Reinhardt Chit Chat Club of
November 8, 2010
What Was a Newspaper?
According to what used to be called “a generally informed source,”
roughly 130 newspapers appeared in the first ten years of
We don’t know much about their professed purpose, but we can assume that most of them were highly personal, intensely partisan and given to extortion, slander and defamation of character. One publication called The Californian, which fortunately expired long ago, announced in the year 1868 that it would henceforth eschew blackmail and the disparagement of public men and institutions.
“Our first step is to purify the Augean stables,” said The Californian, “and set up a new flag with the motto, ‘Decency and propriety above all things.’ There will be no more attempts to create panic about earthquakes, or try, by implication, to throw doubts or clouds over our moneyed institutions…It is a mutual admiration society, and everything shall be lovely henceforth.. These are our principles, and we hope the public will like them – they ought to, for they have had to stand much worse.”
What twinge of conscience prompted this outburst of irony I do
not know. There had, indeed, been one pretty heavy earthquake that year, but it
. J.F. Dunne of the Police Gazette was
stabbed to death for reasons now obscure. William Walker, a Southerner with
aristocratic pretensions, wrote imperialistic editorials here in
The most celebrated victim was an
The Bulletin survived the death of
James King, although James Casey did not last long. He was hanged by the
Vigilantes. Thomas King, James's brother, ran the paper for a number of years,
and then the Bulletin passed through the account books of numerous owners. By the turn-of-the century the Bulletin was
still around, having outlasted even the
In the gloomy, depression years of the 1890s, however, the
strongest paper in readership and local influence was no longer the Bulletin
but the Examiner, which called itself, with some justification, “The Monarch of
the Dailies.” The Examiner was the
property of a soft-spoken but extremely aggressive genius named William
Randolph Hearst. Willie Hearst, whose
employees called him “The Chief,” had taken over the paper in 1887 when his
father, who had made millions buying and selling mining properties on the
Comstock Lode, went off to
[The Call was an exceptionally weird case. It was founded way back in the gold rush days (December, 1856,) and Mark Twain wrote for it, briefly, during his newspapering days. Over the years it passed through so many owners that its heritage was like the impenetrably complicated royal succession of Schleswig-Holstein. Since the Call doesn't exist in any form any more, I won't go into it except to say that in the year 1913, after passing through the hands of one Loring Pickering, Charles Shortridge (the owner then of the San Jose Mercury-News,) John D. Spreckels of the sugar family, M.H. deYoung of the Chronicle and F.W. Kellogg, a newspaper murderer from the mid-west, it eventually wound up in the possession of the acquisitive Mister Hearst. In September, 1913, Hearst changed the Morning Call into an afternoon Call --- same staff, same name, bigger headlines. That gave the city five quarrelling dailies --- way too many, as it turned out.]
Around that time, many publishers began to detach themselves from the odious and perilous tasks of editing the papers they owned and to hand over the dirty, toilsome, hazardous functions --- the production of headlines and news copy and other gray matter between the ads --- to paid editors. That way, the publisher could devote his energies to socially acceptable functions such as joining clubs, building profit centers and meddling in politics, while the hired editors became the voices and faces publicly associated with the institution known in those days as “the press.” Often, the paper would speak with two conflicting voices – one for the causes the editor favored, the other for the political candidates preferred by the publisher. The Chronicle was well known for its peculiar practice of endorsing candidates known to be opposed to policies paper had advocated in its editorials.
[The term “media,” apparently originated among advertisers as a single word covering magazines, radio, billboards, and, later, television and the World Wide Web. In some people’s minds, “media” no longer refers to leisurely forms of written communication like daily newspapers. So far, the term has not been stretched to include telephone messages, bulk rate mailers, Dear Friend postcards or other old fashioned forms of political persuasion..]
In the century between 1910 and 2010, three very distinctive, and distinctly different, newspaper editors made their mark --- or, rather, put their marks --- on the press --- and even the “media” in San Francisco. Each of them had his own idea of what a newspaper was, or ought to be, and most of the time the publishers cooperated.
