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William German dies at 95; longtime editor at San Francisco Chronicle

William German dies at 95; longtime editor at San Francisco Chronicle
William German, a veteran journalist who helped turn the San Francisco Chronicle into Northern California's dominant newspaper during his tenure as its editor, has died at the age of 95. (Brant Ward / San Francsico Chronicle)

William "Bill" German, a veteran journalist who helped turn the San Francisco Chronicle into Northern California's dominant newspaper during his tenure as its editor, died Wednesday at his home in San Rafael after a long illness, the Chronicle reported. He was 95.

German began his career at the paper in 1940 When he retired 62 years later, he had helped transform the Chronicle from the No. 3 newspaper in a four-newspaper city to the largest paper in Northern California.

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He worked first under editor Paul C. Smith and then under the flamboyant Scott Newhall, whose idea of newspapering was to lure readers with entertaining headlines and stories and keep them interested by producing solid journalism.

Newhall had the ideas; German made them work. He looked for and polished good writing and solid editing — always with an edge — especially in the 1950s and '60s, when the Chronicle was in an old-fashioned newspaper war with the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, then the largest newspaper north of Los Angeles.

Colleagues recalled German as a newsroom leader with an unerring eye as to what made news and the deft, firm touch of a superb line editor. He was famed for writing the headline "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill" for one 1963 story.

He started at the bottom of the newsroom hierarchy as a copy boy and moved on to reporter and copy editor, writing headlines and editing stories. He became chief of the paper's copy desk, executive news editor, managing editor, executive editor and, in 1993, editor.

In 2000 he became editor emeritus and wrote a weekly column on the media. He used his column to explain, among other things, his standards for a good newspaper columnist: "How do they rate as journalists? What have they got to tell and how well do they tell it? Do they dig hard? For news? For ideas? For entertainment? And, in the end, how well do their legs stand up?"

William German was born Jan. 4, 1919, in New York City, where his father was a garment worker. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1939 and a year later received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He served in the Army during World War II.

German's wife of 58 years, the former Gertrude Pasenkoff, died in 1998.

He is survived by two sons, a daughter, a brother, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and his partner, Grace Cox.

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