Much weeping and gnashing of teeth has accompanied Hearst Corporation's contested effort to sell the San Francisco Examiner to the local Fang family while acquiring the rival Chronicle. The deal has been at various times depicted as a grievous blow to journalistic ethics, another step toward a one-paper America, more proof that the metro daily is doomed to extinction in the New Media future. But for onlookers with a taste for mayhem and an affection for funny headlines, the real import of the deal is that it will once again bring Warren Hinckle into the front lines of American journalism.
Although Hinckle has been confined in recent years to a column in the San Francisco Independent, a Fang-owned neighborhood freebie, his credentials read like a dadaist version of The Front Page. As editor of the seminal New Left and Gonzo magazines Ramparts and Scanlan's in the 1960s, Hinckle was largely responsible for the two most spectacular train wrecks in postwar journalism, and for bringing a sensationalistic, cant-busting sensibility to the comatose genre of left-wing publishing. His memoir of those two magazines, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, is beyond praise as both a black comedy and a cautionary tale. He has worked for both San Francisco dailies and in ventures too numerous and varied to name.
As part of the Hearst deal, Hinckle will be joining the new Examiner in some undetermined capacity. Confirming to Suck that Hinckle will be involved in the venture, new owner Ted Fang suggested "Director of Hijinx and Surprises" as a potential job title.
We will not guess whether several decades' worth of experience will enable Hinckle to save a moribund daily. His Independent column, The Hinckle File, can occasionally be half-baked enough to send even the most ardent fans into shade-of-his-former-self lamentations. But we caution against underestimating Hinckle perhaps the only man who, even if he can't save the American newspaper, may at least send the Ex out in the blaze of glory a century-old metropolitan daily deserves.
What will you be doing at the new Examiner?
We're going to try and reinvent the newspaper medium from the bottom up. I'll be putting in the new building blocks. We don't even know what those are yet.
You're going to be on the editorial side?
Yeah. When Roger Black and I did the Examiner about 10 years ago we abolished titles. Everybody had the same title. We repositioned the Sunday magazine, which had been losing all its advertising. We made it smarter and sassier, got a lot of the advertising back, and we threw away the masthead because it was wasting space.
Examiner.com is part of the deal, as is the Ex's archive. Given the seemingly bright future of online journalism, these would appear to be great assets for the battle between the two papers. On the one hand, the Fang family (which will own the Examiner) has no experience on the Web, and on the other, the Hearst Corporation (which will own the Chronicle) has had fairly pathetic results online. So where do you see the Web battle going?
We have an extraordinary opportunity not to be saddled with the typical staff you'd have when you inherit a newspaper. You know, you don't want to be a nasty guy and fire a bunch of people. But imagine that you inherit a cleaning operation, and there's a staff of 28 people, and they're all pretty lazy and they don't put the buttons on the shirts right and they have this mentality that they're really important because they've been there for so many years. We're going to avoid all that continuing mediocrity.
Who are you thinking of bringing in on Web?
We're talking to a lot of people right now. It wouldn't be fair to people to throw any names out. But many of the people who will be involved in the new Examiner will be pretty savvy to the dot-com world.
How well do you think the Examiner and the Chronicle have done in dealing with the Web industry that's right in their own backyard?
I don't think they did very much. You know, they sort of went through the maneuvers. But both those papers are objects of national ridicule you may remember in that Watergate movie a scene where some salesman tries to peddle yesterday's weather reports to Ben Bradlee and he says, "Go sell it to the Chronicle; they'll buy anything." These papers are piss-poor examples of what can happen to corporate journalism in the country. And when you look at the anomaly of the newspapers themselves being so poor in such a swinging, multiethnic, Pac-rim, new media, dot-com city as San Francisco, you've gotta ask yourself, "How did these sorry bastards get themselves into this situation?" And now they're going to take the staffs of these two boring papers and merge them into one bigger boring paper. It's a joke.
What's your counter proposal to that?
Clearly the paper's going to rely on the most bold, bright, and sassy people in the Bay Area. There's an abundance of those people, but none of them work for the newspapers. I would say 50 percent of our hires will be from the neighborhood and ethnic newspapers in San Francisco and the Bay Area. That's the type of content we'd like to have in the paper; it isn't generally covered in the newspapers, but it is very reflective of the city itself. We'd like to cover more of the city's night life, which is pretty underreported but pretty wild.
In your Independent column you frequently cover night life issues clubs that the city or local activists are trying to shut down and so on.
The coverage will be very adult. There will probably be a section in the paper with a note indicating it's not suitable for people under 14 to read. I'm not saying it's going to be raunchy, but it's going to be sophisticated and very in touch with and reflective of the type of night life that exists in San Francisco. And that type of night life and world is very in touch with the dot-com world; and as you know, those types of people are moving into San Francisco faster than your average avalanche.
And presumably figuring they'll find an exciting city when they get here.
Exactly. The paper's going to help them have some fun and have some fun itself.
That would be just one section out of seven or so in the paper. The Pacific Rim would obviously be another one. Both the Chronicle and the Examiner have failed miserably to develop a sense of San Francisco as the queen city of the Pacific Rim, which, you know, is where the greatest explosion of growth is expected in the next century.
We're going to be coming on very heavily with the comics. We might be looking at Dan O'Neill and this whole school of cartoonists who drove Walt Disney crazy in the '60s and '70s when they did Air Pirates Funnies: Minnie Mouse fucking Donald Duck and things like that. Disney had no sense of humor and went after them with big lawsuits. Most of those guys now are here and there; a couple are down in Silicon Valley. We're talking with Ron Turner of Last Gasp, who publishes all of Robert Crumb's stuff. We're certainly going to be calling on Crumb to contribute to the Examiner.
