It started as a small paper under a different name — born of Civil War controversy, it was torched by a mob after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
It was later taken over by a Harvard dropout who declared it a “miserable little sheet.” Legend has it that the paper was obtained by his father in 1880 as partial payment for a poker debt — and by all standards of logic, no one should have expected people to still be reading it today, 150 years after it began publishing as The Daily Examiner.
Despite these calamities and near-death experiences, boycotts, strikes and surreptitious politically motivated attempts to shut it down, The Examiner continues to circulate The City. Under William Randolph Hearst, the worldly and wealthy dropout-turned-mogul, The Examiner formed the mold for the modern American newspaper, with innovations like large-type headlines, celebrity columnists, comic strips, women’s pages and sports sections.
It was undeniably influential in the center of the booming West at the turn of the 20th century, and it was soon expanded into a worldwide media empire with the ability to start wars and prop up presidents to victory. It was, by all accounts, a powerhouse of ink and paper, built by Hearst’s heavy hand.
“He had an extraordinary sense of the newspaper as the public forum for society,” said Kevin Starr, the California historian, professor, author and former state librarian who also spent time as an Examiner columnist in the 1970s and 1980s. “He had a tremendous sense that ordinary working Americans — when they did have time to read — they would read newspapers.”
The Examiner originated in 1863 as The Democratic Press, a conservative, pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln paper that drew the ire of abolitionists after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination. The weekly Democratic Press, like other pro-Confederacy publications in The City, was systematically boycotted, and its offices were destroyed by organized mobs.
Democratic Party ideas — more aligned with today’s notion of right-wing sentiments than the Republican Party at the time — continued to permeate the newly launched Daily Examiner, which printed its first edition on June 12, 1865. The Examiner appeared less opposed to Lincoln and the Union, although it continued to lament the underpinnings of the Civil War and the makeup of the Republican Party as, according to the editorial in the paper’s first edition, “abolitionists, free lovers, and the rag-tag-and-bobtail of the entire fanatical tribe of New England.”
“Shoddy was its goal, and the negro its hobby,” said an editorial in The Daily Examiner’s first-ever edition.
THE HEARST LEGACY BEGINS
Nevada mining baron George Hearst, a successful businessman and future U.S. senator who grew up on a farm in Missouri, obtained the paper in 1880 primarily as a political tool to push Democratic Party agendas. With the paper operating under substantial debt, the younger Hearst convinced his father to let him try his hand at newspapering starting in 1887.
In a letter to his father, William Randolph Hearst described a “strange fondness for our little paper — a tenderness like unto that which a mother feels for a puny or deformed offspring.”
The younger Hearst, although astutely political in his own right, had different ideas about which readers the paper should target — namely, the working class of San Francisco. Still, his politics were complicated, and he fancied himself a sort of American king — or better yet, kingmaker — as he tagged The Examiner’s flag with the slogan “Monarch of the Dailies” starting in 1889.
“He was somewhat progressive, but largely because he wanted a huge readership so he could achieve political power,” said Gray Brechin, a historian, author and UC Berkeley professor whose book “Imperial San Francisco” chronicles Hearst as a major figure in The City’s infancy. “The Examiner was very sensationalistic, and appealed to the less-educated classes.”
As circulation boomed out West, Hearst’s power grew when he obtained the New York Morning Journal in 1895. He began to walk a controversial path through major historical events in which he became less and less an observer.
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR AND MCKINLEY ASSASSINATION
Hearst’s relationship with President William McKinley soured over The Examiner’s bombastic pro-war front pages and aggressive rants on the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba. Despite the murky details on whether Spanish colonialists were even involved in the incident, Hearst’s newspapers on both coasts pressured Congress and McKinley to launch the Spanish-American War. When McKinley was reluctant, the papers turned aggressive against the Republican.
After the turn of the 20th century, McKinley began to advocate more expansionist policies and the beginnings of the American economic empire, but Hearst’s papers continued criticism, culminating in an editorial that said, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.”
The famous short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, then an Examiner editorialist, penned a poem based on the killing of Kentucky Governor-elect William Goebel. It was seen by Hearst critics as a crude justification for McKinley’s 1901 assassination:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
Although Hearst claimed he personally wasn’t responsible for any incendiary materials, The Examiner fell out of favor with many. It didn’t help Hearst’s case when critics insisted that McKinley’s anarchist lone wolf assassin had a copy of a New York Journal editorial in his pocket at the time of the killing.
“People blamed Hearst for the assassination and he had to kind of go underground in a way,” Brechin said. “The paper was burned, and it was certainly boycotted.”
Like much of San Francisco, The Examiner’s offices and printing press were completely destroyed by the 7.8-magnitude 1906 earthquake and fire. A day later, the paper printed a joint edition with its chief competitors — the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Call — on the presses of the Oakland Tribune.
Survival of the paper in this case was tied to the reconstruction of The City itself, which might have seemed impossible at the time, based on the fittingly dramatic accounts of the chaos. The City’s water system was all but cut off when the quake hit, so burning buildings were dynamited in an attempt to keep flames from spreading.
“During the day a blast could be heard in any section at intervals of only a few minutes, and buildings not destroyed by fire were blown to atoms,” said the lead story of the joint edition on April 19, 1906. “Men worked like fiends to combat the laughing, roaring, onrushing fire demon.”
