by: Paul G. | March 17th, 2009 at 9:10 pm

  • Your article on the Chronicle nearly brought tears to my eyes. In
    the 1960′s and 70′s we lived in Redwood City and subscribed to the
    Chronicle, then moved to Southern California. We returned North in
    1990, but lived in Hollister and subscribed to the San Jose Mercury
    News. So I guess we weren’t exposed to the Chronicle during its bad years.

    Your list of the outstanding columnists brought back memories for
    which I heartily thank you. Those guys were like old friends – loved
    at the time, but appreciated much more after they are gone. Herb
    Caen was probably the most renowned, but Art Hoppe, Stan Delaplane
    and Charles McCabe stood right at the top with him.

    Thank you for wonderful memories!


    Posted by: Richard | March 17th, 2009 at 9:10 pm

  • Thanks Clint for another good commentary (Chronicle gone-icle). You mentioned many of the Chron’s columnists etc. I was wondering if you know what happened to their Sports Writer (in the Sporting Green) with whom I share a name: Bruce Jenkins. In the 60′s I used to exchange notes with Herb Caen (we were both Benny Goodman fans) and my name caused some confusion for Mr. Caen.

    Bruce J

    Posted by: Bruce J. | March 17th, 2009 at 9:11 pm

  • The Chron failed for the same reason Air America Radio did – a hateful far-left anti-American bias. Even in the San Fransicko Bay Area, the market for that sorta crap is only so big.

    Posted by: Geoff | March 17th, 2009 at 9:39 pm

  • Hello Clint

    Have you done any research on newspapers asking subscribers
    how much they would be willing to pay for home delivery?

    I donate 50-100$ a month to news services but only pay
    64$ for yearly subscription of the The Valley Times. Although
    I read and have read newspapers every day for decades I cannot
    say I really bought anything from an ad out of the paper.
    Electronnic delivery is just not the same as I have to work on a
    computer 10 hours a day as it is.

    Take Care

    Vaughn W

    Posted by: Vaughn | March 18th, 2009 at 5:16 pm

  • Mr. Riley,

    Your anti-trust actions are truly admirable. But the Chronicle is not worth it’s paper these days. Would you considering buying it? Or any newspaper? Instead just start your own, online news website. You’ve got the savvy and the SF bay could use some more of your influence.

    Stephen Lyons

    Posted by: Stephen Lyons | March 19th, 2009 at 8:33 pm

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