Have you heard anything from him?
We've got feelers out. Turner's in regular contact with him. We're going to be a seriously achieving commercial paper. But we're going to be looking within this diverse culture for other things to attract readers and bring the income you need to make dough and keep publishing. It's a fucking business, what are you gonna do?
Are you going to be bringing sex ads into the daily paper?
Well, I know the Bay Guardian and the SF Weekly almost have those 800-number sex ads as their economic motor. We would put them into a section that isn't gonna shock the horses, but why the hell shouldn't we pick up whatever ads are out there?
Not particularly. They've done some interesting things and have gotten some notoriety. I wouldn't say they've established themselves as the model of online journalism, but they're trying, and Salon is bright sometimes. It's a good thing. I think people are going to be surprised at the type of content we'll be putting online. But that's one of the great things about having a Web site like we'll have. And by the way, examiner.com is a great name for a site, unlike the case with the Chronicle, which doesn't even own chronicle.com. One of the first people we'd be talking to editorially would be somebody like Margo St. James, who started the hookers' union. We'd cover reports, many of them emailed between the girls, about which cops are into nasties and what's really going on out in the streets. That would certainly be some of the material we'd make available on our Web site.
All around the country, neighborhood papers the Independent among them are doing these great weird local stories, very few of which make it online. At the same time, there are people on the Web like Jim Romanesko, who look for exactly that kind of story.
We are certainly going to open up the paper's Web content to the kind of thing that ... let's just say your average American big city newspaper would gasp at the idea of putting this stuff online. But it doesn't bother us, and I think it fits perfectly with the readership that this paper's going to have. It's going to be pretty out there and with it; the paper will reflect that readership and the multiethnic nature of the city.
Susie was the first person I called. She said, "That's an interesting idea. Let's talk about it." I would hope very much that she would want to write a freewheeling column, saying whatever she wanted, that everybody in the city she lives in will be reading. She ain't said yes yet, but boy am I courting her. And again you have to wonder: Why hasn't the Chronicle or the Examiner given her a column? What's wrong with these people?
Right. But she has no column in local print anywhere. And as much as the Net is indispensable and important, there's something antediluvian and persistent about people's desire to see a physical newspaper, particularly if it's ass-kicking and wild and fun. We're going to do our best to integrate those two things. Because the freedom and swiftness and expansive opinions of the Net are not reflected in any American newspaper. They're still where they were 40 or so years ago, in the gray part of the '50s.
Is Francis Ford Coppola going to be involved in the new Examiner?
I hope so. I did a magazine with Coppola called City of San Francisco. It was a huge thing, the size of Life magazine, and it was a weekly. Only Hollywood could have imagined a magazine like that. Coppola's ideas on the City and the culture and literature of the City are pretty interesting. We're going to publish fiction regularly in the Examiner. We're looking at publishing fiction with an eye toward developing multimedia properties.
The way Coppola's magazine Zoetrope does now.
Yeah, why shouldn't a daily newspaper be doing that? Find a writer and say, "Here's some dough. Write this novel or whatever you want to do and we'll publish it every day for two months or however long it takes to get it out." We think that's a way to develop product. I'm not giving away any trade secrets, because the Hearst Corporation is not going to have the balls to go out and find some 18-year-old Latina feminist writer who's got this wacko of a novel and help her develop it in the pages of its newspaper.
Publishing fiction and being more shit-kicking sounds like moving forward to the 19th century.
Exactly, and it's going to be a more Western paper, in the sense of reflecting what makes San Francisco a crazy place and a unique American city. It's much closer to Amsterdam than any place in the US. We have this unbelievably lucky opportunity because we're inheriting a paper with no staff. When you read the Chronicle and the current Examiner you might as well be in Des Moines.
How long do you expect the paper to last? Even the Fangs have been pretty cautionary in their statements, calling it an "uphill battle" and such.
Hearst had to sell it to us, because the Justice Department insisted. Because a joint operating agreement such as the Chronicle and the Examiner had is just a license to print money and get all kinds of exemptions and so forth. This is the situation in Seattle now, in Hawaii and in San Francisco: The Justice Department has said you have to give up some of that Monopoly money before you extinguish the second paper if somebody wants to try and make a go of it. We've also got some bucks and some resources of our own. Will we make it? Sure, it's an uphill battle. But I think the best way to build a new metropolitan daily is the way we're looking to do it. Which is to integrate it into the dot-com world and the ethnic world and the fun world, if you will. And to create other sources of income out of the pool of talent you have. That gives the business an added chance to be successful, because most American newspapers don't do that. This is going to be a very interesting enterprise. If anybody wants a job or has a good idea for a story, get in there. We're open for business.
Too bad more people in journalism don't see that as good news.
They can't because their entire existence is a protected, cautionary environment where they think that they're processing news, and most of what they're processing is just caution and drivel. It's really irrelevant to most people's lives; if it weren't for the crossword and the want ads which are increasingly moving to the Net I don't know why anybody would really want to be reading the paper anymore.
Are you going to go tabloid or broadsheet?
Probably a combination of the two. There something to be said for going all the way tabloid because it's easier for commuters and so on. But the San Francisco establishment is so stuffy and conservative that you'll start getting a ding just for being a tabloid.
How about color? Why not go with a salmon color like the Financial Times?
We might go with a different color paper. But the daily package will be a different paper than your average paper. And it'll be organized so people can find what they want and skip over the rest, which is what they do anyway. It'll be sprightly.