There was a drink or two, a smoke or two, a long joke told out on the deck that no one understood but everyone laughed at anyway, and then at some point a challenge was issued, and a crowd gathered in the foyer. Here in the middle were two men: one of them, an editor named Oscar Villalon, standing entirely placid, eyes closed and head turned to the side; the other, Vega -- flinty new publisher, villain of Detroit's famously nasty newspaper strike, a man known to his enemies as "Darth Vega" -- grimacing, twisting, and torquing, his shoulders going like a seesaw.
Darth Vega, thumb-wrestling.
"And you could tell Frank was dying to thumb-wrestle," says Marianne Costantinou, a features writer. "He gave it all he had. His entire body went into it."
In December, Frank Vega, a 56-year-old executive who's never been known to shrink from a fight -- be it over a labor contract, the design of a newsrack, or the nimbleness of his thumb -- announced he was leaving his post as the head of Detroit Newspapers Inc., the agency that oversees Michigan's two largest papers, and moving to San Francisco to become president and publisher of the Chronicle. The arrival of a new publisher has become a near-annual rite at the paper -- Vega is the Chronicle's third in four years -- but the Hearst Corp.'s latest choice was met with considerable unease, from the newsroom to the presses to the loading docks. This was Darth Vega, after all, a man who packed a gun in his briefcase during the Detroit strike, a man who's still hated there now, some 10 years after the first workers streamed from the newspapers' offices. To virtually any Detroiter with a union card, he is -- these are their words -- "a crook," "a cocksucker," "a hatchet man," "a motherfucker in his own right," a man "without any conscience" or any qualms about waging "war against working families." And with the Chronicle's labor contracts set to expire in July, Vega's hire was seen in some quarters as a move against the newspaper's unions, a call to the bullpen to bring in the closer. One posting to a labor message board screamed the darker implications of his arrival: "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE TO BUST PRINTERS UNIONS...PUBLISHER IMPORTS EXPERT UNIONBUSTER FRANK -DARTH- VEGA FROM DETROIT....WHERE HE BROKE THE DETROIT NEWS STRIKE A FEW YEARS AGO...."
This is nothing new in the story of Frank Vega, who is talked about only in the most extreme terms by friends and enemies alike. Depending on your perspective, says one friend of Vega, "He's either the greatest son of a bitch there is, or he's the worst son of a bitch." But it's a long way from Detroit to San Francisco, and even longer, if you're measuring the media's evolution, from 1995 to 2005. Vega wasn't brought in just to pound a fist on the negotiating table (though he adds that "it would be less than sincere" to say his history with tricky union negotiations had nothing to do with the hiring). He has said time and again that the last thing he wants is another strike, an outcome few regard as likely. His task is far more complex and daunting. At the Chronicle, which reportedly lost more than $60 million last year, it's not Vega's past everyone is worried about; it's the paper's future.
"This is one of, if not the, biggest challenges in the ink-on-dead-tree business today -- no doubt about it," says Steven Falk, who after less than two years as president and publisher left the paper "to pursue other interests," according to a Hearst press release. The subtext is obvious: that the paper needs a radical change, something bold -- that it might very well need a conscience-free motherfucker to accomplish the change. And if it means that, despite all his work to dispel the nastier notions about his image, Darth Vega has to once again dust off the helmet, well, Vega's not one to worry too long.
What Vega plans to do has only been hinted at thus far, but a clue to how he'll do it might have been found back in January, in the middle of a foyer, where Vega was grimacing, twisting, and torquing, and now being teased by the Chronicle's features editor, Carolyn White. "Oh, fuck you, Carolyn," Vega replied -- "A serious but pleasant 'fuck you,'" Costantinou clarifies -- and then, in a matter of minutes, it was over. Villalon pinned Vega's thumb, and at that moment the Chronicle employees in the foyer had as good an introduction as any to their new boss. "You could tell he was disappointed," Costantinou says. "Most people couldn't have cared less, but he really wanted to win. ... He really, really wanted to win."
Given his outsize reputation, he is smaller than you might expect, a stocky 5-foot-6 or so in his tasseled loafers, which might well be found on the arm of a nearby chair and in whose expensive leather he tucks the feet his enemies suspect are cloven. With his tan and his polo shirts, Vega generally favors the look of a guy who just stepped off the 18th hole. That's not to say he looks like anyone's idea of a publisher; in fact, he is quick, even proud, to point out that he most certainly does not. A few weeks ago, after a doctor's physical, Vega hopped a cab back to the Chronicle's Mission Street building. "You work there?" the driver asked him.