business and political, in competitive market sp.
IT WAS TO be a big day for Ted Fang.
Sears was interested in signing an advertising contract with his San Francisco Independent and he had flown to Chicago to meet company officials.
But he had to fly back without the contract because of some hesitation by the Sears people that he didn't understand at the time.
Shortly after his return, however, he discovered the reason. Someone from Sears headquarters had phoned the Independent's ad rep to express dismay at Fang's attire at the Chicago meeting. The Independent's editor and publisher had breezed into the room wearing a dress shirt and tie but no jacket.
Actually, the tie was a major concession for the 32-year-old entrepreneur. His usual office garb is a sport shirt and jeans. He bought his first suit when his brother got married a few years ago.
Fang eventually got the Sears business, as he has gotten almost everything else he has gone after in the contentious world of San Francisco journalism. He also has become a statewide figure in the newspaper industry since his elevation to the board of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
The free, thrice-weekly Independent has an audited circulation of 209,150 in San Francisco ? 95% of it home delivered ? and is growing as it attracts major advertisers such as Lucky and Safeway supermarkets, Toys R Us, Montgomery Ward, Walgreens and Ace Hardware. Classified ads frequently run five or six pages.
The paper also is a powerful political force in the community, reflecting Fang's intense interest in the doings at City Hall. The Independent's backing was considered a key factor in the election of Mayor Frank Jordan, and the paper is expected to jump into the upcoming mayoral race, but probably not on Jordan's side.
The Independent was a tiny neighborhood tabloid when Fang's parents bought it in 1987 and installed him as publisher as a birthday present. A University of California, Berkeley, graduate with a degree in ethnic studies, the son had been working in his father's job printing business.
The gift recalls the beginning of another San Francisco newspaper dynasty. In 1887, a young William Randolph Hearst's father gave him control of the struggling San Francisco Examiner, a job that turned out to be the first step in building the Hearst
Fang, a native San Franciscan, modestly shrugs off dynastic ambitions, but since acquiring the Independent, his family's business, Pan Asia Venture Capital Co., has bought seven other weeklies, with a total circulation of 163,500, in the suburban San Francisco Peninsula.
Fang, the key man in the purchases, did not dismiss the possibility of one day creating a daily.
"I'm still a young guy and I have a lot to learn," he answered. "When I've learned a little more, we can better decide on a daily."
Fang started college as a pre-med major to please his parents. But a strong family newspaper background eventually won him over to journalism.
His father, the late John Ta Chuan Fang, was a Shanghai newspaper reporter in pre-communist China and fled with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces to Taiwan when the communists took over the mainland.
In Taiwan, he founded the Young China Daily, which later established a U.S. edition as the voice of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Party.
After emigrating, the elder Fang started a printing company in San Francisco. Along with the Independent papers, it now prints 40 other newspapers and magazines, including some in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and other languages. Also begun by the father was Asian Week, a nationally circulated, English-language paper covering Asian-American affairs.
Ted proudly shows visitors the "Treasure Wall" ? a display of 56 art objects dedicated to his father ? in San Francisco's famed Asian Art Museum. The wall was created with funds donated by his widow, Florence, Ted, and his brothers, James and Douglas.
It was James, the eldest son, who was the catalyst for a raw demonstration of political clout by Ted Fang and the Independent, according to Stephen Bloom, Mayor Jordan's former press secretary.
After Jordan's victory, which the San Francisco Examiner reported was fueled by $150,000 pumped into his campaign by the Fang family, the mayor named James in 1992 as his international trade director at $65,000 a year.
But when the Examiner broke a story alleging that James had fibbed about having a law degree to get the job, Jordan reportedly was ready to toss him out.
In stepped Ted Fang, wrote Bloom, in an Examiner "memoir" of his days at city hall.
"Ted Fang, calm and collected," Bloom recalled, "looked the mayor straight in the face and said, 'Frank, if you are asking James to resign, that will not happen. Our family will not allow that to happen.' "
It didn't happen, although James left the mayor's office some time later and is currently involved in the Independent operation. He also is on the board of the Bay Area's rapid transit system (BART). Ted declined to comment on the incident with Jordan, calling it a "private meeting."
James Fang is married to the daughter of the mayor of Shanghai. While not exactly a matchmaker, Ted first met the mayor in China, smoothing the way for James' meeting of the family on a subsequent trip there.
Between his involvements in City Hall politics, Ted also has found time to square off against the Examiner. He sued the daily once for alleged predatory pricing for taking grocery ads from the Independent, and went head-to-head in a battle for the city's legal advertising.