The first was Fremont Older. For almost forty years – from the
late 1890s until his death in 1935, Fremont Older was in charge of a daily
newspaper --- first, the Bulletin; next, the Call; and, finally, a fusion named
the Call-Bulletin, wrought by Mister
Hearst, who by that time owned them both.. Fremont Older was the city’s public scold, our conscience, our raging bull of
moral indignation He was known nationally as
The next was Paul C. Smith, who became the executive head of the Chronicle in 1935 --- the very year that Fremont Older died. The two events were not connected. Smith was age 26, going on 27, poorly educated and inexperienced. He had reached the ripe age of 44 when he left the Chronicle, but many people still remembered when he was called The Boy Wonder.
The third was Scott Newhall, who replaced Smith as editorial head of the Chronicle in 1952 in a palace coup. Newhall’s nineteen years as the public face and voice set the Chronicle on a new course that some believed was the salvation of a weak paper and others saw as the destruction of a local treasure..
In their physical appearance, background and behavior, the three men were about as different as adult white male Americans could be.
Older was tall --- over six feet two --- rangy, with a mustache that was notably huge and droopy even in that time of huge, droopy mustaches He had the penetrating, distrustful look of a bald eagle, maybe a stormy petrel. He smoked cigars -- twenty a day -- and he drank bourbon. His aspirations were narrow, fixed and sometimes vindictive. He worked every day, stubbornly and courageously pushing his causes.
Smith was short, red-haired and perky -- a fox-terrier, or perhaps even a fox. He smoked cigarettes, a lot of cigarettes, and drank Scotch, a lot of Scotch. He was known as of a genial host, a bon vivant, a persuasive speaker. He took pride in having been called both a Communist and a Fascist although, like his newspaper, he was usually a moderate Republican. .
Newhall was handsome, pouty, stocky. His eyes were noticeably blue and noticeably baggy. He had an artificial leg and lurched along with a purposeful, swinging gait. Newhall did not drink. He took pills. He sometimes went for days without sleeping, exhausting his wife and his playmates with his demands for attention and diversion. Successful in all his stated goals, he lost interest in the daily struggle and left the paper feeling disappointed and betrayed.
As to their aspirations and their style, they had even less in common.
Older was volatile, grouchy,
changeable, private, pessimistic. He wanted to make the Bulletin the vessel of
God's wrath, the enemy of corruption, the upholder of virtue in a wicked city..
at his ranch house in
Smith was charming, flashy, convivial, conspicuous. He liked to tool around in a 16-cylinder Cadillac convertible equipped with a siren and red lights. He lived in an enviable apartment on the east side of Telegraph Hill, with a stunning view, and he avidly collected celebrities, impressing them with the Chronicle, the city and himself, not necessarily in that order.. In time, his collection of celebrities became more interesting to him than his newspaper. He never married. The most common opinion of his private life was that he was asexual.
Newhall was imaginative, creative, cynical, restless. Having begun his career in journalism as a photographer, he never became an ace reporter or a clever columnist. His skills were in the reductive editing of the Chronicle’s weekly news summary, “This World” and in spotting and exploiting the talent of other writers. .The so-called “hard news” that filled the main pages of traditional daily papers did not hold his shifting interest. He preferred fresh ideas, sassy writing, oddball opinions and, occasionally, innovations of pure mischief that were calculated to cause indignation and attract new subscribers.
