BAY AREA BATTLE: Reviving the Examiner : Will Hearst III Makes Feisty Comeback Bid With a Bit of Flash

Times Staff Writer

The television commercial, done in black and white, is carefully crafted to evoke memories of "Citizen Kane."

As it begins, the ghost of William Randolph Hearst is quizzing his grandson about columnists recently hired by the San Francisco Examiner.

"Is this Warren Hinckle fellow some kind of leftist?" the ghost demands.

"I'm not worried about those kind of labels," shrugs William Randolph Hearst III, the new, 36-year-old publisher of the Examiner.

The ghost bores in: "Who IS this Hunter S. Thompson?"

"He's irreverent, a little risky but, uh, fun to read, you know?"

"NO!" the ghost thunders.

"Come on grandpa," young Hearst urges, "lighten up."

The ghost pauses. "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Will?"

"I don't know," the scion admits. "Did you?"

The 30-second spot, one of four touting "the next generation" at the San Francisco Examiner, is almost sure to win an award for its creator, the San Francisco advertising agency of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.

But whether the commercials and the changes they reflect at the afternoon newspaper can win a wider audience for the Hearst newspaper empire's one-time flagship, whose circulation has dwindled to less than one third of the morning Chronicle's, remains an open question.

"It's going to be a formidable challenge," says publishing analyst John Morton, head of a Washington securities firm that bears his name. "This isn't the first time Hearst Corp. has tried to turn the Examiner around. Unfortunately, none of those (earlier) efforts has succeeded."

This time, to a degree that astounds many in the publishing industry and discomfits some in the normally low-profile family, the Hearsts are staking their name on the outcome.

"There's a perception that you can't be a big and successful and highly regarded communications company unless every element of the company has a showcase," says Will Hearst, who talks like someone with ambitions to take the chief executive's spot at Hearst Corp. from the outsiders who have run it for years. Hearst officials did not return a reporter's phone calls in connection with this story.

"We have some showcase magazines," including Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, Hearst says. "We have some showcase television stations," including WCVB in Boston, for which the company paid a then-record $450 million earlier this year.

Loved His Newspapers

But the company has no showcase newspapers--an irony considering that William Randolph Hearst loved his newspapers and first took control of the San Francisco Examiner in 1887.

His grandson says his mandate from Hearst Corp. headquarters in New York is simple: "Next time there's a 10-best newspaper list, be on it."

That goal won't likely be met, even though Hearst is being subsidized by his ostensible competitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, under terms of a cost- and profit-sharing agreement the papers entered in 1965.

Under the agreement, which ensures the Examiner's survival until 2005, the Examiner stopped going head-to-head against the morning Chronicle and switched to afternoon publication. The papers share printing and other business facilities but maintain separate editorial voices.

So this is no run-of-the-mill newspaper war. As William German, executive editor of the Chronicle, asks "How can you have a war when one combatant is carrying the other on his back?"

A Dismal Circulation

German's jibe is cruel but accurate. The Examiner's average daily circulation for the six months ended Sept. 30 was a dismal 142,314, down 4,400 from a year ago, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Meanwhile, the Chronicle was selling 550,000 papers a day.

Examiner officials say circulation has since bounced back up to a bit more than 150,000, though part of the gain may reflect a normal seasonal pickup.

The Examiner's circulation woes have been exacerbated by its evening status; most afternoon dailies in big cities have suffered in recent years from the clash with television news. They have also been hard hit because rush-hour traffic snarls impede delivery to the suburbs.

But the Examiner has other problems to contend with, including a lack of a firm identity. Indeed, because the two newspapers jointly publish a Sunday edition, surveys have shown that many readers mistakenly believe that the Examiner is an afternoon edition of the Chronicle.

So Will Hearst, a Harvard mathematics graduate who did a two-year stint as editor of Jann Wenner's Outside magazine, Rolling Stone's sister publication, is emphasizing the Examiner's uniqueness. His idea is to combine flashy columnists with solid reporting and intelligent writing.

The scion says he is tailoring the Examiner to "the reader of the 1990s"--sophisticated, literate, white-collared and with "a certain amount of education."

If that means ceding to television the mass audience his grandfather once cultivated so assiduously, so be it, says Hearst, who calls TV "the lowest-common denominator medium."

Budget Was Strained

But there are indications that Hearst's hiring spree for columnists and top editors has strained his budget. Metropolitan Editor John Kirkpatrick complains that he has been unable to fill six or seven budgeted reporting and desk positions.

