Ranks of two-newspaper towns grow one thinner

How the Hearst Corp.'s plan to buy the San Francisco Chronicle will change a city.

Newspaper wars in the waning decades of the 20th century have become battles no one really wants to win. They're like family feuds that outsiders had best not try to settle.

So as this city by the bay sweeps its sidewalks and polishes its door handles for another week of the tourism high season, there is more a sense of loss than triumph with the spectacle of one newspaper raising a victory clench over its rival.

The announcement last week that the morning and larger San Francisco Chronicle will be bought by the owner of the smaller, afternoon Examiner neither came out of the blue nor set any new worrying precedent for lovers of a free press.

Rather, it did what trend-setting San Franciscans hate most: followed along a well-worn path. In this case, the path of two-newspaper towns becoming one-newspaper towns. That's a trend well-established in urban America and one the journalism professors bemoan as a slow erosion of the competitive spirit that often makes information purveyors sharper and more relevant to an increasingly time-stressed and disengaged public.

In less abstract terms, the purchase of the San Francisco Chronicle (circulation 480,000) by New York-based Hearst Corporation worries some local analysts most because it puts the city's primary print news source in the hands of ownership that is 3,000 miles away.

That's another well-established pattern. Large corporations have been gobbling up independent, family-owned newspapers. There are 10 corporations, including Gannett, Knight Ridder, Community Newspapers, and Dow Jones & Co. that own 20 or more US newspapers. And the San Francisco Chronicle was one of the largest remaining independents in the nation.

But whatever is lost in journalism terms as a result of such transactions also causes communities to pause and take stock on a more visceral level, say analysts who have watched the pattern over the years.

Even as polls show growing public disfavor with the media as an institution, they're not unlike surveys that show voters dissatisfied with Congress or politicians as a class, but feeling pretty good about their own hometown representative.

Certainly, there is a soft spot among San Franciscans for the Chronicle, which was started by a couple of teenagers in 1865 and carried items written by Mark Twain in exchange for office space. Stylish and quirky, the Chronicle matches its city's personality to a T. And like many organizations that thrive and endure, the Chronicle attained its own distinctive voice over the years, exercised with particular clarity by that of the late columnist Herb Caen.

OF course, the Examiner (circulation 115,000) is no Johnny-come-lately. Legendary publisher William Randolph Hearst found his newspapering legs in San Francisco in 1887, becoming "proprietor" of a property acquired by his family as payment for a gambling debt.

Since the two newspapers entered into a joint operating agreement in 1965, which allows them to share revenues and business operations even as they compete for the news, the rivalry has been intense and colorful. The Chronicle's stable of columnists and breezier style contrasted with the Examiner's scrappier, harder-hitting content as it eagerly sought to survive in an afternoon market that was shrinking in the face of changed reader lifestyles.

Occupying buildings joined by a walkway, some staffers changed allegiances over the years, all part of the fight by each paper to outshine the other.

The best face that can be put on newspaper consolidation is that the market demands it, driven by the competition from radio, television, and now the Internet. And it is certainly possible the Chronicle will improve in some ways, even without the Examiner nipping at its heels.

But the news that Hearst would buy the Chronicle and sell the Examiner was bittersweet for just about everyone involved, even the victor. "This is a difficult yet exciting day for Hearst," acknowledged corporate president Frank A. Bennack Jr. in announcing the deal.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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