A Glorious Rebirth for ‘SF Examiner’?

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By: Michael Liedtke, AP Business Writer

(AP) The Examiner, once a prosperous newspaper under the power-hungry reign of magnate William Randolph Hearst, is setting out to end decades of decay after being bought by billionaire Phil Anschutz, another empire builder with an enormous appetite for success.

The 124-year-old San Francisco paper is unveiling a new look and expanded news coverage this week, marking the first significant changes since Anschutz completed a $20 million deal that included a printing plant and another paper published three days a week.

The makeover represents the latest attempt to save the Examiner, a free tabloid scrounging for readers like the panhandlers camped outside the paper’s forlorn offices pleading for money.

“The Examiner is dead,” said W. Dean Singleton, chief executive of Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc., whose holdings include a group of San Francisco Bay area papers. “The paper has very little news, very little advertising and very few readers. So, the question becomes: Can you create something from nothing?”

The paper’s destitution contrasts sharply with Anschutz’s $5.2 billion fortune, built largely on opportunistic investments in oil, railroads, telecommunications, movie theaters and sports.

Anschutz, 64, declined to discuss his plans for the Examiner. His reticence is nothing new. He hasn’t given an interview in 30 years.

Anschutz is prepared to spend some of his money rehabilitating the Examiner, said Robert Starzel, an attorney who will oversee the San Francisco paper while the billionaire remains at his Denver headquarters managing his other investments.

Anschutz’s portfolio includes major stakes in Union Pacific Railroad, Qwest Communications, Regal Entertainment and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Phil is an entrepreneur. He likes to start with a small organization and build it up,” said Starzel, whose father once ran The Associated Press.

Starzel and the Examiner’s publisher, P. Scott McKibben, said the paper’s skeletal staff of 50 employees probably will be expanded as it tries to emulate the Chicago Sun-Times and the Boston Herald — metropolitan dailies that have managed to survive against much larger rivals.

Anschutz’s wealth has raised hopes the Examiner might be better equipped to compete against Northern California’s largest paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, helping to breed better journalism in the nation’s fifth-largest media market.

“I have no doubt that if (Anschutz) wants to spend his money, he could create a successful newspaper here,” said David Weir, a Stanford University journalism professor who once worked as an Examiner editorial writer. “The San Francisco Bay Area deserves more news resources.”

The Examiner’s change in ownership hasn’t alarmed its crosstown rival, said Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein, the former editor at the Examiner.

“Having money may certainly help the paper, but running a good newspaper isn’t just about money,” Bronstein said. “If anything happens in the Bay Area that makes us take a second look at how we do things, we have the people and the structure to do that.”

The purchase of the Examiner also has raised doubts about how a newspaper neophyte like Anschutz can save a paper struggling as badly as the Examiner.

“People who are successful in one field are not necessarily qualified to be in another field,” said William Woo, a Stanford University journalism professor who spent 34 years as a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t think much of people who use (journalism) as some sort of hobby.”

The Examiner still takes itself seriously enough to carry a masthead proclaiming the paper as the “Monarch of The Dailies.”

The boastful billing is a legacy of the paper’s glory days under the domineering Hearst, who used the Examiner as the foundation for a media empire that swayed public opinion through the first half of the 20th century.

More recently, the paper has been on life support, kept alive from 1965 through 2000 under a profit-sharing arrangement with the Chronicle. The joint agreement relegated the Examiner to afternoon delivery, a restraint that wiped out nearly 70% of its paid circulation during those 35 years.

The Examiner’s longtime owner, Hearst Corp., was ready to pull the plug in 2000 when it bought the Chronicle for $660 million. Instead, Hearst paid an additional $66.7 million to keep its old paper afloat under a small publishing company controlled by Florence Fang and her sons.

After the subsidy ran out, the Fangs decided to sell the Examiner, which now lists a free circulation of 76,000. The Fangs also sold The Independent, a free paper delivered to 360,000 homes three days a week, McKibben said.

“It’s a great opportunity,” McKibben said. “(Anschutz) understands it is going to take some work, patience and investment.”

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