February 19, 2004

Examiner De-Fanged

The sale of the San Francisco Examiner to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz ends a shameful episode in San Francisco newspapering characterized by greed, extortion and political cronyism.

Ironically, the end result may benefit the only constituency that really matters - the public.

In November 2000, the Examiner's then owner, the Hearst Corporation, paid what amounted to a $66 million bribe to a politically powerful local publishing family in order to receive regulatory approval to buy the larger, morning San Francisco Chronicle, which was at the time in a joint operating agreement the with Examiner.

Besides Hearst, the beneficiary of the deal was Florence Fang and her family, who published a free, all-local San Francisco paper that overtly supported San Francisco's flamboyant mayor, Willie Brown, who, in turn, hated the Examiner's management and had led the local charge against Hearst's efforts to buy the Chronicle, using the guise of preserving a two-newspaper community.

The Fang family essentially got the Examiner for free and a three-year, $22 million annual subsidy thrown in for good measure. The "new" Examiner was troubled from the start, blew through a couple of editors and eventually collapsed in a falling out between the matriarch of the Fang family and her son, who was publisher.

What remained was the Examiner bought by Anschutz - a five-day, free tabloid with a skeletal local reporting staff that shares content with some of the Fang family's other free newspapers.

It's hardly the robust, head-to-head, two-newspaper competition envisioned by opponents of the original deal. Nor has Hearst yet managed to fully convert the Chronicle from the publication ridiculed by Jason Robards (as Ben Bradlee) in "All the President's Men" into the "world-class newspaper" promised by corporate executives before the sale.

Will Anschutz's presence in the Bay Area media market change that? Do his interests extend beyond the financial? Will he invest in the Examiner's newsroom with the intent of challenging the Chronicle's somnolent dominance of the region?

If he does, then the Chronicle will be forced to respond and the winner will be local newspaper readers, who might unintentionally end up with a two-newspaper city despite all the past disingenuous efforts to prevent that from happening.

(Full disclosure: I was an assistant managing editor at the pre-sale Examiner.)

Update: The AP reports, citing undisclosed source, that Anschutz paid $20 million for the Examiner.

 Denver Business Journal Anschutz buys San Francisco newspapers
 San Francisco Examiner Examiner sold

Posted by Tim Porter at February 19, 2004 12:31 PM

Let's see... They've got an ANG guy as their publisher, they promise a "seismic shift" in Bay Area journalism, then say it's "a bit premature" to know if they'll need to add reporters? C'mon. Anschutz is just a proxy for his Denver buddy Dean Singleton. Like the Argus? You'll love the Examiner...

Posted by: A loyal reader on February 19, 2004 03:00 PM

If you think this deal is suspect how about 51% ownership by government of a major paper in 4 Million city Sydney?


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