In the weeks leading up to election day, the East Bay's two dominant dailies served up virtually identical endorsements in the Oakland mayor's race. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune picked incumbent Jerry Brown for exactly the same reasons and with exactly the same reservations. "Although we haven't agreed with all of his initiatives, we believe Brown is steering Oakland in the right direction," the Tribune wrote. The Chron concurred, "We endorse Brown for re-election with our eyes wide open about his shortcomings."
Despite the similarity of their conclusions, how the two papers arrived at them was starkly different -- and speaks volumes about what kind of reader each paper is writing for, and why. Just ask challenger Wilson Riles, Jr., who sat down with the editorial staff of both outfits for an endorsement interview. The Trib's team was a bare-bones quartet of editor Mario Dianda, associate editor Peggy Stinnett, City Hall reporter Laura Counts, and Tom Tuttle, the Alameda Newspaper Group's editorial page director. But the four grilled Riles for two solid hours on an exhaustive range of issues, and Stinnett and Counts even challenged their bosses in front of the candidate. Meanwhile, the Chronicle's interview team was knee-deep in talent, from executive editor Phil Bronstein to veteran Oakland reporter Rick Delvecchio. But the meeting lasted barely an hour, and displayed none of the Trib's intellectual passion. "The detachment of the Chronicle was the major difference," Riles says. "The Trib folks were much more attentive, because they're immersed in what they're reporting. They see what they're covering every day, because they're here. But for the Chronicle, the issues are much more distant, so they're less engaged."
It's not merely a question of style, or even the Chron's West Bay epicenter, that determines these distinct approaches. According to the two papers' own circulation numbers, there are two distinct nations of daily newspaper readers in the East Bay's urban core: one that's primarily black and one that's chiefly white. And the values, priorities, and sensibilities of each community are reflected in the newspapers that serve them.
The Tribune is an urban, blue-collar flatlands paper suffocating under a template imposed by a suburban newspaper chain. It hungers for the deep pockets of white hills dwellers, but is leery of surrendering its local identity. The Chronicle, meanwhile, suffers from its own version of the Oakland self-esteem syndrome. It's convinced of its birthright as the fabled "Voice of the West," but struggling to maintain even Bay Area dominance as suburban papers owned by Knight Ridder nip at its edges. One paper reports to black and Latino hoi polloi whose parents often lived and died on the same block, the other to white and Asian professionals who often commute to San Francisco and hail from somewhere else.
When newspaper circulation figures are viewed side by side with Census Bureau racial data, a startling picture emerges: Who reads which paper depends almost entirely on race. In the Elmhurst District of East Oakland, where 54 percent of the population is black and another 38 percent is Latino, the Trib reaches 31 percent of households while the Chron reaches just 3 percent. In North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, where whites and Asians are 89 percent of the population, the Chron outsells the Trib 31 percent to 2 percent. In North Oakland's Temescal District, where blacks and Latinos slightly outnumber whites and Asians, the Trib has a similarly slim edge, at 21 percent to 16 percent. And in Oakland's immigrant-heavy Eastlake District, which possesses by far the largest percentage of Asian residents in the East Bay and where another 21 percent of the population is Latino, almost no one reads either of the dailies, whose combined circulation reaches less than 24 percent of households.
That blacks and Latinos read the Tribune while whites and Asians read the Chronicle takes on a special significance when one considers the content of each paper. In short, the black paper covers local news, the white paper does not.
The events of September 11 brought to an end the Chronicle's grand, if short-lived, experiment with local news. But in fact, the Chron's editors were thinking of killing off local coverage weeks before international affairs pushed the East Bay off its own pages. In 1997, the paper began an ambitious campaign of "regional zoning," publishing distinct metro sections for the East Bay, Marin, the Peninsula, and the Contra Costa suburbs and staving off the challenge of Knight Ridder papers such as the Contra Costa Times. Columnists Chip Johnson and John King were engaged to set the tone of local politics, and for a time Johnson reigned as the dominant voice of East Bay media.
Although Bronstein claimed that the end of regional zoning was due to logistics with the paper's printing press, Chron insiders say the suburban circulation numbers never rose high enough to finance the paper's ambitions. Once the recession devastated its advertising base, editors had to find a way to cut costs, but the army of reporters absorbed by the merger of the Chron and the Examiner had been guaranteed protection from mass layoffs. For Bronstein and colleagues -- the old Examiner editorial team, who for years had run a strictly San Francisco paper with little thought for the outlying 'burbs -- the choice was clear. Now, the Chronicle's East Bay bureau staff sits idle, as the metro section that once was its exclusive province swells with San Francisco stories.
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