The 'Ex' factor
What's the Examiner's billionaire owner up to? Nobody knows – but in San Francisco, his paper is forcing the Chron to cover local news

By Tali Woodward

When billionaire entrepreneur Philip Anschutz, a famous recluse, took over the San Francisco Examiner roughly a year ago, some people speculated he was searching for a mouthpiece to convert readers to his own brand of political conservatism.

But nearly everyone in the business world was dubious about that theory: the man Fortune magazine recently identified as "one of the nation's cagiest businessmen" has a proven talent for buying undervalued assets – including railroads and sports franchises – and finding a way to squeeze a buck out of them. Whatever his politics, it was hard to imagine he would take on any project he perceived to be a real financial loser.

Almost 13 months later, Anschutz has trademarked the Examiner name in at least 69 cities and launched the first sister publication in Washington, D.C. Back in San Francisco, almost 100,000 copies of the Ex are landing unsolicited on local doorsteps each day.

Get on any morning bus and look around: there are likely to be several people taking in the short local snippets and array of wire reports the paper offers. And the Ex is doing an amazingly good job keeping up with, and sometimes outdoing, the much larger San Francisco Chronicle on covering local news.

Mounting a challenge

When the politically powerful Fang family owned it, the Examiner had some limited clout, and the reporters who cycled through its offices occasionally did good work. But it was never even close to being a professional enterprise, and very few people took it seriously.

Today's Ex has fewer typos, cleaner copy, even a snappy, almost elegant, new design. Other than the fact that the paper's Web site is frequently not updated until the afternoon, there's little evidence that this is, by regular newspaper standards, a very bare-bones operation. Most people are shocked to learn that the paper has been getting by with only six reporters.

Adriel Hampton, who's been at the Ex since its early Fang days – and who just announced he's leaving to take a City Hall job – has consistently provided serious and timely political coverage. He has gotten stories the Chron missed and has also been attuned to trends the larger paper failed to notice, like former supervisor Matt Gonzalez's rising popularity before he announced his mayoral run. Other Ex writers have bolstered the paper's reputation with on-the-ground local coverage that captures community sentiment in a way the Chronicle rarely does. Ex reporter Bonnie Eslinger has kept pace with the Chron's schools coverage and at times has beaten the giant daily – for example, with the January story that school district bond money was unaccounted for.

During the week of Feb. 14 alone, the Examiner scooped the Chronicle on at least three significant local stories: the possibility of a downtown congestion toll in San Francisco, discussion of a transbay cable that would bring more electricity to the city, and proposed legislation to limit evictions. The Chron reported on the possible toll the following day but failed to mention either of the other issues.

But the Chronicle – which severely curtailed coverage of city news once Hearst Corp. took it over in 2000 – suddenly seems to be taking notice. On March 4 the paper launched a remade Friday section that focuses exclusively on city and neighborhood news. Although the first two weeks were pretty dull, it's a direct acknowledgment that even the Chron realizes it has some real daily competition.

N'Tanya Lee, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, told the Bay Guardian that "the decline in attention to local issues and politics" in the Chron over the past few years has been of major concern to her. Recently, she said, many people have told her that "whatever qualms they have with the Examiner, they actually look to it for coverage on schools and family issues" the bigger paper is simply not doing.

Still, she added that she remains somewhat puzzled by the Ex: "I'm still trying to figure out the political agenda."

Swinging right

Under its previous ownership, the Examiner's editorial positions were largely determined by the Fang family's alliances with specific politicians. Today the paper is less bound by local allegiances. But it espouses a general pro-big business, conservative ideology that's out of touch with the San Francisco mainstream.

Suspicions that the Examiner was going to provide an exclusively right-wing perspective peaked last August, with the hiring of Vivienne Sosnowski as the paper's new executive editor. Sosnowski had been an editor at several Canadian papers and had spent her last few years as editor in chief of the Vancouver Province, which is decidedly conservative. Even at the Province, her politics apparently went too far for some reporters, several of whom registered a complaint with the B.C. Press Council, an ethics organization, about Sosnowski's conduct during election time. They charged that she had removed coverage that made the conservative candidate look weak from later editions of the paper. The council dismissed the complaint, saying that it was out of its purview. (Sosnowski was headed out of town and unable to comment when we called her.)

Reporters say that Ex management encourages a very straight, unbiased take on the news, even under Sosnowski. Of course, that doesn't mean the Ex hasn't turned further to the right – it's readily evident in the paper's editorials. Last November, the Ex ducked endorsing either Bush or Kerry, but the editorial itself was significantly softer on Bush. On local issues the editorials often avoid taking any sort of stringent stand, instead mostly suggesting caution and careful planning. But there's a general tilt for private enterprise and against government programs.

Since its purchase by Anschutz, the paper has also been printing more opinion pieces by conservatives. Weekly columnist Kathleen Antrim typically writes columns lauding Bush – a recent installment called him "a man of incredible vision" with "a commitment to humanity." The Ex also frequently publishes op-eds from the Pacific Research Institute, a "free-market think tank" that supplies opinion pieces, at no charge, to whomever will print them. PRI opposed the Kyoto Protocol, and its CEO recently published a book about everything that's wrong with single-payer health care. Locally, PRI was heavily supportive of school privatizer Edison Schools' local foray.

Examiner chair Bob Starzel told us the Ex is not aiming to be a conservative paper: "We have all kinds of people who are on the page." He also challenged the idea that the Pacific Research Institute is conservative, saying, "I wouldn't say free-market is economic conservatism – I think free-market analysis is the dominant economic analysis." But later Starzel, who has been close to Anschutz for many years, said of the owner, "He wants us to be smart, to be analytical. He wants us to be pro-jobs, and therefore, pro-business."

Free – for the wealthy

The Fangs basically pioneered the practice of delivering free, unordered papers to city homes, with the Independent. But when they took over the Ex, they resisted that method, choosing to focus on free distribution from news racks.

A few months ago, though, the Examiner began to be dropped on doorsteps throughout the city – some doorsteps.

Starzel explained that home delivery was something "our advertisers clearly wanted" and that the papers are targeted "fairly closely, block by block" to areas where residents are likely to be between 24 and 55 and have a family income of at least $75,000.

This model – a tabloid paper full of short news items that's delivered free to wealthy areas – generated a lot of interest across the country, largely because it's an approach that's never been tried with a big-city daily.

Then, last September, Anschutz purchased a chain of community newspapers in the suburbs surrounding D.C. In December the Denver Post noticed that Anschutz had trademarked the name "Examiner" in at least 69 cities, including New Orleans, Phoenix, even Des Moines – implying that he saw a significant business opportunity.

Meanwhile, the Examiner is making news-gathering more competitive here – and demonstrating that even competition from a much smaller paper can have an effect on an entrenched metro daily.

Whatever Anschutz's intentions – whether to truly reinvent the newspaper medium or to convert U.S. residents to political conservatism – the Examiner is having more of an impact in San Francisco than it's had since its waning days as a Hearst-owned paper.

"Love or hate the Examiner, this is really the strongest it's been in terms of forcing a two-daily-paper town – which I think is good for the public debate, and the media climate in general," Hampton said.

Research assistance by Catherine Hess.

E-mail Tali Woodward