Staff travel has been sharply curtailed; last month, a travel writer was forced to scrub a reporting trip to Australia after he'd drawn his advance so the paper could afford to send a reporter to sustain its coverage of turmoil in the Philippines.

Even the attention-getting promotional campaign has been scaled back. Only four of six scripted television commercials were filmed. "They ran out of dough," says columnist Hinckle, whose ever-present basset hound, Bentley, was to have shuffled into Hearst's office and eaten the publisher's lunch in one of the unfilmed spots.

The other unfilmed commercial featured Managing Editor Frank McCulloch, who retired from McClatchy newspapers last year at age 65, lolling about in a swimming pool as Hearst and Editor C. David Burgin plotted to lure him out of retirement.

"All the numbers crunchers, here and in New York, began to get appalled at how fast costs were rising," McCulloch says. "There were some gasps . . . When the gasping got to a certain level, it got Will's attention."

And despite Hearst's high-brow talk, his "thinking man's newspaper" still sometimes caters to the mass audience. When Humphrey the wrong-way whale returned to the Pacific Ocean after a two-week sojourn up the Sacramento River, the Examiner marked his departure by splashing page one with a drawing of a teary whale watcher under a banner headline reading "SO LONG, HUMPHREY."

Tossed a Snowball

And when a Denver Broncos football fan tossed a snowball at San Francisco 49er backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh while Cavanaugh was holding the football for a field goal attempt, an outraged Examiner loudly trumpeted its offer of a $500 reward for the "snowballer." The snowballer's confession made Page One the next day.

Examiner editors insist that such gimmickry is necessary because as an afternoon paper the Examiner is heavily dependent on newsstand sales.

Despite such trifles, the Examiner isn't devoid of weightier fare. Film critic Michael Sragow, formerly of Rolling Stone, writes with grace and intelligence.

And the paper's overhauled business section, under ex-Washington Post reporter Mark Potts, recently featured a thought-provoking transcript of a meeting of computer experts hosted by Will Hearst, a technology buff, at a 68,000-acre family compound known as Wyntoon on the McCloud River in Northern California.

But the emphasis these days is on columnists such as Hinckle, a passionate writer whose accounts of Mayor Dianne Feinstein's recent trip to Ireland so upset her that she threatened to cancel a trip to the Soviet Union if Hinckle went along. Hinckle, whose dog Bentley has the run of the Examiner's newsroom, is notorious for his daily crawls through the city's pubs.

Then there's Thompson, the self-proclaimed "Gonzo journalist" who authored "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Although Thompson's title is media critic, about the only medium he has criticized in his Examiner column has been his own newspaper--for refusing to send him and Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, to South Africa on a fact-finding tour.

Featured Bizarre Strip

Another addition to Hearst's "thinking man's newspaper": Bill Griffith's "Zippy the Pinhead" comic strip, making the Examiner the first metropolitan daily to feature the bizarre strip. Its principal character is a bemused pointy headed figure in a clown suit who spouts philosophy.

Hearst has also hired Burgin, editor of the Orlando Sentinel and former Examiner sports editor, as editor and McCulloch as managing editor, and has launched a new Sunday magazine called "Image."

McCulloch says he would like to see more resources devoted to coverage of breaking news. "It's a sore point for me--the application of resources to what I call 'the exotics,' " says McCulloch, who has been managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine's Saigon bureau chief during the Vietnam War, and more recently executive editor of McClatchy Newspapers and managing editor of that chain's Sacramento Bee.

Sources say Thompson's once-a-week column is costing the paper about $1,500 a week. Hinckle's salary is said to be between $80,000 and $90,000 a year, although the columnist says its his expense account--which includes unlimited travel--that's the real enticement.

Hearst says the metropolitan staff will get his attention next year. "I felt the Examiner I came into in October, 1984, was weaker in the feature area than in the news area," the publisher says.

"You can only deploy a finite number of people in so many different directions," he says, adding that "news is still the nuclear product of any newspaper, at least any that I'd want to be identified with."

Despite such assurances, the "exotics" clearly hold the upper hand at the paper. Editor Burgin calls columnists "the soul of a newspaper," and Hearst himself went to considerable lengths to lure Hinckle from the Chronicle.

Columnist Selected Wine

Just what lengths were made clear recently when Deputy Managing Editor Geoffrey Precourt took Hinckle to dinner at the swank Stars restaurant here. Precourt knew that Hinckle, who is notorious for ignoring deadlines, wouldn't like what he was about to hear so he let the columnist select the wine.

