IT'S ALL IN the family at the Chronicle Publishing Co., but some family members carry more weight than others ? and one of them is throwing it around with gusto.
Nan Tucker McEvoy, chairman of the board of the privately held media empire and its largest shareholder (33%), is along with John Sias, its new CEO, playing a major role in an effort to turn around the money-losing San Francisco Chronicle, the empire's crown jewel.
The 74-year-old ex-reporter has moved the Chronicle's conservative editorial page in a more liberal direction and occasionally sits in on news meetings or confers with her longtime friend, editor Bill German.
"I'm the Democrat in the family," McEvoy said with a laugh. "I'm more politically liberal than the Chronicle has been for a number of years."
The "family" consists of three branches of descendants of M.H. de Young, founder of the Chronicle, a powerhouse morning paper serving the Bay Area and Northern California, one of the nation's biggest markets.
McEvoy, a multimillionaire who has been a major figure on Washington's social and political scene, speaks fondly of her years as a reporter at the Chronicle, New York Herald Tribune and Washington Post.
She got her first job in the 1940s by staging a sitdown protest in the outer office of her uncle then-Chronicle publisher George Cameron.
"He offered to buy me a new hat if I would just leave," McEvoy said. "When that didn't work, he said he could get me a slot on the women's page. I told him that was the last place I wanted to work, so I finally landed a job on the news side."
Political activism also is not new to McEvoy. In Washington, she was involved in the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates John Ken-nedy and Adlai Stevenson. She dated Stevenson briefly after she met him while she was covering the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.
Referring to the Chronicle's editorial page, she observed, "It should be open to a lot of discussion. San Francisco, with its variety of cultures, lends itself to that kind of approach. For a long time, we didn't take sides, sitting quietly in the middle. I think it's more interesting to take positions on issues and have people writing or calling us. Let's stir things up."
The new chairman also has her eye on creating a larger newshole, and she wants to see "important stories written in depth."
Yet, she does not envision the Chronicle becoming the New York Times or Washington Post of the West despite the perennial cry of Eastern critics that San Francisco journalism should have more stature.
"The Times and the Post have special missions," McEvoy explained. "The Post covers government like a tent and the Times sees itself as a national and international newspaper. But I think we should concentrate on what San Franciscans want to know most about. Besides, it's very expensive to keep reporters sitting in Paris or Moscow waiting for a big story to break. And it takes two to three years before they know what's going on."
Not for sale
McEvoy, a widow who answers questions directly and sometimes with booming emphasis, made one thing perfectly clear: Rumors notwithstanding, the Chronicle is not for sale ? not to the Hearst Corp., with which it has a joint operating agreement, nor anyone else.
"It's not going to happen," she said. "It would be over my dead body."
She conceded that other family members may be inclined to sell the paper but noted that they are not major shareholders.
However, she pointed out that the JOA with the San Francisco Examiner expires in 2005.
"Anything could happen after that," she said. "It [the JOA] could end there."
It could end sooner if either paper buys out the other.
While McEvoy tries to shore up the Chronicle's editorial side, Sias is intent on boosting its revenue and slicing overhead.
He has the credentials for the task. The 66-year-old former executive vice president and CEO of Capital Cit-ies/ABC Inc. ran that conglomerate with a talent for cutting costs.
Cap Cities' connection
Sias, as CEO and president of Chronicle Publishing, succeeds Richard Thieriot, who no longer has a hand in running the paper.
Since Sias' arrival in April, the Chronicle has initiated a staff-cutting buyout program, and virtually the entire managerial staff of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, the JOA's business and production umbrella, was fired.
One of Sias' first moves was to hire his old friend and employee Jim Hale, erstwhile publisher of the Cap Cities-owned Kansas City Star, to head the SFNA.
Sias, a tall, lean ex-paratrooper and Stanford University graduate, knows California and the Bay Area. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Mill Valley in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
At one time, he ran Cap Cities' publishing division, which consisted of nine daily and 78 weekly newspapers, various specialty and business magazines, and books. When Cap Cities acquired ABC in 1985, he was named president of the television network.
In addition to the Chronicle, Chronicle Publishing owns KRON-TV in San Francisco; television stations in Omaha and Wichita; a cable company; a book-publishing firm; two other daily newspapers, the Bloomington, Ill., Pantagraph and Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette; real estate; and other interests.
Some observers have estimated that the company is worth more than $1 billion, but a well-placed insider said, "No one knows what it's really worth until somebody makes an offer to buy it and that's not an issue."