Of the three, Older was the only one
who fit the matrix of a traditional editor. John Bruce, a long-time city editor
of Chronicle, said of him:: "To his
own staff he was the most beloved editor who ever accepted a punch on the jaw in
exchange for warranted libel; to men of small civic decency he was an ordeal;
to the trade he was a legend before he became history. Hundreds sincerely hated
him, thousands honestly loved him.” Older’s
close friend the muck-raker Lincoln
Steffens described him as “big, tall, willful [and] very temperamental.” And Bruce
Bliven, the long-time editor of the
With all due respect for Bliven, who knew and admired him, I would suggest that Older was too tightly focused to stand as the metaphor of a sophisticated and hedonistic city. Although he loved going to the theater, Older had no taste for art, literature, music, architecture, landscape, or the civilized nuances of urban society ----- wines, foods, conversation, anecdote, gossip, celebrity . Older’s readers were required to share his obsession with local political issues. He was a journalistic equivalent of President John Adams, who wrote: "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy...geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
Born on a farm in
At age 22 he was running a paper in
To a man of Older’s frontier
mentality and punitive disposition,
Older was inspired by the ideals of Good
Government reform were sweeping other American cities. He needed a platform,
stronger and more aggressive than the Morning Call from which he could sell progressive
The old, established Evening Bulletin was practically dead, with a circulation of only 9000 copies, yet it still remained., in many ways, the most forceful and politically astute of all the daily papers. There was a new publisher, a Canadian-born lawyer and would-be civic reformer named R. A. Crothers, who had bought the paper from the estate of his late brother-in-law and was itching to get into some good, circulation-building fights. In 1895 Crothers lured Older from the Call and made him managing editor of the Bulletin. Older was forty-eight. He had about thirty years of newspaper work behind him and almost another thirty ahead.
Crothers risked physical attacks
and libel suits well as plenty of money to support Older’s crusades. Older
piled on the screaming headlines, lurid exposes and gruesome pictures to entice
new readers to the paper. To illustrate
his aversion to capital punishment, he printed a horrifying, page one photo of
a young man with a rope around his neck and the headline, "Young Weber Hangs."
To illuminate his views of the Social
Evil, he ran a series of articles six days a week for seven weeks called “The
Story of Alice Smith – A Voice from the Underworld.”
He built a great staff of writers to pick away pound away at his chosen villains and fill the paper. Among his top reporters at the Bulletin: Ernest J. Hopkins, Edgar T. "Scoop" Gleeson. Other staffers: Robert L. Duffus, the editorial writer; Rose Wilder Lane, the feature editor (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the "Little House" books); Kathleen Norris, the novelist; Maxwell Anderson, the playwright. The reporters worked at a row of desks facing a blank wall. There was no copy desk The writers read their own or one another's copy and wrote headlines for their own stories. Kevin Starr, in his volume on the Progressive era in California, comments: “For Fremont Older, journalism was a near-religion…[He] loved the feel of type, the smell of still-wet ink on the proof pages he insisted on personally correcting, even as a senior editor, sitting in a glass-enclosed booth out in the city room for all his reporters to see, a constant cigar clamped aggressively in his teeth.”
Under Fremont Older, the old Bulletin became virulent, blunt and repetitive. A lot of well-intentioned San Franciscans found it simply tiresome. The Bulletin itself once printed a little squib describing the frustration of an editor (presumably Older, himself,) who went to his club after work and watched one of his fellow-members reading first the war news and a divorce report on page one, glancing at the headlines on the inside pages, passing up the editorial page, plunging into the sports section -- then laying down his paper and going in to dinner.
Many of Older’s targets were
relatively small game – saloon keepers and pimps on the
The "Good Government" crusade of the early 1890s peaked
Phelan’s reform administration was put to rest by the election of Eugene E. “Handsome Gene” Schmitz, the head of the musicians’ union, as mayor in 1901. Schmitz was a violinist with wavy black hair, a thick black beard, dignified manners and no apparent qualifications for the job. He had been selected as the candidate of the revived Union Labor party by the manipulator Abe Ruef, backed by the conscienceless Examiner. Schmitz and his Union Labor party, controlled by Ruef, rolled over opposition from both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as Fremont Older.
