Black and White and Read All Over 

Who reads the Trib and the Chron? It depends almost entirely on race.

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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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