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William Randolph Hearst, R.I.P.

There goes my pension.

OK, that's not exactly the first thing I thought of when the potential demise of the San Francisco Chronicle made the news yesterday. I count dozens of friends in that paper's newsroom after spending six years there in the 1990s. Bosses, colleagues, softball teammates ... in a few months, they all could be out on the street looking for jobs.

It's quite possible that that alarmist announcement by management is merely a negotiating tactic to extract more concessions from the guild. After all, publisher Frank Vega has a reputation as a union-buster. But he means business - it's no secret that the Hearst Corporation spent upwards of $1 billion since acquiring the Chron and divesting the Examiner in 1999.

Most of my friends at the paper seemed resigned to the new reality. No one is terribly surprised by this. One of them greeted the news with a mix of aplomb and regret - and also provided a colorful and insightful narrative on how we got here:


For you history/TV buffs, George Hearst, the mining magnate who was a real character on "Deadwood" acquired The Examiner in 1880 as payment for a gambling debt and gave it to his son William to run in 1887. William Randolph Hearst allegedly started the Spanish-American War by sinking the Maine to help newspaper circulation, went on to bigger and better things (building the Hearst Castle and cavorting with Marion Davies), then went on to "Citizen Kane" fame, being the basis for the movie and not pleased about it. He also had plans to become President of the United States but couldn't pull off that trick.

I arrived in 1982 when William Randolph Hearst III worked on the paper. In my time, Willie the 3rd eventually was made Editor/Publisher, then vanished with the bad times and went on to a new business where he continues to make more money. (His cousin was Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and ultimately joined her captors in furthering their cause. Apprehended after having taken part in a bank robbery with other SLA members, Hearst was imprisoned for almost two years before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She was later granted a presidential pardon by President Bill Clinton in his last act as president.)

More years down the road, The Examiner bought The Chronicle, the other original San Francisco paper that is celebrating its 144th birthday this year and running a series now which struck me as very funny. (I told lots of people, they want to run this because they know they won't make 150 years and want to do a historical perspective before it goes under using the pretense of the new presses; they're not laughing at me now.)

Also in my time here, you may remember Phil Bronstein, who was a very good reporter/writer that covered the fall of Marcos in the Philippines. As a reward, he married Sharon Stone, adopted a baby, got bitten by a Komodo dragon, divorced, married the heir of the Borders chain, which is on its way out the door too, got promoted to Editor, started a new promotion "Journalism of Action," then got booted downstairs (physically) but upstairs where all managers go when they've run the course and they don't want the bad publicity with a parting.

They brought in an optimistic new editor who "wouldn't take the job if good things weren't ahead." He's lasted a little more than a year and delivered the news along with the publisher who came here several years ago to put things in order. So they kept moving forward by cutting staff, changing the design, setting up a 15-year contract with the company that owns the new presses even though they're losing a million a week. I'll leave you readers out there to figure out how successful they have been.

But I'll close by adding a 2003 report that said the 61 family members of the Hearsts were worth more than $5.2 billion. I guess The Chronicle is eating into all that profit, and the old saying is, you can have even more if you get rid of the bad guys. Boy, our family would like to have those problems.