Gavin McNab, a reformist leader of the
local Democratic party, said later: “The night Schmitz was elected, every
burglar alarm in
Schmitz was re-elected two years later
over the opposition of the Bulletin and again in 1905, opposed by both the
Bulletin and the Chronicle. When the
results were announced, a cheering crowd marched through the downtown streets,
and the majestic clock tower of the Chronicle’s building at
Older went on publishing almost daily charges of graft linked to the Schmitz-Ruef regime. Scarcely any other subject, national or international, took precedence over reports of the ruinous condition of the streets; the improper awarding of paving contracts; the concessions to a rock quarrying company that was blasting the sides off Telegraph Hill; the pay-offs in the granting of liquor licenses; the failures of the police to control gambling and prostitution, the blatant corruption in the granting of public contracts; and, above all, the sinister history of the "municipal crib," at 620 Jackson Street -- a so-called "lodging house"--- that had been constructed by a friend of the mayor over the protest of a city building inspector, who stated that it was obviously intended as a house of prostitution. The building inspector’s report was pigeonholed by the Board of Works. During the later investigations of municipal graft, it was disclosed that Abe Ruef, himself, collected one-quarter of the profits on the rental of compartments to prostitutes and split his take fifty-fifty with Mayor Schmitz.
The events of April 18, 1906, diverted the
attentions of everyone, even Fremont Older, who spent the night of the
earthquake camping with his wife at the beach. The moral cleanup resumed as the
streets were being cleared of rubble. Older found a patron in his friend
Rudolph Spreckels, the sugar heir, who put up the money for a professional
investigator and a special prosecutor from out of town to bring charges to the
Grand Jury. The resulting indictments and prosecution proved the substance of
Older’s allegations. The public attention launched the political career of one
of the prosecutors, Hiram Johnson of
But the outcome of the trials was disappointing to Older and painfully unjust to the accused. The jury disagreed on the charges against the head of the United Railroads, who had poured money on Schmitz, and the case was dismissed. Schmitz was never brought to trial. Ruef, alone, was convicted and sentenced to prison for 14 years.
Older was overwhelmed by a feeling of regenerator’s regret. He personally apologized to Ruef, who had taken all the blame for the graft that poisoned the city. He told a reporter: “I was vindictive, unscrupulous, savage…I said to myself, ‘You’ve got him…you’ve won. How do you like your victory?...Well, my soul revolted. I thought over my life, the many unworthy things I have done to others, the injustice, the wrongs I have been guilty of, the human hearts I have wantonly hurt….”
Older had one more intensely fought crusade to pursue, his last and most frustrating. He became convinced that the radical labor leader Tom Mooney, who was accused of planting a bomb that killed ten and wounded forty during a parade celebrating military buildup in 1916, had been convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of perjured testimony. Two weeks before Mooney was scheduled to hang, [December 13, 1918] the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. For the next sixteen years, Older was obsessed with gaining a full pardon for Mooney, whose associate, Warren Billings, was ultimately released.
Older's crusades had begun to annoy his publisher, R.A. Crothers. Older’s defense of Mooney was the breaking point of his patience. Advertisers were boycotting the Bulletin.. Crothers told Older, in effect, to lay off or get out. Older accepted a long-standing offer from the hated Hearst to go over to the Call, the very paper he had been fighting throughout his years at the Bulletin. Hearst promised he could bring all his causes with him, including his unpopular defense of Mooney,
In leaving, he took occasion to reiterate the policies he stood for and to promise they would guide the Call as they had the Bulletin:
*Municipal ownership (of public utilities)
*Investigation of municipal corruption and the connection between special privilege and corrupt policies...
*For minimum wage and eight-hour day for women.
*For initiative, referendum and recall.
*For the [Hiram] Johnson policies of
political and economic reform incorporated in
*For the abolition of capital punishment.
*For prison reform and a better understanding of the causes of crime… so that scientific methods might eventually be substituted for stupidity and brutality.
* For understanding the problem of prostitution and similar problems in the light of the latest sociological research.
*Equality before the law for rich and poor.
*Fair trial for [Tom] Mooney and the
other bomb defendants in order to remove the frame-up from the courts of
*A square deal for the workers and frank discussion of their problems and aims.
The Bulletin had 100,000 circulation when Older left it in 1918. Within a year, the Call, which had formerly lagged the Bulletin by several thousand copies, led it by 12,000. Hearst scooped up the remains of the Bulletin and melded them into the Call-Bulletin, an afternoon newspaper, with Older at its head.
