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A New War of Words 

Are you ready for a real newspaper rivalry?

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
For all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the sales of the Chronicle and Examiner last week, one important point was overlooked amid the hoopla: With the comparatively quiet arrival of the Mercury News, San Francisco has the potential to replace the appearance of a newspaper rivalry with an actual one.

"The Chronicle and Examiner felt very competitive, and they looked very competitive," says Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's journalism school. "But the reality was something different. Now, looking at the bright side, San Francisco has a chance to develop one or two world-class regional papers."

As first glance, the Mercury News' entry into the San Francisco market would seem less than threatening. Its bureau is relatively small, and its first week featured stale centerpiece stories on the city's parking woes and the live-work loft "trend," which led to plenty of smirking in local newsrooms. The July 26 Chronicle enticed readers to check out its chortling B-section piece on the Merc's arrival by teasing: "New edition finds that parking is tough in city."

Yet the Merc had already sent a wake-up call to the city's dailies in April merely by announcing it was going to open a bureau here. The Chron and Ex, previously paralyzed by uncertain ownership prospects, each promptly added staffers and new Friday sections. The larger-circulation Chron, feeling the biggest "X" on its back, took the extra precaution of cutting its newsstand price in half and shored up its suburban zone editions by making each more specific to its area.

Still, no one at the dailies admitted to quaking. After the Merc's debut, in fact, the Examiner's notoriously tough managing editor, Sharon Rosenhause, actually sang, "We're a long, long way from San Jose," probably not the best version of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" on record.

On Thursday of last week, of course, the tune changed.

When Judge Vaughn Walker permitted the Hearst Corp. to buy the Chron and give the Ex -- along with a $66 million subsidy -- to the politically connected Fang family, he was not shy about expressing his reluctance. The Hearst honchos were slimy. So were the mayor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and all the Justice Department officials involved in the whole "malodorous" ordeal. Not to mention the Fangs.

Still, he found even more compelling reasons for allowing the deal to go through. Chief among them, he believed that fears that the Chron would monopolize the market were as outdated as the crumbling 1965 joint operating agreement that was keeping the Ex alive.

"Perhaps most significantly," Walker wrote, "with the growth in population and striking economic vitality of Santa Clara County, the San Jose Mercury News poses a serious challenge to the market share of the San Francisco-based metropolitan dailies. Its inroads into the core circulation areas of the Chronicle and Examiner along the San Francisco peninsula have been significant."

In other words: The war between the Chronicle and Mercury News was raging long before last week; it just wasn't in or over San Francisco.

That was hardly news to Merc Publisher Jay Harris.

"[Walker] wasn't just looking at the city, but at the metropolitan area," Harris says. "In some parts of that area, we are the leader by far. We've been extending the Mercury News over a number of years, and San Francisco was the next logical place for us to go."

Harris says the Merc will try to dent the Chron's city circulation by focusing on three specific but sizable niches: 1) dot-commers drawn to the Merc's business and technology pages, 2) "more sophisticated readers" who want more local coverage than the New York Times can give them, and 3) ethnic communities who might be drawn to a paper accustomed to covering a "minority majority" community in San Jose.

"We're not saying for a moment that we want to be the leading paper in San Francisco," Harris says. "But we do think there are large groups of readers who will be satisfied with what we have to offer."

Robin Evans knows better than anyone that the first few San Francisco editions of the Mercury News contained some stories that were less than groundbreaking. But the Merc's San Francisco bureau chief isn't about to apologize for it.

"I don't think anyone could do this any other way," Evans says. "And if people want to take potshots at us for suddenly discovering stories during these first couple weeks, then they should go ahead and have their fun while they can."

Evans, a 16-year San Francisco resident with a glittering Bay Area journalism résumé, finds the out-of-towner treatment somewhat off the mark. Her latest assignment follows two years of reverse commuting from her Potrero Hill home, running the Merc's Santa Cruz/ Monterey and South Valley bureaus simultaneously. Before that, she was the editor of Knight-Ridder's thriving Contra Costa Times West County edition.

Still, running a 12- to 16-person staff -- out of an office that until recently housed one reporter -- against the exponentially larger staff of the soon-to-be Chron-Ex hybrid seems a somewhat scarier task. Evans says she's not concerned: The Merc's invasion will be backed up by an increased San Francisco focus by business and technology writers, as well as by reporters on call from other areas to help with breaking news.

"We're obviously not going to be able to cover every twist and turn right now, but we'll try to do a bigger job, more in-depth and with more context, too."

Berkeley's Schell, eyeing the coming Chron-Ex merger and that tiny Merc bureau on Market Street, thinks the seeds of a great daily news rivalry may have finally been planted in San Francisco.

"Yeah, it's just 12 people now," he says of the Merc's bureau. "But there's nothing to limit that. Believe me, there's nothing like a little blood in the water."

Additional Links:

Full Text of Judge Walker's Ruling:

Merc: We're Here

Chron: Merc Invades 'Frisco':

Merc: Parking Problems! In San Francisco!

America's Best Daily Newspapers:

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman


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