When I visited the Bay Area last week, I first went to Google and the next day, for old time’s sake, I met a long-ago colleague in the historic John’s Grill in San Francisco and then revisited the Chronicle and former Examiner newsrooms for the first time in decades. I had left the Examiner in 1981. The contrast could not have been greater and the ghosts more evident. Google was bright and shining and optimistic with ideas and invention. The Chronicle was dark and dusty and depressing (and the Examiner was already as good as dead).
Well, now the Chronicle may die as Hearst announces – like the Star-Ledger and plenty of other papers before it – that if concessions and cuts are not found, the paper will fold. San Francisco would be the first major American city left without a daily newspaper.
I see this as an opportunity squandered. Here was the paper atop Silicon Valley that should have seen the changes in our world clearer than any other, that should have anticipated the importance of October, 1994, when the commercial browser was introduced, that could have reinvented itself over a luxurious decade and a half. But now, instead, it’s hurry-up-or-die for the Chron.
Before I moved out of San Francisco, the friend I had lunch with the other day and I went to the basement of the old Hearst building as it was moving and we were invited to pick up junk before it was hauled away. Junk, hell, it was history. I have on the wall in my office at home a framed statement from WRH – William Randolph Hearst – admonishing his staffs:
To Publishers and Managing Editors of All Hearst Newspapers
Please keep our newspaper NEWSpapers.
Please do not allow them to degenerate into propagandistic organs….
That Examiner was, you see, very bloggy. It was opinionated, no matter how much WRH protested that it was fair and balanced. It was entrepreneurial. It was the start of an era, not the end of one.
I say in my entrepreneurial journalism class that for the first time since William Randolph Hearst himself, journalists can think and act like entrepreneurs. They can start new news enterprises with the vigor of a WRH or a Nick Denton or a Mike Arrington or a Krishna Bharat (the creator of GoogleNews) or a Upendra Shardnand (my partner, founder of Daylife).
If – Hearst forbid – the Chronicle dies, I have no doubt that something will rise from its dust and ashes to serve the news needs of the Bay Area. But the transition will not be orderly, as I once thought it could have been. There will be destruction as people in that newsroom – a few of them, a very few of them, old colleagues and friends – lose their jobs. But then a new WRH will come into town and create a new Examiner for a new age. Bet on it.