Older still editorialized and worked
to free Mooney; he still railed against capital punishment. But he lost interest
in the new forces of change – the militant labor movement, the stand-fast
position of business and finance ---
that were driving
Older wrote in a letter to a friend: "I might become more excited about the situation if I hadn't learned through experience that power is never intelligently used, no matter who acquires it..."
At 77, ill and morose, Older said of his fellow-man: "They follow like sheep and turn like wolves." He said: "I no longer bubble with joy when a baby is born into this world, knowing life as I do." He said: "The best place to find gratitude is in the dictionary."
He died at the wheel of his car on a trip to
Older's stated principles---- rigid, clear, unambiguous --- continued to guide a certain school of old fashioned newspaper editors and publishers. Similar concerns with power and corruption are the underlying rationale for much of what is nowadays called "investigative reporting," including segments of “Sixty Minutes” and many television documentaries. In the light of later experience, however, some of Older’s reform principles seem naïve, and he appears to us as a humorless, stubborn idealist without much interest in or sympathy for journalism as an agent of civilization.. No one ever called him “Mister San Francisco.”
In the very year of Fremont Older's
death, 1935, Paul C. Smith, another
self-educated, coarsely precocious frontiersman of a very different stripe,
bounced out of nowhere as executive editor of the Chronicle Smith was 26, going on 27 years old. He was
much the youngest person ever to hold that position, and easily the youngest
editor of a major newspaper in
In his autobiography, “Personal File,” Smith recalled his “first shocking discovery” that he was not “universally liked around the paper.”
“Some people disliked me even more after they came to know me. Occasionally, I even discovered that some people believed they had to know me really well in order to really dislike me properly.”
Smith’s friend Lincoln Steffens, who
was living in
In Paul’s opinion, the Chronicle had been a narrow organ for the point of view of a few powerful advertisers. He declared he would resist publishing editorial material merely to promote advertisers.
“In my view, a newspaper’s function was to communicate information, ideas and entertainment, and to do so from just one narrow viewpoint within the community was in violation of a faithful trust.”
Nobody could disagree with that generality, but Smith was no more successful than his predecessors in excluding press releases from businesses, resorts, airlines, nightclubs, manufacturers –even churches---that advertised in the Chronicle..
Getting started, he tangled with the directors of the business and mechanical departments, who resisted his suggestions for improving their performance. As he recalled it, he usually got his way. He had the charm, the persuasive delivery that comes from absolute self-confidence. He was not afraid of anything or any body, so he could always be himself. He wanted everyone, down to the copyboys and typesetters to call him Paul, whether or not they liked him. He let it be known that he had been a poor orphan, drifting along on his own, from early childhood, and had learned to be tough and decisive.
When he came to write his memoir,
many years later, with the considerable help of Scott Newhall’s talented wife,
Ruth, it turned out that many of Paul’s memories of his early life were
unreliable. He said he was the bastard child of a forty-year-old woman who had first
deserted him, then later told him that he had been born, literally, in the
The more-or-less provable part of
the story was that in 1931, when Smith was making the princely salary of $18,000
a year in banking, he threw over that job to go to work as a $100-a-month
assistant editor on the financial page of the Chronicle. By and by, he chucked
that and took off to rove around
Any resemblance between the lives and the purposes of Fremont
Older and Paul C. Smith is purely accidental. Smith hated howling headlines. He
was uninterested in the labyrinthine intricacies of municipal politics. He did
not believe in the purpose or the efficacy of newspaper crusades. He wanted to
make the Chronicle a mirror of
Smith was optimistic, idealistic,
sometimes naive. Once he asked the most powerful lobbyist in
Samish asked: "What the hell is One World?"
Smith explained that it was something Wendell Willkie was keen about. Samish understood that "It concerned a world federalist union or some damned thing. I don't know what it was all about, but if Paul Smith believed in it, that was good enough for me."
With Smith, much of what made a good newspaper was a matter of style: the discriminating selection and compression of news, the careful choice of type-faces, the photography and design; the excellence of writing -- and, above all, the recruiting of talented editors and reporters. Some of those recruited by Smith became the paper’s star reporters and columnist. Others, like the stars of Older's Bulletin, made their fame after leaving the paper to become editors, novelists, politicians, academics.