The first encounter ended in a settlement, but in the second, Fang won a clear victory earlier this year by taking home the biggest share of San Francisco's $553,000 budget for official advertising. Having lost out to the Examiner the year before, Fang, backed by other weeklies, rallied community forces to place a proposition on the ballot that made the low bid a relatively unimportant factor in awarding the contract. A paper's ad rate, circulation and ownership ? extra points for ethnicity ? were factored in (E&P, July 1, 1995).
However, as the first Chinese American to publish a general circulation newspaper in the state, Fang, in an interview, shied away from trading on his ethnicity, preferring to stress the Independent's commitment to neighborhood news.
"I have a great deal of respect for a lot of things the dailies do, but they don't cover the city the way we do," he contended.
For all its charm and reputation as one of the world's most sophisticated cities, San Francisco is essentially a series of well-defined neighborhoods with many small-town values and concerns. The Independent plays this factor in a big way. Indeed, Fang himself lives in the distinctive Noe Valley district.
The Independent's second section is called "The Neighborhood," where a story about wheelchair ramps for Sunset District buses rates four columns above the fold. Also getting prominent play not long ago was an illustrated piece about a family with two pigs as pets.
The Independent also tackles citywide issues. Fang has mounted a campaign to extend BART to San Francisco International Airport, a move opposed by some major airlines.
The conflict produced a recent Page One story and an editorial, headed "Boycott United," that accused the airline of "sabotaging a mandate" by local citizens.
The Independent and its suburban counterparts usually devote only one page or less to sports and little space to entertainment and lifestyle. But readers looking for news of their turf and citywide stories impacting on their lives will find them in abundance.
The Neighborhood section, besides its stand-alone stories, contains a Neighborhood News column with such subheads as Poetry Class, Asthma Support Group, and Garden Club Installation Set. Another column is entitled Eye on City Hall. And adding spice to the Independent's political pot is acerbic columnist Warren Hinckle, formerly with the Chronicle and Examiner.
"It's a formula that's brought the Independent chain into profitability," Fang asserts.
"I don't play a large role in day-to-day stories, but I do set direction," he confided. "I am constantly reminding people that we cover local news. We are advocates for the neighborhood. If a big issue comes along like the BART extension, I tell my staff to go out and talk to the people. What they say will most likely be our headline."
At the same time, Fang conceded that such zealous attention to the preferences of his readers might mean that "some slants may unintentionally creep into stories."
In a sense, Fang reports to his mother, Florence, who controls all the shares in the Pan Asia company and who owns the Grand Palace restaurant, a Chinatown landmark.
He described his mother as a "devout Republican," who has entertained ex-president George Bush and other prominent GOP bigwigs.
She "probably will object" to the Independent's likely support of Democratic Assemblyman Willie Brown in the upcoming mayoral race, Fang noted.
"I have to work on her," he said, smiling.
The Independent's offices in the down-scale Bayview-Hunter's Point area contain several Chinese art objects contributed by Mrs. Fang, including two wooden lions who guard the entrance.
Fang generally got high marks from other newspaper people.
"What he has been able to do with the Independent is remarkable," said John Moses, a former Independent staff writer now with the Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal.
"A lot of people thought he would fail, but he didn't. He has built a big operation without a lot of resources," Moses said.
San Francisco Bay Guardian editor and publisher Bruce Brugmann credited Fang with "developing a strong community base."
"That's no mean accomplishment in one of the most competitive print scenes in the country," Brugmann added.
"And he's been particularly effective in establishing an ad base against the Chronicle and Examiner."
More than 30 weeklies and neighborhood monthlies circulate in San Francisco.
Even Examiner executive editor Phil Bronstein spoke favorably of Fang, saying, "He puts out a very good neighborhood paper that fills a need in the marketplace, although I think they take a bludgeon approach to politics."
Another local journalist, who requested anonymity, lauded Fang's buildup of the Independent group, but remarked: "The trouble with Ted is his heavy involvement in partisan politics. I feel his role as a journalist is sometimes outweighed by his political motivation."
Independent managing editor Susan Herbert, who was working at the paper when the Fangs took over, linked Ted Fang's political activities to his concern for the community's welfare.
"He's a fine manager who is passionate about the community," she said. "But he's also competitive. He's very pleased when we get something before the dailies."
?( The Independent, the free weekly that is the flagship of the San Francisco based group) [Photo & Caption]
By: M.L. Stein Laid-back style belies aggressive tactics,