The San Francisco Chronicle – An Appreciation

The Wired saga has gotten surprising attention and if some inland subscribers to the New York Times found their Book Review supplement missing on June 27 it’s because my mother snuck up their steps and stole it. The New York Times review and the Washington Post review were gratifying, especially to my relatives, but out here in San Francisco the best review – in terms of pleasures offered – was David Kipen’s impressively kooky rant published in the always amazing local daily, The San Francisco Chronicle.

During the seventeen years I’ve lived in San Francisco, the Chronicle has provided endless fascination, though the reasons for this fascination have evolved as the paper has changed. When I arrived in 1986, the Chronicle was entering a long twilight period of staff-cutting and sale rumors. Still, the paper held on to remnants of its character. Though not impressive by conventional journalistic standards, the Chronicle had a kind of slumming intellectualism expressed in an eccentric mix of stories, especially local stories, that illustrated the range of human folly. The paper’s mordant humor came mainly from its desk editors and copy editors, whose witty headlines formed a satirical counterpoint to the workaday product of a struggling regional daily.

Items that would be lucky to make it into the police blotter column of the Metro section of a more ambitious newspaper – for instance, one afternoon a man posing as a podiatry student tricked several pedestrians into taking off their shoes, then licked their toes – would get major play in the news section of Chronicle under hilarious headlines , such as:

Foot Patrols Do Legwork to Disarm Toesucker

The paper had a talent for surprise, and since its more unusual items were unlikely to be replicated by other news outlets, you hated to miss a day.

As the years went by and its publishers spent more and more of their energy scheming to sell their newspaper, the Chronicle retained its capacity to surprise, but in different ways. The headline artists left, or perhaps they became demoralized. In any case, the old poetry was no longer there. Instead, there were editorial howlers and layout snafus. A typical Chronicle attention-getter would be a story culled from the wires that came to a brake-screeching halt on a sentence like:

“The Secretary said that there were two reasons for the failure.”

Readers would search in vain for any further information on what these reasons were. A desk editor had “cut from the bottom,” creating an accidental cliff hanger.

Just when San Francisco’s newspaper aficionados were tiring of the joke, the paper’s executives stepped in with a lengthy slapstick routine that occurred outside the newsroom altogether. The business value of both the Chronicle and its weak afternoon competition, The San Francisco Examiner, had long been artificially low due to the failure of either to achieve a monopoly. It was time for one of them to sell out. But the Justice Department, under President Clinton, threatened to make trouble. So San Francisco’s mayor, Willie Brown, who was influential with national Democrats, was offered favorable editorial coverage by the Examiner’s executives in exchange for supporting a sale. This sort of thing is typical of San Francisco, as was the incompetent denouement: in some awkward courtroom testimony, a top Examiner editor accidentally blurted out all the details of the cheap conspiracy.

But the citywide laughter had a rueful tone this time, for however silly the city’s dailies had been, we had hoped that they were not corrupt. And despite the exposure, the paper was sold after all. The Chronicle went to the owners of the Examiner and the Examiner was given away to an ill-prepared local fellow who vowed to keep publishing it for a few years, mollifying the Justice Department with an illusion of competition.

What would happen under the new regime? Would the paper improve or continue to decline? Would it become a serious West Coast voice, as promised by editor Phil Bronstein? Or would it sink further?

The answer was unexpected. The paper neither transformed itself nor went down the drain. Rather, it began to recover its old, silly, lovable identity. For instance, just recently the top story was a lengthy, insignificant account of a man who went up to his regular vacation spot in the Sierra foothills and found that his little prefab dwelling had been taken away, apparently by a thief with a trailer. Also, the man’s carefully refinished bed was gone. The missing home and bed trumped all the war news, economic news, local news, news of the governor’s recall. Why? Perhaps because somebody came with a pretty good headline, especially funny when blaring out above the Chronicle logo from every news stand in the city:

Who Stole My House?

Which brings us, by way of a commodious digression worthy of Chronicle columnist, to the paper’s review of my book. David Kipen seems to have generally enjoyed Wired – A Romance, and I’m glad he did. But at the end, Kipen launches into a bizarre, two paragraph attack upon a typo. I went racing to my copy. To my chagrin, the fault Kipen found was genuine. In the name of Andrew Hoyem, who is mentioned in connection with the history of printing in San Francisco, there was indeed an “a” where there ought to have been an “e.”

Kipen concludes his review with a bold condemnation of the author – that is, me – to hell:

“But to muff the name of a man who’s devoted his entire life to impeccable typography … well, there’s a special place for such offenders, and printer’s devils aren’t the only devils who dwell there.”

After reading this sentence twice, I began scratching my head. What an unusual climax to a book review! There’s something incoherent about it – almost mad. I found myself wondering not about Kipen so much as about his editor. Was there nobody to say, “Dave, you might have irritable the day you wrote this, or you might have been rushed, or even drunk, but you’ve got to find another conclusion! You’re raving!”

And then there was the bold-faced sub-head that appeared above Kipen’s wind-up. The headline (and I swear to my out of town friends that I am not making this up) read:

Unspeakable Literary Crime

For a day or so, as local acquaintances saw the review and called me to wonder about it, I was as baffled as the rest.

Chronicle fans on my favorite BBS, The Well, solved the mystery. Because I had an interest in Kipen’s story, I hadn’t read it with the proper detachment. I’d forgotten, despite years of connoisseurship, that the absurd mistake of scale and emphasis is one of the Chronicle’s great techniques of wit. It is not always conscious wit. Sometimes the paper is joking – but more often the copy editors are having a joke on the paper. On The Well, one of the readers pointed out the top headline in Kipen’s review. The headline, reproduced exactly, was:

How Wired Magazine Losts Its Spark

This is the old Chronicle voice – the Joycean parody, the exact simulation of an error that is one shade too funny. Where Kipen postures stupidly, his editors the posture outrageously and yet, all the same, slyly. There has been, indeed, an “unspeakable” literary crime involving a typo . To see what it is, go back and try to read this headline out loud.

The anonymous Chronicle jokesters of the rim and the slot – to use old newsroom lingo for the copy desks– are at it again. If I were Kipen, I’d watch myself. He’s got some clever enemies handling his text, and they are taking a subtle revenge.

(The review, in all its uncorrected glory, remains available on the Chronicle web site, here.

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