Back Story

The evolution of San Francisco newspapers from 1846, Part 1

in a three-part series
Herb Caen in his Chronicle office in the early 1990s (Photo: nancy wong / wikimedia commons)

Today most newspapers in San Francisco are tame lap dogs whose bark is worse than their bite. But it wasn’t always that way. This three-part series is about newspapers from 1846 to the present, and journalists who had a loud bark and a real bite.

San Francisco newspaper history is replete with notable journalists. They stride through the long public record in almost forgotten, brittle yellow clippings.

Like some sports heroes and movie stars, journalists can be vain, self-centered, egotistical, and frequently irreverent. Some like to get their names in the papers. They can also be intelligent, perceptive, witty, dedicated, good conversationalists, good storytellers, and good writers imbued with a sense of mission. And, they have their cliques and claques — followers who also like to get their names in the paper.

In the entire history of San Francisco newspapers — that is, from the mid-1800s to today — a few seminal figures, superstars if you will, have risen to the top like fresh cream in a milk bottle. Here is the cast of characters that made my personal cut.

In 1846, Mormon elder Samuel Brannan was the editor of the California Star, San Francisco’s first newspaper, and a pitchman for California’s Gold Rush. He was a hot-headed P.R. guy.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later to become better known as Mark Twain, was an itinerant journalist in the 1850s. He became a reporter for the old San Francisco Call, and occasionally wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in exchange for desk space.

A congenial spirit and friend of Clemens, Francis Bret Harte was the editor of the highly respected Overland Monthly. Harte and Clemens set a raw-boned and swaggering tone for western journalism of the time. Today if Bret Harte is remembered at all, it’s because of his classic short story, “Luck of Roaring Camp.”

In 1865, teenage brothers Charles and Michael de Young borrowed a $20 gold piece from their landlord and published a tabloid handout, the Daily Dramatic Chronicle that was full of gossip and theater notices. It was the predecessor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Their father was a jeweler and dry goods merchant.

United States Senator George Hearst, self-made millionaire, in 1887 accepted the San Francisco Examiner as payment for a gambling debt. He gave it to his son “Willie,” William Randolph Hearst, who wanted his own newspaper.

Fremont Older was a crusading, hell-raising editor of the Bulletin, considered a tough newspaperman’s newspaperman. He was a tireless fighter against civic corruption and a staunch defender of prostitutes.

Flamboyant, audacious, tough, and controversial were descriptors for boy wonder Paul C. Smith. He became editor of the Chronicle in 1935 when he was 27. Under Smith, the Chronicle became known as the New York Times of the West, but circulation went south, and Time magazine referred to him as “an aging boy wonder.” He lived in a showcase apartment on Telegraph Hill just below the summit, and held parties there that included celebrities like Noel Coward and Clare Boothe Luce, who drank single malt scotch out of crystal tumblers and intermingled with Chronicle editors, reporters and copyboys. The apartment on Telegraph Hill is still there. Smith is not.

Herb Caen joined Smith’s Chronicle in 1936 as a radio columnist but went on to become the man who reinvented San Francisco in his own image. Caen did not reflect San Francisco, San Francisco reflected Herb Caen’s Baghdad-by-the Bay column. If you didn’t read Caen’s column, you felt out of it.

When Scott Newhall took over as Chronicle editor in 1952 circulation was 170,000. The Examiner’s was 350,000. Newhall revived a raucous San Francisco journalism practiced earlier by Clemens and others and turned the Chronicle into a frisky newspaper that was fun to read. When the sometimes prudish Examiner started a campaign to put tops on topless dancers in North Beach, Newhall editorialized: “The trouble with San Francisco is not topless dancers, it’s topless newspapers.”

The Chronicle’s much-admired Stanton Delaplane was master of spare, boiled-down, whimsical sentences. He was a great prose stylist; none like him today. Herb Caen — himself not too shabby with words — likened Delaplane to Ernest Hemingway: “… he boiled down a sentence to its essence. The most hard-bitten editor couldn’t find an ounce of fat to trim.”

Cigar-chomping Bill Wren, who became city editor for the Examiner in the 1930s, went on to become a domineering, dominating, and daunting managing editor. It was said that he ran the city, telling politicians and the police how to handle their jobs.

In 1944, Thomas Fleming founded the Reporter, then San Francisco’s only Afro-American newspaper. He remained editor when the paper merged later with the Sun to become the Sun-Reporter. He ran a tight ship and got the news. A tough but sweet guy who had time for everybody.

Frances Moffat not only reported on the deeds and doings of San Francisco’s socially elite for the Examiner and then for the Chronicle, but she did so in a professional manner that positioned her subjects as an important force in the city’s economic and philanthropic scene. She took the position that her society beat was the equal of any other on the newspaper — politics, business and financial, education, health, technology, arts and entertainment, or sports. She was a helluva good reporter.

Early on, women reporters were known as “sob sisters.” But that put down by their male compatriots didn’t fly with conscientious women editors and reporters — among them Carolyn Anspacher of the Chronicle and Mary Crawford of the Examiner. Both hit the glass ceiling and broke through it.

Part 2 of this backstory on the “Evolution of San Francisco newspapers” will flesh out who these reporters and editors were and the role they played in the barking and biting of journalism through the years.

Send to a Friend Print
Ernest Beyl worked as a reporter for Paul C. Smith at the Chronicle. He was not quite a boy. E-mail: [email protected]