These good, trusting souls had not recently watched television or listened to radio. They had put their trust in the San Francisco Examiner as a reliable source of major news.
The "Four Star" Saturday Examiner contained not a single word about the death of JFK Jr., even though NBC broke the story at 5 a.m. on Saturday, and at least one newsroom television set was tuned to the local NBC affiliate.
Shortly thereafter, the Examiner received a "First Alert" from the Associated Press notifying them that a major story was rapidly forthcoming, two AP staffers say. (Transmissions into the Ex come through satellite dishes; translating these signals into type takes less than five minutes.)
At about 5:30 a.m., AP sent a bulletin announcing the mysterious loss of the son and namesake of the Democratic president assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
AP then moved the JFK Jr. story one paragraph at a time, as is the wire service's custom. The Examiner had the complete first story on hand by 5:35 a.m., AP staffers say.
As part of the publishing process, "paste-ups" of the pages of the Examiner are laser-scanned and the digitized result is sent by satellite to printing plants, in this case to the Examiner-Chronicle plant on Army Street.
Official Examiner logs show that Page 1 of the Saturday "Four Star" was completed at 6:42 a.m. -- well after an authoritative story on JFK Jr.'s disappearance was available -- and immediately transmitted to the Army Street plant, where pressmen printed the edition. It hit the streets sometime after 7 a.m.
The issue contained not a single word about the Kennedy tragedy.
Because of the relationship between the Chronicle and Examiner -- they are in a Joint Operating Agreement, or JOA, meaning they have separate news operations, but combine their business efforts -- the usual 12-hour news cycle occupied by an afternoon paper is considerably longer on weekends in San Francisco.
There are four papers printed by the Chronicle and Examiner on a standard weekend.
The Chronicle distributes a Saturday paper, normally printed shortly after midnight Friday. The Examiner publishes an early "bulldog" edition of its Sunday paper that is distributed on Saturday; this fat paper also is printed shortly after midnight Friday, and generally contains many timeless feature stories and little "breaking" news.
The only "fresh" paper on the streets from about 7 a.m. Saturday until about 7 a.m. Sunday, then, is the Examiner's Saturday "Four Star."
The Saturday morning Chronicle went to camera about 1 a.m. and contained no word of the Kennedy plane crash, which apparently occurred about 7 p.m. Friday night, West Coast time, but was not confirmed and reported by news media until some 10 hours later.
The Examiner's Sunday "bulldog" edition, put out late Friday night, contained not a word about JFK Jr.'s mysterious disappearance, which had yet to be generally reported by national news media.
The official search for the airplane began at 12:30 a.m. Saturday. At about 2 a.m., President Clinton had been notified and the Air Force Civil Air Patrol joined the search. Clinton called the Kennedy compound near Martha's Vineyard to offer his help and sympathy at about 4 a.m. Washington newspapermen were aware of these activities. And the JFK disappearance hit television and the major wires shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday.
Why did the Saturday Examiner fail to report a single word about the disappearance of JFK Jr. -- a huge story by any reckoning?
Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein says that by the time AP's bulletin reporting Kennedy's missing plane arrived in the newsroom it was too late for the lone makeup editor on duty to do anything with the news.
The front pages of Saturday's Ex -- one for home delivery editions, the other for street sales -- had been finished and moved to the production department by 3:30 a.m., Bronstein says. The makeup editor on duty saw the Kennedy bulletin when it arrived, Bronstein says, but it was too late to push a new front page through production and get it to the printing plant in time.
"I think it's safe to say it would have been impossible, certainly virtually impossible, to get anything in the paper," Bronstein says.
Saturday deadlines are earlier than weekdays, he notes, and the Ex is best able to react to breaking news when it has some inkling that a story will be developing late -- such as the jury verdict in the Rodney King beating case.
Although the Saturday front page may not reach the printing plant until about 6 a.m., he says, "that doesn't mean we can change it until 6 a.m."
In general, Bronstein says, the Ex has been aggressive about hustling breaking news into the earliest possible edition. In this case, time simply ran out.
I called Examiner workers (many old friends) and asked them what the hell happened.
Was this one of the more colossal screw-ups in Hearst history?
Copy Editor Jessica Sitton told me that no editorial staffer saw the NBC news break at 5 a.m., and that no editorial staffer saw the AP advisory, bulletin, or story. She said that no editorial staffers received phone calls from Hearst headquarters instructing them what to do.
She said that "there was not a single journalist" in the Examiner offices at 5:30 a.m. All had gone home, she said.
I spent five years as a Hearst reporter, editor, and columnist both in San Francisco and Los Angeles. There were two absolute rules that I was instructed to follow. Failure to do so was sure cause for immediate discharge. The rules:
1) Thou shalt be sure at least one editorial staffer is present to handle emergencies all through your "news cycle." This would mean from 1 a.m. Saturday, when the Saturday Chronicle hit the camera room, until early Sunday morning when the first "true" Sunday paper was produced by Hearst.
2) Thou shalt always stick around to check out the first printed copies of the edition for which you are responsible. Thou shalt correct major errors, and insert late-breaking stories of great importance (like the disappearance of JFK Jr.).
No attempt was made to alter the Saturday Ex, although it went to camera 42 minutes past its traditional 6 a.m. deadline.
No "extra" edition was printed, even though front-page replates were made the last time a truly great man died on the Saturday watch. (His name was Herb Caen.)
Assistant Composing Room Chapel Chairman (shop steward) Jerry Grigsby said that when he comes to work at 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning, he usually finds a fresh-printed copy of the Saturday "Four Star" on his desk. This week there was none.
When he saw the paper, he was not surprised there was no mention of JFK Jr.'s death.
"They're vastly understaffed in Examiner editorial," Grigsby says. "They only had two people in there Saturday morning, one holding down the news desk and watching the wire, and one to answer the phones. They had all their television sets on, as usual."
"No one really gives a damn about the Saturday 'Four Star,'" said another composing room employee. "They treat it like a shopping news, a throwaway. Everyone is expecting to be laid off when the Examiner buys the Chronicle, and they're all angry and sneaking off the job early. Editorial is totally demoralized."
After the San Francisco Chronicle announced on Page 1 a few weeks ago that it was formally "up for sale," rumors have grown steadily that the deal is already done, that the JOA will be abandoned, and that separate editions of the afternoon Examiner will be scuttled in favor of a new morning "Examiner-Chronicle." These rumors are at this point unconfirmed.
But if a new combined paper does come to pass, will it cost 50 cents like the Chron, or half that price like the Ex?
Considering the kind of service the Hearst Corp. gave us on what is probably the story of the year, I'd suggest 2 cents. Or less.