Finding a voice in the media

February 2012

On a typical day in January, San Francisco Examiner readers picked up their paper and found that something was missing: an editorial page. It is something that is missing frequently from that tabloid, and though it might not be missed as much as an AWOL sports section or celebrity gossip column, it is more important than either of them.

Many San Franciscans are used to not having a voice in the media. Though this city is famously known as a liberal town, there is a working majority of moderates that regularly gets its way in mayoral elections but is ignored by most of the politicians and local press for the rest of the time. With the San Francisco Chronicle hewing to the progressive line (and reaping the benefits of seeing its mayoral endorsement of David Chiu fall flat), the Examiner has a great opportunity to stake out the broad middle and become a powerful voice for improving the city.

The time is right.

In late November 2011, the Examiner was sold by its right-wing out-of-state owner, Philip Anschutz, to an out-of-country owner, Black Press Group, which publishes about 170 other papers. Local media-watchers have been wondering if the new owners would continue the populist right-wing editorial voice of the Anschutz years or if they would go in a new direction.

It has now been long enough to expect to see the initial changes in the paper’s direction. Though the Examiner does appear to have accepted the reality that San Franciscans really don’t want an ultra-conservative editorial voice that reads like it was written in Dallas, it has not yet shown clearly what direction it has chosen. Instead, it relies too often on simply not having a voice. Sometimes there is a partial opinion section with little content. Sometimes there simply is no opinion section, not even a half-page. No letters to the editor, no editorial columnists, no editorial comic, no op-ed columnists, no unsigned editorials. In short, it’s a paper without a voice.

It’s like radio silence, and we’re left waiting to hear something through the crackling static that will be worth the wait.

The shame of it is that San Francisco could use a well-done daily editorial voice, one that isn’t lamely leftist and certainly one that isn’t populist right-wing. (Some of you might remember a few years ago when the Examiner devoted at least two full pages of opinion pieces to attacking ACORN – a tilt-at-windmills cause of the far right.) This city rather dearly needs an intelligent voice that can dissent from the prevailing political culture here, introduce new ideas, and give criticism that has a chance of being heard. The op-ed columns and many of the editorials of the Examiner’s previous incarnation had the dual problem of being too conservative for San Francisco while also being easily ignored because they echoed the worst of the fire-breathing populist conservatism that has taken over the Republican Party nationally.

San Francisco needs a daily voice that can be moderate or even conservative, but particularly one that is smart enough to get itself heard with well-reasoned arguments, that listens to its opponents, and that can engage the attention and loyalty of that huge swath of San Franciscans who repeatedly reject the far-left at the mayoral ballot box every four years.

That could be a rewarding business move, because it would be filling a void. It would also be a rewarding move from the perspective of a newspaper really serving its community. It’s one thing to tell people what they want to hear; it’s another to tell them what they might not want to hear but that can help them be better citizens. Worst of all is telling them nothing.

When the Examiner does take the time to produce an editorials section, it can do a nice job. Just two days after we noticed the no-editorials editions, the Examiner had a two-page opinion spread that included an unsigned editorial, a syndicated political comic, a syndicated op-ed columnist, readers’ letters, and the usual mishmash of quotes and stats. It was a decent effort. Not the greatest editorials section the world has ever seen, but it was at least worthwhile. It was also the least that the Examiner should have in every single issue that it publishes.

San Franciscans can only hope that the new owners of the Examiner are smart enough to grab the opportunity that’s in front of them. The paper should have a voice. It should speak to the people of San Francisco, and where appropriate it should speak for them.

John Zipperer is a San Francisco-based writer and editor. E-mail:  johnz@marinatimes.com