December 15, 2002

Tale of a Kidnapping -- A World-Class Story

Hearst Corp. sold its flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, two years ago and bought the morning competition in its JOA, the larger San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper so maligned that it cannot ever be profiled without reference to Jason Robards, playing Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men," dismissing an annoying salesmen who was pitching a feature on yesterday's weather with this line: "Send it out to the San Francisco Chronicle - they need it."

To quell fears in San Francisco's liberal political circles that a lack of daily newspaper competition would leave the city's citizenry even less informed than they were under the arcane publishing restrictions of the joint operating agreement, Hearst managers vowed to upgrade the Chron into a "world-class newspaper."

Like the Bradlee quip, the phrase took on a life of its own and is mentioned in every story reporting on the Chronicle's revival, all of which conclude that while the paper is making strides under its new owners and editors the goal of being "world class" eludes it.

Just two weeks ago, Felicity Barringer of the New York Times led off her update on the Chronicle with these graphs:

"In the social ecosystem of the Bay Area, The San Francisco Chronicle has never been an alpha male.

"Despite a talented staff and a region brimming with seamy dealings to be investigated, The Chronicle has struggled journalistically while its persistent thirst for respect remains unslaked."

Perhaps Barringer wrote too soon.

In October, the Chronicle named a new managing editor -- former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal, a former international reporter under the eminent Gene Roberts and a journalistic character in his own right who Philadelphia Weekly described as "the last of a dying breed of newspapermen with ink in their veins, dashing figures who hopscotched across the globe to get the story."

Rosenthal's hiring was widely seen as a commitment by the Chronicle to serious journalism. Even newsroom skeptics could not fault the credentials he earned in the Inquirer's trenches. He possesses, in the words of one Chron reporter, "an old-fashioned desire for good stories."

The Chronicle ran just such a story today - a dramatic, detailed, well-written account of how an FBI agent on the outs with his bosses cracked (to borrow the Chron's headline) the case of a lifetime, that of Cary Stayner, the motel handyman who abducted and killed three women outside Yosemite National Park in 1999.

The 6,500-word article, reported and written by Stacy Finz, who covered the slayings and the arrest of Stayner, is a story of crime, redemption and the dark depths of human nature that features a gripping retelling of the day FBI agent Jeff Rinek coaxed a confession out of Stayner.

For those of us in the Bay Area, the story delivers the type of compelling reporting for which readers hunger. For others in journalism, it offers an example of excellence worth emulating.

 The Case of a Lifetime
 Philadelphia weekly profile of Robert Rosenthal
 New York Times story on the Chronicle
 Columbia Journalism Review story with Ben Bradlee quote
 Sale of the Examiner Scott Rosenberg of Salon
 Sale of the Examiner Chronicle staff story

Posted by Tim Porter at December 15, 2002 06:59 PM