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Richard Rodriguez: The Death of the SF Chronicle

New America Media, Audio, Posted: Jun 06, 2009

Rumors of the San Francisco Chronicle's death may be exaggerated, but there have been endless forums about what would it mean for San Francisco. What do you think?

Were asking the question backwards. I don't think the Chronicle is dying so much as I think that San Francisco is dying. When a metropolitan newspaper of that magnitude stops publication it indicates that there has been a death of the metropolitan ideal. Newspapers in America, most of them, the ones that are dying now were 19th Century inventions, and they came at a time where America was new to itself, when people had no idea what it meant to be in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Denver, Colo., or Seattle Wash. So the newspaper really provided a sense of place. That's what's dying.

Is that because people are getting their sense of place from somewhere else?

Americans are going to news outlets, not for what news used to provide -- the sense of the local, the sense of the parochial, the sense of this place--but rather almost as an escape from place.

When the San Francisco Chronicle was founded in the 1860's, the American city of San Francisco was almost 10 years old. Here come two teenage boys, both the young boys, and they found a newspaper that is exactly the reflection of their city. They start first with a broad sheet, a theatrical newspaper. Within three years, it becomes a city newspaper because the city already needs news of itself, it needs police news, it needs news about its real estate, about its building, about the ships coming into the port. That city becomes parallel to the newspaper that published about it, and it then is breathed life into by the city.

Does that mean though that a newspaper is not keeping pace with the city that it is part of?

The San Francisco Chronicle about 10 years ago stopped publishing [free] obituaries. It just publishes page after page of paid obituaries. Well, when obituaries are no longer the business of newspapers, just as when wedding announcements are no longer the business of newspapers, or birth announcements as they once were, that means that that city has no way to remember itself or to think about itself.

In some way the failure is simultaneous. I've had a number of friends of mine that have died in San Francisco; they did not want any newspaper notice taken of their death. When you have increasing numbers of people, who are no longer interested in having other people know about their coming or going, it seems to me already the civic fabric has been ruptured, and that's what happened in San Francisco. It may be 30 years in the making, but it's happened now, and we blame the Internet or we blame computers.

Do we also blame the fact that the citys demographics are changing so rapidly? It's a one-third Asian city.

That's a large part of the problem. The San Francisco Chronicle was never an Asian newspaper, even in the 19th Century when it should have been. This was a Chinese city even then.

In its Golden Age --the era of Scott Newhall, the brilliant editor of the 1950s and 60s-- the Chronicle was not a newspaper but basically a collection of columns, feature writers Herb Cain being the most famous. Well, none of them was Chinese, none of them were writing about the Chinese or the Filipino or the Central American city. That was the failure of the imagination in the Chronicle.

By the 1980s, already there is the sense that San Francisco is losing interest in itself. There's a woman named Cyra McFadden whos writing about Marin County in the San Francisco Examiner. That becomes a serialized novel in the Examiner, it's almost unprecedented because San Francisco Examiner conceit has always been that San Francisco is where the city is interested in, and the rest-- Oakland, Walnut Creek, San Ramon--these are not places of interests, these places should be interested in San Francisco. That balance shifted, and now those people in San Ramon don't read the Chronicle, it has nothing to do with them.

Part of that Golden Age was Armistad Maupins Tales of the City, which began as his columns and made people want to come to San Francisco. Is that era over because of the Internet?

Armistead Maupin invented some aspect of the Castro district at a time when nobody was asking for it to happen, but that's the power of literature to tell people something that they didn't know about themselves. When it passes as a column and those books passed, then people are sort of, I guess we don't need that anymore, or we know about it, but in fact we don't know about the Castro district in anyway like that. When Armistead Maupin was writing Tales of the City, that column was serialized around the world. People were interested in it in Australia, in New Zealand, in the South. We don't need it, and yet when we have it it clarifies everything to us.

Is it because that sense of the neighborhood itself is being lost in the world?

Neighborhoods are distinct, but we don't have anyone to distinguish them. That's the function of a writer, and what newspapers are doing now is not only firing news staffs, but they have also fired feature writers that used to be a component of what a newspaper was.

When the Chronicle was in its infancy, writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Pierce were writing columns for the paper that were sent around the world. People were interested in it, not because there was something inherently interesting about San Francisco, but because Mark Twain found a way of talking about that. You know the loss in New York in the 1950s of the New York Herald Tribune in my mind strikes me as a loss that New York has not recovered from in 50 years. That was the great newspaper in my reading of New York. They had writers like Walter Lippmann. Tom Wolfe wrote for the Herald Tribune, Jimmy Bresslin wrote for the Herald Tribune.

The New York Times remains one of the great news gathering organizations in the world, but it is not the home of great writing in the way that the Herald Tribune was. The San Francisco Chronicle, until about the 1970s, was home to a number of good writers. No one talks about that. We talk about newspapers, but newspapers are about something much more intimate, something more local, something more flavored than merely news. I say " merely news," by which I mean that there is some other aspect of the drama of our lives that newspapers used to be attentive to.

Listen to the full audio interview with Richard Rodriguez


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