Questions About the Future
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
MANAGING EDITOR Jerry Roberts was home with laryngitis on August 6 when his boss called and said he'd better get down to the San Francisco Chronicle's newsroom right away. The paper's publisher was about to make an important announcement.
When Roberts arrived shortly after noon, the newsroom was packed with staffers who had been beckoned suddenly to the city desk over the paper's loudspeaker.
No one was surprised by the news disclosed by Publisher and President John Sias: The Hearst Corp., owner of the scrappy afternoon San Francisco Examiner, was buying the Chronicle. But they were caught off guard by the timing. No one thought things would happen so quickly. In mid-June, Chronicle Publishing Co.'s family-run board had voted to put the Chronicle and everything else owned by the company up for sale. "I had a sense it would take longer, many more months," Roberts says.
At the same time, in another wing of the building that houses the papers at Fifth and Mission streets, Hearst President Frank Bennack was telling people in the Examiner's newsroom that Hearst intended to buy the Chronicle and would put the Examiner up for sale. Though the two papers have separate newsrooms, they have functioned since 1965 under a joint operating agreement that links them like Siamese twins and forces them to share profits 50-50--even though the Chronicle's circulation, at 475,244, is four times the Examiner's.
Within an hour, Bennack was over in the Chronicle's newsroom, trying to reassure staffers that no one was going to lose a job. "At that time, they said they were making an attempt to sell the Examiner and it would take two to four months before the deal was closed," says Chronicle Executive Editor Matthew Wilson. It is considered unlikely that a buyer for the Examiner will emerge.
Since Hearst is much larger than Chronicle Publishing and has much deeper pockets, rumors that Hearst would buy the family-owned Chronicle have floated around San Francisco for years. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News ran a front-page story--quite prematurely--indicating a deal was imminent.
"People have been nervous for 20 years about their job security," says Larry Kramer, a former Examiner editor. "Nothing has changed. The only difference is there's a real timetable."
Details of that timetable had not been determined at presstime. Before Hearst can take the reins, the Justice Department must approve the sale.
Taking for granted that the deal will be approved, both newsrooms are rife with rumors and preoccupied with unanswered questions. Will Hearst change the name of the paper? Will it be the Chronicle-Examiner or vice versa? Who will be in charge: Wilson, Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein or somebody else? How well will the longtime rivals mesh? What about all of the duplication?
Says Examiner reporter Larry Hatfield, vice president of the New California Media Workers Guild/Typographical Union: "I've been here for 30 years and I can tell you there's a lot of uncertainty about how the two cultures will meld and how they'll deal with the business of having two City Hall staffs, two sports staffs. But not many people are concerned with losing their livelihood. We have a strong union. Hearst is going out of their way to assure people they will have jobs. Of course, they are not saying how long the jobs will last. But it will be cheaper to reduce staff through attrition than to have a major legal union battle."
Although some are fearful of what lies ahead, many in the Chronicle newsroom are hoping for, perhaps counting on, a repeat of what happened in Philadelphia after the Bulletin folded in 1982. The surviving Inquirer invested heavily in its newsroom and became one of the best newspapers in the country. The Chronicle has long been considered an underachiever, although it has improved in recent years.
The newspaper isn't the only property being sold by Chronicle Publishing, a closely held family corporation. Also up for grabs, either individually or as a package, are three television stations: KRON in San Francisco, an NBC affiliate; KAKE in Wichita, an ABC affiliate; and WOWT in Omaha, an NBC affiliate. NBC is reported to be interested in purchasing KRON, which analysts say could fetch $600 million.
In October, Chronicle Publishing agreed to sell the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts, to the New York Times Co. for $295 million. The 107,000-circulation paper is based west of the Boston metropolitan area, where the Times Co. owns the Boston Globe. Chronicle Publishing acquired the Telegram & Gazette in 1986.
Other holdings include another newspaper, the Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois, which is being sold to Pulitzer; two publishing companies; and a local cable news channel in San Francisco. SF Gate, a Bay Area news and information Web site, is also being purchased by Hearst.
As the anticipated transfer of ownership nears, Chronicle staffers are starting to deal with their paper's new status. "The worst part about being a family newspaper is being run by a dysfunctional family," says one Chronicle columnist. "The best part was that this is a very kind and gentle newsroom--much more than any other I have known. When we went back after a 17-day strike in 1994, Editor Bill German and Executive Editor Matthew Wilson greeted us at the door."
Chronicle reporter Carl Hall says he felt optimistic after the deal was disclosed. Nevertheless, he says, he couldn't shake the nagging sense that it was as if the Yankees had been sold to the Mets.