Searching for fresh talent, Smith
hired Herb Caen, a twenty-year-old reporter from the Sacramento Union in 1936
as a radio columnist. It turned out to be Smith's brightest moves, although
Two years later, Smith gave
Smith claimed credit for hiring Stanton
Delaplane in the same year. Delaplane was a witty stylist, a master of the
sentence fragment, the pungent quote and the poignant phrase. He won a Pulitzer
prize in 1942 for his stories on the secession state of Jefferson in far
While Smith was trying to engrave his personality on
the paper, a strike by lettuce pickers in the
The lettuce strike story was the
beginning of the reputation of the Boy Wonder as a fighting liberal and the
Chronicle as a changed paper, neither of which was precisely true. The
editorial page remained Republican, conservative and generally unexciting. Smith’s attentions were drawn from local issues
to national politics. He took leave to work in the campaign of Wendell Willkie,
the internationalist from
“For this I was roundly damned,” Smith wrote, “and even some of my own organization thought I was slighting the local news.”
Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor on December 7, 1941, Smith headed for
Back in his fabulous flat, his old extravagance resumed. He bought suits a dozen at a time, smoked incessantly, ate irregularly, slept little and drank his buddies down in straight Scotch.
“My income had gone above fifty thousand a year,” he wrote in his book, “but I had always had an invincible compulsion to live like a millionaire …Because of the spectacular view,
I usually took
luncheon guests to my apartment despite the fact that I paid dues regularly at
His apartment once
again was a like a movie set, a romantic image of
“After working hours, I found myself increasingly interested in what went on outside journalism, in all sorts of people from the world at large. I remember Danny Kaye and Admiral Nimitz, Joan Fontaine and Carl Sandburg, Clare Luce and Louis B. Mayer, Earl Warren and Mike Cowles, and always old friends like Herbert Hoover and the deYoung family.”
To all of them, he was Paul, the
editor of the
But his passion for the newspaper had burned out. In his chats with younger members of the staff, many of whom he had recruited to the paper as copy boys, he shared his old dreams of the Chronicle as a beacon of honesty and moderation in a greedy and quarrelsome world. To many he remained an idol, even those who realized that he had lost touch and was allowing the paper to drift downward, out of his control
Then, in November, 1952, after nineteen years of having his name
and his personality virtually synonymous with the Chronicle, of being the
The change of leadership at the
Chronicle would cause a profound change in the definition of what a newspaper
was, at least in
Smith wrote “While I liked and admired Charles Thieriot:...I realized that it would be difficult for me to cede authority to him…When he was named assistant publisher I realized that my time at the Chronicle was drawing to a close.”
At this point in Smith’s minutely detailed story, there is a gap. He does not tell about his meeting a few days later in the third floor newsroom with all the remaining staff, some of whom were crying. He told them he was trying again to buy the paper from the deYoung trustees, who had turned him down before. He was assured of financial backing. He would never permit this cruel purge.
In the next paragraph of his
autobiography, we find him driving east in an open car, broke and jobless, to
seek his fortune in
Some of the remaining staff ---- those who had been passed over in the Thanksgiving Week blood bath – hoped that the likeable and liberal managing editor Larry Fanning would take over. Fanning had been running the paper, day to day. On hand, too, chief copy editor William German and the City Editor, Abe Mellinkoff..
But it turned out that Scott Newhall, the capable and personable Sunday editor had been waiting in the wings. Concerned about the lack of leadership, which he blamed for the weak circulation of the Chronicle, Newhall had sent a memo to the publisher, George Cameron ---known to all as “Uncle George”--- saying, in effect, that he would quit, himself, if they didn’t make changes in the direction of the paper.
In an immense oral history that he recorded with the interviewer Susan B. Riess of the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley, Newhall discussed his motives:
”I felt so deeply about the Chronicle. I mean, really, the Chronicle was my own, it was my life. Hearst was still ahead of us. They were rich, and we were losing. I felt this could be done and I thought, I’d like a shot at it.” On reflection, in the next day’s interview, he added: “I’ve already mentioned how things really just finally got to a terrible situation. Paul would not fire the people. And I don’t say I disagree with him at all. He just wouldn’t. And he left.”
