Fangs Left Heart, and Power, in San Francisco Papers

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By: Joe Strupp

I feel both joy and sadness about the Fang family’s sale of the San Francisco Examiner to Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz.

The joy is obvious, that a second daily newspaper will continue to publish in the City by the Bay, at least for the time being. Under the Fangs, the paper was not headed toward profitability and financial security — having shed staff, lost circulation and gone to a free format under their three-year ownership.

At least, with Anschutz at the helm, survival is more likely, and possibly with a conservative bent that could give the dominant San Francisco Chronicle a run for its money, while giving readers an alternative to the Hearst Corp.-owned left-leaning paper.

Hearst, which previously owned the Examiner, bought the Chronicle in 2000 and sought to close it. But the Justice Department forced Hearst to seek buyers as a condition for ending San Francisco’s joint operating agreement. When Hearst basically gave the Examiner to the Fangs, along with a $66 million subsidy, it probably believed the money would run out and the paper would die. Not so fast.

But my interest goes beyond the Examiner’s survival, to the Fang’s other citywide publication — the thrice-weekly Independent, where I worked for four years between 1993 and 1997, and which Anschutz also acquired.

The Independent, which the Fangs purchased in the 1980s while it was still a small neighborhood paper, is where the owners first wielded their journalistic power, taking the paper citywide and expanding it to three times a week.

With the Independent, the Fangs were able to push forward former police chief Frank Jordan into the mayor’s chair in 1991, then help push him out four years later with their support of Willie Brown, who lasted two terms and recently left office due to term limits.

In those days, the Examiner was often a direct rival, even enemy, of the Independent — whether it was the Independent news staff beating the Examiner on local stories or the Fangs suing the Examiner for predatory pricing of local ads.

With a JOA between the Chronicle and Examiner effectively limiting competition, the Independent often provided an alternative to City Hall and community coverage.

What I remember most, however, is the way Ted Fang, the former Independent publisher, viewed coverage. Sure, he used the paper to influence the local political process — what publisher doesn’t?

I have often objected to those who refer to his family as the politically powerful Fang family, as if no other family that owns a newspaper is politically powerful.

There were a number of times when I disagreed with his effort to use the paper for political gain, although I never recall him ordering a story to be slanted a certain way — as many have assumed — or killing a story that might not have suited his political leanings.

But Fang also knew the role the Indy played in giving lower-income, elderly and neighborhood residents news about their area that the dailies and alternatives did not. While most out-of-towners know San Francisco for its gay community; lively literary, music, and artistic elements; and even growing business strength; few non-S.F. folks realize what a diverse and active neighborhood element it has.

The city is essentially a lot of little communities — from The Castro to Nob Hill to the Richmond, Sunset, Haight-Ashbury and Excelsior districts — which are strongly involved in local city issues and politics. For many of those residents, the Independent is the only paper that paid attention on a citywide basis.

Ted also took care of employees — at least in my case — with fair raises and support during tough times. After I wrote a critical three-part series in 1995 on then-District Attorney candidate Bill Fazio, who eventually lost the race, Fazio’s brother, a D.A. investigator at the time, left a threatening message on my home voice mail. Ted offered to provide 24-hour security protection for me during the days when it was not known who made the threat.

And, although Fazio never requested a correction on anything in the series and none of the elements of the stories were ever questioned for accuracy, Ted promised to provide legal support if a libel or slander suit occurred. Neither ever did.

So, as the Independent and Examiner come under new ownership, I hope that those in San Francisco and the newspaper world remember what the Fang family did. Even if they did not agree with it all, there is no way they can ignore it.

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