"I asked him to file columns by 6 p.m. rather than at 6 a.m., to advise us in advance what he was writing about, and to write tighter copy," Precourt recalls.

As both men tell it, Hinckle's response was succinct and to the point: "No, no and no. I made my deal with the publisher."

Insult was added to injury when the check came and Precourt learned that Hinckle had ordered a bottle of wine that, depending on who's telling the story, cost either $100 or $185.

Meanwhile, Hinckle's former employer, the Chronicle, is becoming a decidedly more serious newspaper. Recent series on Proposition 13, regional transportation issues and the Bay Area arts scene are winning plaudits for the paper and its new city editor, Alan Mutter.

"For all the noise coming from the Examiner, I'm more excited with the changes at the Chronicle," says Betty Medsger, chairman of the department of journalism at San Francisco State University.

Hearst promises to alter that perception. "The thrust of our development plan for 1986 is to put more emphasis on the metro desk," he says. And friends say he is determined to win respect for the paper.

Committed to Quality

"He is committed to quality and quality writers," says Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Adds San Francisco attorney Art Shartsis: "Will wants to have a first-class paper. The way the joint-operating agreement is structured, the Chronicle gets to pay for it."

The papers entered into the cost- and profit-sharing agreement in 1965, when the Chronicle enjoyed a much more modest circulation advantage of 363,000 to the Examiner's 299,000. The agreement expires in 1995, but can be extended for 10 years on the same terms by either party.

Hearst Corp. last began a major attempt to reverse the Examiner's decline in 1975, when Examiner President Randolph A. Hearst, Will's uncle, hired Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy as editor and publisher.

Murphy redesigned the newspaper and introduced zone editions during his six-year tenure, but circulation stagnated in the 150,000s. The publisher's post was vacant from 1981 until Will Hearst took the job in October, 1984. (Randolph A. Hearst remains president of the Examiner.)

Will Hearst's decision to pursue a career in journalism didn't come easily. "He agonized quite a bit over it," says John Marquand, his senior adviser at Harvard.

Hearst, fearing that he'd be perceived as trading on his grandfather's name, stayed away from the Harvard Crimson, the campus daily. "I didn't want to go through that," he says. Instead, he took an active role in the anti-war movement.

Young Hearst got over his qualms about the family name and joined the Examiner upon graduating from Harvard in 1972. He stayed until 1976, first as a reporter and then as assistant city editor, and shared the Roy Howard prize for investigative journalism.

Rejoined Family Business

After his two-year stint at Outside, he rejoined the family business as assistant managing editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He has also been West Coast development manager for Hearst Newspapers and a Santa Clara, Calif.-based vice president of Hearst Cable Communications. He was tapped to head the Examiner by Frank A. Bennack Jr., Hearst Corp.'s president.

Friends say Will Hearst has an irreverent sense of humor. "I remember one Fourth of July when the family had gathered at San Simeon," Wenner says. Hearst's cousin Patty was missing, having been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974.

"Will and I and our wives bought a bunch of firecrackers on the way down, and Will got the idea of setting them off in the middle of the night," Wenner says. "It was great; the family thought the SLA was coming to get them."

During his initial stint at the Examiner, reporter Larry Hatfield recalls, Hearst "was embarrassed that he was a Hearst, and he covered up his intelligence."

The young scion would go drinking with his colleagues at the M & M bar, a seedy San Francisco newspaper hangout down the street from the Examiner and the Chronicle, and cringe whenever the bartenders would call him "Mr. Hearst."

Remembers a colleague: "I told him if he didn't want to be called Mr. Hearst, he should stop leaving $5 tips. He stopped."

Hearst obviously is a good deal more comfortable with his heritage these days.

"One of the things he has learned is that he's a Hearst, and can make his own decisions," reporter Hatfield says.

Results Now Needed

Having made those decisions, Hearst now needs results. "A lot of people (at corporate headquarters) in New York are waiting for him to fall on his face," Hinckle says.

But those who know him say Hearst is determined to succeed. "It has been my fortune--or misfortune" to work for four publishing empires, says McCulloch, a veteran of the Los Angeles Times, Time, McClatchy and now Hearst.

"Their leaders are all accustomed to wealth and authority, and they all possess the same overriding drive: The institution must survive and thrive."

THE FIGHT FOR READERS San Francisco Examiner daily circulation, in thousands

1960 208,000 1965 300,000 1970 203,000 1975 156,000 1980 155,000 1985 142,000

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