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.
According to Meredith May, an East Bay bureau staffer who specializes in education, the paper's editors now run stories based on whether the issues are fascinating enough to engage the curious-but-disinterested readers of the Bay Area. "The way we pick stories is: will it play in Benicia?" May says. "Is it a good read no matter where you live? If the city of Oakland is raising your sewer tax, we won't write about it unless the issues around the tax are interesting enough for readers outside Oakland. With the schools and Jerry Brown, and with development and the diversity, I think in some ways we're the spice of the paper. Everything is more dramatic in the East Bay. The stakes in the Oakland schools are so high, Berkeley always does things its own way, we discovered that Fremont is the Afghan capital of the country."
The Chron can rationalize this strategy by citing the demographic profile of its East Bay readers. The paper's clear strength lies in Berkeley and the white enclaves of the Oakland hills, whose residents are much more likely to have moved here within a generation -- or, thanks to the dot-com boom, within the last few years. If Bronstein treats the San Francisco Bay as his city's private lake, it's because many of his East Bay readers also do so. As largely white middle-class professionals who commute across the bay and possess a high degree of social mobility, Chronicle readers can afford not to worry about what happens in their cities. Montclair executives don't have to care whether their police chief is Joe Samuels or Richard Word, because crime doesn't stalk their streets at night. And because so many are cosmopolitan transplants, they're much more interested in the next MOMA showing than McClymond High's football record, always faithfully recorded by the Tribune.
f the Chron delivers features to a detached, mobile middle class, the Trib tells working-class residents what they need to know about crime and city services. Despite a forbidding graphic layout and 600-word story length that cripples its writers' imaginations, the Tribune actually covers the waterfront. It commands the unswerving loyalty of the city's most devoted residents, the African-American flatlanders whose grandparents built the Liberty Ships and never moved off the block they settled sixty years ago. Some critics insist that the Trib's readership is just a nostalgic holdover from its days as a black-owned paper, but there's much more to it than that.
In the 1960s, as a wave of suburban settlement spread through Hayward and Fremont, Oakland Tribune editor William Knowland declared that the 'burbs were just a fad and refused to let his paper follow his readers. Successors from Gannett to Robert Maynard spent the next thirty years trying to live down Knowland's terrible mistake.
In the late 1970s, Oakland's African-American political class finally seized the birthright long denied them: control of City Hall. Over the next thirty years, as the black bourgeoisie tried to govern a sinking city, its constituents kept tabs on their leaders through the pages of the Oakland Tribune, which become the country's only black-owned major daily when Maynard bought it in 1983. Unfortunately, Maynard was a better newspaper man than a businessman, and as the Loma Prieta earthquake wiped out what was left of his paper's advertising base, he spent his last years fruitlessly trying to recapture the bedroom communities Knowland had scoffed at. In 1992, after the Tribune failed in its final attempt to colonize the suburbs, the suburbs colonized the Tribune when the Alameda Newspaper Group bought the paper and absorbed it into its chain of small-time dailies such as Hayward's Daily Review and the Alameda Times-Star.
The marriage of such incongruent sensibilities was rocky from the start. The very first issue of the new ANG Oakland Tribune displayed a full-page advertisement for handguns and assault weapons, breaking a long-standing promise not to pitch guns to a town beset by crack and a homicide rate that topped 170 deaths a year. Soon, white suburban columnist Ray Orrock was in, and Bill Wong, an Asian-American columnist with seventeen years at the Tribune, was out, as was veteran African-American editor Pearl Stewart. But despite its abundant flaws, the ANG saved the Trib; without its formula of a skeleton staff and bargain-basement ad rates, there would be no such thing as a daily newspaper in Oakland.
The Tribune may be a far cry from the days of 1989, when its photographers were winning Pulitzers for covering the very earthquake that helped seal its fate. But as long as every other newspaper is content to ignore the daily operation of the Bay Area's third-largest city, Oakland's readers will take whatever coverage they can get. UC Berkeley journalism professor William Drummond has watched the Trib's uneven fortunes for forty years, ever since he worked as a paperboy for Knowland's Tribune. Now he produces a radio show called Inside Oakland that challenges journalism students to move beyond press-release reporting by walking the streets and discovering the city's smoky vignettes. "The Tribune is essentially a generic ANG newspaper, a composite of all the stuff the chain is doing," he says. "What's called the Tribune is just stuff that happens to fall out of a warehouse full of stories that may or may not have something to do with Oakland. ... But even if the Tribune puts just one guy on City Hall, they're still doing more than anyone else. That's how much papers are interested in Oakland."
For better or worse, the approach shared by the Trib and upstarts such as the Berkeley Daily Planet may be the only way left to serve such cities with daily local news. The Chronicle may still be the biggest kid on the block, but its abandonment of serious local coverage underscores a dilemma that has confronted older newspapers for more than two decades: in a steadily declining market, how does a major metropolitan daily expand to the affluent suburbs without discarding its urban identity? As the Tribune shows, some people in the urban core still read local news after all -- black people. Oakland's African-American flatlands comprise one of the few remaining Bay Area communities with neighborhood continuity from one generation to the next, one for whom civic affairs still matter. This may well be the most significant commonality districts such as Elmhurst have with the sleepy bedroom communities of Contra Costa County: stability in the face of the profound social upheaval that is life in the Bay Area. Both the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune still serve their readers with nutritious, if sometimes bland, courses of local news every morning. As for the rest of the East Bay -- well, Tribune associate editor Peggy Stinnett put it perfectly when asked why the Trib's circulation drops like a stone when it crosses the border into Berkeley. "People in Berkeley don't need a newspaper," she said. "They just phone each other."
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