For a while, the changes instituted by Newhall and Thieriot were relatively minor and cosmetic and did not affect the tone of the paper. Most of the changes were internal. In less than a year, Newhall fired the managing editor, Larry Fanning, and gave that position to Gordon Pates, who had been Newhall’s second on the Sunday paper At Charlie Thieriot’s instigation, the paper began carrying a news summary – “Top of the News” – on page one, a useful innovation many other papers have adopted. The historic motto “The City’s Only Home-Owned Newspaper” went to the waste basket and the Chronicle began to style itself “The Voice of the West.”
But Newhall had the instincts, the talents of an advertising man, and he
believed the paper must create its own stories to attract attention. There were
historic precedents. Young Willie Hearst had showed how to make sensationalism
more sensational. He had sent a couple aloft to get married in a gas balloon.
He had assigned a woman reporter to fling herself off a bay ferry to test the
life-saving equipment. He had manufactured an entirely imaginary earthquake
that had destroyed
To Scott Newhall, the point of running a newspaper was to capture an audience, most of whom, as he expressed it, were simple boobs, seeking amusement more than information. Reading for enlightenment, for education was too much work, and not fun.
In the summer doldrums of his second year, Newhall planned the least objectionable, and most entertaining, of many campaigns to capture new readers. It was called Emperor Norton’s Treasure Hunt, and it unleashed thousands of excited families, carrying trowels and shovels, on the parks and open spaces of the city in search of a buried medallion worth $1000. Each week the paper published tantalizing clues, written by Ruth Newhall and helpers from the staff, including reporter Tom Benet. Scott recalled that circulation popped up by ten percent on days the clues appeared.
Less appreciated was a brand new column called “Beauty and the Beast,” written with considerable editing by a former hairdresser named Henry “Scoop” Spinelli under the nom de plume “Count Marco.” The Count counseled women on such keen issues as how to dress, behave and take baths with their husbands. Nowadays, Spinelli’s advice would be recognized as a gay man’s satire on traditional newspaper columns of advice to women on how to please men. At the time, it amused many readers and infuriated others who complained that the Chronicle had lost dignity. Whatever respect was left for the paper’s historic sobriety faded when Newhall promoted a phony crusade against nudity in animals. Over the years, he sponsored an independence movement in the obscure Caribbean Island of Anguilla; sent a feature writer to report on a space program in Zambia that included swinging though the trees; sent another reporter to East Africa on a failed mission to buy a slave girl who would be publicly freed in United Nations Plaza; and --- at his most misunderstood and ridiculed --- aimed a series of heavily promoted articles complaining about the quality of coffee in San Francisco’s restaurants and hotels. The headline “A Great City Forced to Drink Swill” was quoted and misquoted around the world and convinced outsiders that Newhall had finally gone completely mad. He was having fun again, mocking the ponderous, self-important journalism of such papers as the Examiner.
While he was at the Chronicle, Newhall
was not given to enunciating lofty principles.
He had enough trouble fending off – or shrugging off --- the denigration
of journalism professors, the derision of his neighbors in
Urged along by a sympathetic interviewer in his oral history, he offered an explanation
a sort of apologia for the stunts that had overshadowed his true talent in nurturing such writers as Art Hoppe, Lucius Beebe, and Charles McCabe, maintaining and strengthening the Chronicle’s traditional attention to art, music and architecture; and, above all, grabbing at the opportunity to bring the irreplaceable Herb Caen back to the Chronicle.
“Naked animals." Newhall said, “
“No paper can be a force for good or bad if it has no readers, if it has no currency, if it is not read and appreciated and heard. By some of these offbeat techniques the Chronicle was able to attract the attention of not only some sophisticated readers --- who were not always necessarily totally in a laudatory frame of mind --- but also a lot of credulous, regular, average people.
