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Give the Examiner a proper burial

Next to the graveyard of American newspapers, where lie the remains of the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and hundreds of other papers large and small, is a place that I think of as the house of the living dead. There newspapers with no detectable vital signs are connected to vastly expensive life support systems and linger until they are ready for interment.

William Woo

In my former city of St. Louis, the Globe-Democrat lasted in this trance-like state through two ownerships before it finally expired. Now here in San Francisco, after three years as a zombie under the Fang family, the Examiner has been bought by a Denver billionaire named Philip Anschutz. The best thing he can do is give the old soul a proper burial.

If Anschutz is determined to resuscitate the Examiner, if for no other reason than to make it a respectable tax shelter, the first thing he should do is change the name. Once the name was an asset; now it’s a liability, bringing to mind not vibrant journalism but a pathetic reminder of an honorable past. That’s not the way you want your paper thought of.

If he wants to challenge the Chronicle, my suggestion is the one-word advice given by Mark Twain when asked how to write humor: Don’t. The advertising base for two metros no longer exists. Advertisers will not split their budget when the Chronicle alone covers the market. To give San Francisco readers the news and features that the Chronicle does and more will require the reinvention of a modern metro daily. The lottery is a better investment.

If he wants to be a good community or local paper, he is in for more expenses than he can imagine. San Francisco is a city of nearly 50 neighborhoods, from Bay View to the Western Addition. To cover them well in a way that people will care to read about requires staff, staff and more staff. Good local news is the most labor- and cost-intensive journalism there is. To suck advertising out of the neighborhoods will require an army of good sales people.

What about a niche publication? Well, what niche and how to get people to pay for the product? Perhaps Anschutz has done his market research, though the bargain basement price of $20 million he is reported to have paid for the Examiner suggests otherwise.

In fact, there is a need in San Francisco and elsewhere for a new kind of serious daily newspaper. It requires a new vision, about which Anschutz’s ties with the old Fang organization are not encouraging. It requires a new business model based on something less than the standard piratical industry expectations of return on investment. It requires a deep respect for journalism and what it can be.

In the absence of any of these, it’s time to hold the wake, shed a few tears, toss down a drink or two and give the corpse a dignified burial. The old Examiner deserves to be put to rest.

William F. Woo is a Lorry I. Lokey Visting Professor of Professional Journalism at Stanford University and a former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is a member of the advisory board of Grade the News.

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