Bronstein of ‘SF Chron’ Comes to Aid of Former Rival Roberts

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By: Joe Strupp

When Jerry Roberts left the San Francisco Chronicle five years ago after it was bought by Hearst Newspapers and effectively merged with the staff of Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, it was no secret that disagreements with new editor Phil Bronstein had led, at least in part, to Roberts’ departure.

Roberts had been Chronicle managing editor when the paper was sold, with likely aspirations for editor, but had to give up such hopes after Hearst installed Bronstein, then the Examiner editor, in the top Chronicle post. “It was never anything personal,” Roberts said Monday about his dealings with Bronstein prior to his leaving in February 2002. “It was two cultures of two competing papers coming together. I don’t think there was ever anything personal.”

Bronstein agrees, noting “it wasn’t personal, you are going to have different approaches, different directions.” He said teaming with a former competitor is always difficult. “Jerry and I are ferocious competitors and take our competition seriously,” he said. “There were two newspapers that had competed ferociously for years.”

Fast forward five years and either time, distance, or journalistic ethics have brought the two former competitors together for a unified cause. Bronstein plans to be one of several speakers at a fundraising roast for Roberts, who is raising money to fight an arbitration case filed against him by owners of the Santa Barbara News-Press, his former employer.

“To have Phil stand up there and make fun of me to help raise money shows that we are on the same side,” Roberts said. “No matter what professional differences may have existed, we share the same set of fundamental standards and values on this.”

Bronstein echoed that view. “We’ve known each other for a long time and he has had a rough time, both personally and professionally, and I feel for the guy,” he said.

Roberts, who joined the News-Press as editor in June 2002, resigned in protest last July, along with five other staffers, in a now-famous protest of owner Wendy McCaw’s alleged newsroom meddling. Since the resignations, some 38 newsroom staffers have either quit or been fired from the daily paper. In addition, a bitter labor battle has ensued between newsroom workers and management, sparking unfair labor accusations, the formation of a local bargaining unit, and related lawsuits.

Roberts, meanwhile, faces a $25 million arbitration claim filed by the newspaper. A group of local attorneys, known as the Lawyer’s Alliance for Free Speech Rights, formed last fall to help collect donations for Roberts’ defense. The roast, set for March 13, is one of the group’s events.

And the event is shaping up to be a major party, with a ticket price of $150 per head and plans to hold the roast at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. A notice for the event states it is “a roast of Roberts, a dinner of the finest ballpark cuisine, a silent auction of works by award-winning photojournalists, Giants memorabilia and paraphernalia, fine wines and more.”

“We are hoping to get $20,000 or something out of it close to that,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he had been in e-mail contact with Bronstein on several occasions since the recent events at the News-Press began, but had not spoken with him extensively. “I appreciate him doing this,” Roberts said of Bronstein. “I think it shows how unified the journalism community is on the issue of ethics.”

Since Roberts left the News-Press, he has undergone other life-changing events, including a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma last November. The discovery of the curable form of cancer occurred after Roberts, 58, had emergency surgery to remove his spleen. He recently completed five weeks of radiation treatment. “It is a wait and see time, in another month or so I have another round of tests and I go to the lab each week for blood tests,” Roberts said. “There are different blood matters that have to be checked.”

On the job front, meanwhile, Roberts recently began a new position at the nearby University of California, Santa Barbara. As publications director, he oversees the business side operations of the two student publications, the school newspaper and yearbook. “I like it,” says the married father of three. “I am hoping to introduce more career-driven educational stuff into the process.”

When asked about the ongoing battle at the News-Press, Roberts called it “tragic and heartbreaking for the community.” He also says, after this experience, he would likely not take another job as a newspaper editor. “I don’t think so, I am enjoying what I am doing.”

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