“I suppose every editor if he’s worth anything has to have some kind of a mission. Every editor is a messiah no matter what they say. Some messiahs want you to follow their path and other messiahs – it’s closer to my own attitude – simply set up a situation so the readers or the people can make up their own minds or discover for themselves that there is more than one answer to everything, that’s all.”
The Chronicle’s exhausting and
expensive promotional campaign appeared to pay off about 1965, when its
circulation passed that of the Examiner, making it for the time being the
leading---if most unfairly scorned --- paper in
The agreement, known as the JOA, was reached in a series of more-or-less private, more-or-less friendly talks between Charles Thieriot and Randy Hearst, who were long-time friends Its terms struck outsiders --- and even a few within the owning family of the Chronicle--- as a betrayal of principles for immediate profit.. The Chronicle, having virtually succeeded in Newhall’s dream of destroying the Examiner, now agreed to split the profits of both papers fifty-fifty and to cut costs by printing in the same plant. Each would edit and publish its own paper. They would jointly own a corporation that would print, distribute and sell advertising for both. Six days a week, the Chronicle would publish in the morning and the Examiner would appear in the less desirable afternoon.. On Sundays, the two would issue a combined edition, widely known as the Sunday Hermaphrodite. It consisted of the main news sections of the Examiner wrapped around the feature sections of the Chronicle, wrapped around a Macy's ad, wrapped around the funnies, wrapped around the want ads, and so on. Opening it was like peeling away the layers of a giant onion.
Newhall, understandably, saw the Joint
Operating Agreement as a bitter end to his favorite game. Instead of killing the
Examiner, the Chronicle would keep it alive, at least for the duration of the
Agreement. Only the employees of the Ex-paper, as Herb Caen called it, could
regard this as desirable. Newhall spent much of his final year as editor on a
The mayoral campaign was a fiasco --- a “horrible experience,” Newhall recalled. “I had a dreadful time.” Somebody, probably Scott himself, devised a photographic campaign poster that melded the faces of his opponents --- Joe Alioto, Harold Dobbs and Dianne Feinstein --- into a single grotesque head labeled “Big Joe Dobbstein” to suggest the similarity of their politics. Newhall ran fifth in a field of seven candidates. Hardly any voters knew him, of course, except for the few who remembered that he had treated them as boobs and had ruined the Chronicle..
Scott and Ruth sold their house in the
“While ‘Il Magnifico’ held court in his City Hall fortress,
skyscrapers rose like giant sequoias and towered over
. The printed
and bound transcription of Scott’s oral history ---five-hundred and sixty-three
pages long --- was launched to the public at a large reception at the
died two years later, aged 78, in a hospital in
Smith took a well-paid job in
Under the Joint Operating Agreement,
the newspaper whose destiny both Smith and Newhall had shaped for better or
worse continued to publish for thirty-five years of respectable sobriety. It
was still ridiculed by people who remembered only the crazy stunts. Michael de
Young’s descendants clashed in fratricidal fury over who should be in charge,
and in July, 2000, the faction that wanted to get out of the newspaper business
triumphed. They sold the Chronicle to the privately owned Hearst Communications
Corporation, and Hearst passed the Examiner and its familiar old spread-eagle
logo with a $66 million subsidy to the Fang family, who turned it into a
give-away tabloid. It now belongs to Philip Anschutz, a
Left alone, freed of competition
within the City, the Chronicle has shriveled to 24th in the top 100
newspapers in the
There is no doubt about the cause of
this disastrous decline. It is the disruptive technology of the internet that
has re-defined the meaning of news to mean “instant information from
everywhere.” There is no printed publication that can deliver information with
the immediacy of the internet. For those who have long believed that the local
daily newspaper was the cement that bound a community together, it is no
comfort that SF GATE, the Chronicle’s on-line service is the fifth largest in
the United States. The community it serves includes browsers in
The essayist Richard Rodriguez wrote recently about the twilight of the American newspaper. He called his article in Harper’s Magazine “Final Edition.”
“When a newspaper dies in
“In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from the wet steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers --- the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. I remark their thinness as I climb the stairs. The three together equal what I remember.”