Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Conversation about The Chronicle

On last Tuesday's St. Patrick's Day, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion about the future of The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, which is supposedly on the brink of collapse.

The mostly very smart panel was huge, and included local publishers, editors, union reps, journalism professors, and a few people involved with internet journalism startups.

Management from The Chronicle were notable for their complete absence from the affair, which made me feel sorry for Chronicle union rep and reporter Carl Hall (above) who was receiving the brunt of the audience's pent-up hatred and disgust for the Chronicle's lousy journalism over the decades. Louis Freedberg, pictured behind him, is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Chronicle and he offered the most idiotic comment of the evening.

"Why didn't somebody tell us they weren't satisfied with what we were offering at the paper?" he plaintively asked, and everybody in the audience looked at each other in dumbfounded amazement.

Management at the newspaper has been so arrogant and clueless for so long, with its top-down hierarchical style, that Delfin Vigil (above), a current cultural writer for The Chronicle, just paid for a large ad in the rival "San Francisco Examiner" free daily to take management to task.

The only person who seemed to be rooting for The Chronicle to survive was Bruce Brugmann (above), who has published the "alternate paper" Bay Guardian for forty years. Though the weekly free paper is assertively leftist in tone, its hypocrisy in breaking a unionizing attempt in the late 1970s and its overuse of unpaid intern labor is haunting the rag into irrelevance.

I was at this event taking photos at the request of Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig (above) who has just been hired as the editor of The Public Press (click here), an attempt at an internet newspaper run as a nonprofit, which isn't quite ready for prime time if its poorly designed website featuring my microscopic photos is any indication.

I'm not sure the nonprofit, funded-by-grants model is all that better than the capitalist model. What's the difference between the assertive capitalist Warren Hellman owning The Chronicle (in which he's interested) or funding a "nonprofit" journal through grants? In either case, he's going to be in control.

There is a fascinating post by David Cay Johnston at the Columbia Journalism Review (click here) which trashes the self-serving non-coverage of The Chronicle's financial problems by The Chronicle itself. It also goes into detail about how management is probably trying to come up with a new Bay Area monopoly with Dean Singleton's conglomerate of local newspapers, and how they are going to do everything they can to break the newspaper unions, including the Teamsters, which should be interesting.

In the Comments section of that CJR post, there's a brilliant and sad obituary for The Chronicle by Bill Mandel, who was a writer for the old "San Francisco Examiner" for 18 years. It's worth quoting a large chunk:

"Pre-Hearst (that is, pre-2000), The Chronicle, with its JOA-mandated morning monopoly, was fat, lazy, arrogant, and an interesting literary (but not journalistic) read. Hearst brought the old Examiner's journalistic superiority over when it bought The Chron, but incessant layoffs and news budget cutbacks since 2000 have simply made The Chronicle a bad newspaper, period. Even its popular website,, has deteriorated in the last couple of years.

San Francisco, that shining intellectual city on many hills, is now somewhat puzzlingly surrounded by uniformly horrible newspapers, from the once-mighty Mercury-News in the south to the dreary Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune to the east to the absolutely execrable Marin Independent-Journal and Santa Rosa Depressed Democrat to the north. That's why you see lots of blue New York Times bags outside so many homes these mornings."

"The Chronicle will be missed, but not today's Chronicle. A Chronicle worth missing already died long ago. Whether Singleton, Hearst, or some new hybrid owns what's left will be of interest to business people, but not to readers. The amazing thing is that in this horrible, crushing climate of greed and corporate duplicity, journalists and photographers are still struggling to do their jobs and get the truth out, backed up by nothing but their dedication. Hats off to them."


Matthew Hubbard said...

I was going to bring up my absolute distaste and contempt for Phil Bronstein, but I guess he's beneath contempt in today's climate.

A lot of businesses are going to fail in the new economy, like my favorite local movie theater. Some of them, like the Chronicle, actually deserve it.

janinsanfran said...

Damn -- we took some of EXACTLY the same pictures. I didn't intend to be stand offish. I was just lulled into catatonia by the experience and only realized afterward you were sitting in front of me.

This is the best discussion I've seen of all this.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jan: Thanks for the link and as I noted on your "happening-here" blog, I wished we'd spotted each other so we could have gone for an alcohol-infused post-mortem. It was definitely a weird event. To my other readers, click on "janinsanfran" to get to an interesting, complementary account.

Civic Center said...

Dear Matty: Bronstein isn't beneath contempt. In fact, he's the perfect target for that emotion. Arrogant, sexist, bad writer, ass-kisser of the rich, unreflective zionist, shortsighted and insular are a few of the adjectives that come to mind. I didn't see any point in mentioning him, however, since I hope his days of influence are numbered.

Kimo C said...

Also no politicians showed up and the place was not fulled with concerned readers - plenty of empty seats - certainly not a good sign.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Thanks for joining me in my low opinion of Bronstein, Mike. i was pretty sure you would.

David Cay Johnston's book Perfectly Legal is a few years old now, but it showed exactly how the tax code is made to steal from the poor and give to the rich, most especially the very rich. A must read for anyone with low enough blood pressure.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I love the first photo, with the large arrow pointing (inadvertently, I assume) to the "Closed Until Further Notice" sign on the cafe. Very Cartier-Bresson "capture the perfect moment" of you.

I also love how the first thing more or less failing companies try to do is get union concessions or cut wages for the rank and file, as opposed to, say, bringing up how the lack of adequate national healthcare affects American business. (I'm not expecting them to bring up our skewed tax code and how it favors the already rich.)

jkarp said...

We're looking at increasing The Printed Blog circulation in San Francisco to 30K to 50K, three times a week, in the very near future. I have no inside information, but it will be interesting to see how the Chronicle responds, if at all. Josh (Founder and Publisher; The Printed Blog;

Civic Center said...

Dear Joshua K: I checked out "The Printed Blog" and love the idea. Good luck with your project and I'll be sending you an email about reprinting content.

Dear Patrick: Thanks for the Cartier-Bresson accidental "perfect moment" remark. I cropped the photo so that "Closed Until Further Notice" was complementing the Chronicle sign but the actual irony of the juxtaposition escaped me until you brought it up. But then, I think you're much more visual than me.