Except for the Chronicle, all the properties are doing well financially, Sias said.
He noted that one of his aims is to correct production problems at the Chronicle, including wrinkling and color reproduction.
"I'm a great believer in the basics," he said. "Getting a newspaper to customers on time and one they can read easily is very important to our long-term health. There have been substantial production problems here, but Jim Hale has made great strides in fixing them."
Sias said he also wants to broaden the Chronicle's zoning and electronic delivery of news and information. And he would like "to have a partnership of some kind with the phone company."
In fact, he said, the paper already has plans for an electronic bulletin board.
"We have 307 journalists and parajournalists on our staff and we don't make much use of all the material they generate," he added.
Asked whether the Chronicle is likely to be sold to Hearst, whose Examiner runs a distant second in circulation, Sias replied, "Anything is possible. Hearst would like to buy it and some shareholders would like to get their money out, but there are other significant shareholders who would not be in favor of selling the paper."
He noted, however, that under the terms of the JOA, if either newspaper is put up for sale, the other would have first crack at it.
Within five years, Sias said, he would like to see the Chronicle as the "number one daily and Sunday paper in San Francisco ? the surviving newspaper of the JOA."
But it's highly unlikely that it will be the only newspaper in the Bay Area. The Chronicle, with a circulation of more than a half million, is competing in certain areas with two strong metros, the San Jose Mercury News and new Oakland Tribune, as well as a host of city and suburban dailies and weeklies.
The McEvoy-Sias duet seems to be playing well with the Chronicle's top two editorial leaders, German and executive editor Matthew Wilson.
German, 74, who has been with the paper since the '40s, said, "These are exciting times. They are making the paper tighter and stronger."
He said the buyout ? its goal of 55 takers is about half met ? would bring the budget to a "realistic size."
"All good newspapers are profitable," he added.
Despite its losses, German continued, the Chronicle is "generating an enormous amount of readership," even though its single-copy price recently was increased to 50? and distribution to outlying areas was cut back.
German also said Sias and McEvoy have created a "more democratic spirit" within the newspaper with their face-to-face discussions with employees in all departments.
Wilson, 37, said Sias and McEvoy "are serious about change."
He noted that the Chronicle had been emphasizing hard news and in-depth writing and added, "I would like us to get better in all the things we're good at."
Some employees were not as enthusiastic about the new regime.
"It's a mixed picture," said investigative reporter Bill Wallace, who also is president of the Northern California Newspaper Guild, which is negotiating a new contract with the Chronicle.
"Sias got off on a good footing when he held staff meetings, answered our questions and said he was hiring an outside outfit to do a survey on the Chronicle's needs. I thought we were really moving forward. Then came the buyout, which will mean a 15% staff cut. It was like a doctor doing tests on a patient and then cutting off his leg before the results came back."
Wallace said the newshole has been reduced and there appears to be no move to replace German.
"It's the common feeling here that he is there for life," he added.
Another reporter, who requested anonymity, had a similar view.
"There was a great feeling of optimism before the buyout," the reporter said. "People were never really sure of what the Chronicle's mission was, and Sias gave us the feeling that here was someone who wanted to do something with the paper. No one in his position had ever talked to us like that. But if the buyout doesn't work, there could be layoffs. The optimism about the paper has sort of dissipated."
A third staffer said, "Things are happening here but they're not all good things."
Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the Examiner, which remains a scrappy competitor to the Chronicle in news coverage, referring to his rival, said, "I see more energy there than in the past, but I have not seen a major sea change. It's not yet a different kind of newspaper, and I'm not sure that it will be. They're having a stringer cover a major kidnapping in Petaluma (Northern California) but send staffers to Louisiana and Israel. I'm not sure what that's all about."
Still, Bronstein praised Hale, the SFNA head, for a "major improvement in getting more papers sold" and Sias for being "reasonable and cooperative" in efforts to improve the papers' combined Sunday issue. "If we have a better
package to sell, it will be better for readers and the bottom line," he said.
? ( "For a long time, we didn't take sides, sitting quietly in the middle. I think it's more interesting to take positions on issues and have people writing or calling us. Let's stir things up.") [Caption]
? (Nan Tucker McEvoy, chairman of the board, Chronicle Publishing Co.)
[Photo and ID]
?( "I'm a great believer in the basics. Getting a newspaper to customers on time and one they can read easily is very important to our long-term health. There have been substantial production problems here, but Jim Hale has made great strides in fixing them.") [Caption]
? (John Sias, CEO, Chronicle Publishing) [Photo and ID]