Many survivors of the quake decided to flee San Francisco, and The Examiner’s pages were filled with pleas for residents to be patient and ride out the rebuilding process. Golden Gate Park camps full of huddled refugees were told by the paper that the country is covered in fault lines that are equally prone to wreak havoc.
“As for the earthquake — that is a disaster that would not occur here twice in a thousand years … the danger in San Francisco is no greater than in New York or St. Louis or Denver.”
The paper operated out of temporary quarters until the iconic, and still standing, Hearst Building at Third and Market streets was completed in 1911, in place of the paper’s former home.
BOOM AND (NEAR) BUST
With The Examiner at its center, the Hearst empire acquired more newspapers, more radio stations and more news film strip enterprises, and it thrived through the first decades of the 20th century. The Examiner’s political power in San Francisco was unmatched by any other paper. In 1922, its circulation was 150,000 on weekdays and 300,000 on Sundays, when The City’s population hovered around 500,000.
But when the Great Depression took hold, readership fell, advertising tanked, and Hearst’s insatiable appetite for expensive rare art pieces began to present a problem for the media empire. It was estimated that Hearst had spent more than $50 million on his personal collection, the largest single amount owned by an individual.
“Hearst couldn’t stop spending. No one ever told him he couldn’t have stuff, so it was a hard habit to break,” Brechin said. “His empire nearly collapsed, so it eventually had to be reined in — and part of that was selling off parts of his art collection at a reduced price.”
In 1937, the Hearst company reported to the SEC that it was $35 million in debt, although it was known inside the company that the actual figure hovered around $125 million, prompting the selloff of art rarities from lavish Hearst Castle in San Simeon. At age 74, Hearst’s salary was cut from $500,000 to $100,000, and he was embarrassingly required to seek approval by the company for obtaining any new art pieces.
When Hearst died in 1951, The Chronicle had been gaining significant ground on The Examiner, a trend that continued when legendary columnist Herb Caen left The Examiner in 1958 for a second stint with The Chronicle.
The papers agreed in 1965 to form a joint operating agreement that would include shared business and publishing resources, but would keep editorial staffs separate, except for a joint Sunday edition.
The Chronicle, it was decided, would hit the streets in the morning, and The Examiner would print the afternoon release. Profits would be split equally regardless of circulation or revenue. The Examiner found itself suffering from waning interest in afternoon news, among other issues, like the ongoing development of television.
“We were the No. 2 paper in town with declining circulation. We were always in jeopardy,” said former Examiner editor Steve Cook, who started on the editorial staff at the paper in 1969. “But the spirit on the staff was sort of impressive — we actually thought of ourselves as the better paper in town, we thought we could show our morning rivals how to cover the news.”
Cook said while the Chronicle had Caen, and a better foothold in cultural stories, The Examiner attempted to be a straight-ahead news-driven paper that was splashy with its design and plucky in its execution.
“A little bit more creative energy in the news — in getting the news, and in telling the news, was always a hallmark of The Examiner,” Cook said. “And when you’re selling papers on the streets, as the afternoon papers did, the headlines became very important.”
THE END IS NEAR
As the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic rumbled through The City, the Chronicle continued to dominate The Examiner, leading many to question whether San Francisco would soon become a one-newspaper town.
A New York Times story in 1999 pinned the Chronicle’s circulation at 475,000, while The Examiner plodded along with a mere fraction at 114,000.
A short but nasty union strike in November 1994 had writers and pressmen protesting and rounding up the “scab papers” of their temporary replacements from the streets — out of shops and in some cases, people’s hands — to be piled in soggy heaps on rain-soaked Market Street. One teamster was even electrocuted when trying to cut power to an Examiner-Chronicle distribution center.
The strike was soon averted by a contract agreement, but a top-level management shakeup followed, including the 1995 departure of Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst III, the grandson heir who had taken over and attempted to revive the paper beginning in 1984.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, The Chronicle and its writer-emeritus Caen continued to establish the paper as the choice of The City’s elite, while The Examiner more or less maintained its status as the scrappy underdog that might sink at any time.
“Pictures were being taken of the staff for the front page of a big last edition, and they kept having to redo the picture as the paper just kept going,” said Rob Morse, a longtime popular Examiner columnist whose pieces served as a grittier counterpart to Caen’s brand of socialite whimsy. “I kept writing a last column, I must have done five versions of that last column.”
Finally, after years of speculation, the Hearst Corp. announced in 1999 that it would buy The Chronicle and attempt to sell The Examiner. Shortly after the announcement, other newspapers had concluded with near-certainty that The Examiner would die.
“California’s last two-newspaper city is poised to become a one-newspaper city, and the result is a civic free-for-all rife with celebrity bashing, a federal investigation, a state investigation, two city investigations, seething self-interest and a welter of resentments,” said the lead of an October 1999 Los Angeles Times story. “The continuing commotion highlights just how Balkanized life is in this beautiful but bellicose small town with its metropolitan pretensions.”
There were indeed drawn-out legal attempts to stop the deal, but a federal judge eventually allowed Hearst Corp. to obtain The Chronicle and essentially give away The Examiner to the Fang family, a politically connected and seemingly hapless group of businesspeople whose allies included San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The Fangs also received a $67 million subsidy from Hearst in the court battle.
Less than four years later — after the Fangs undertook an expensive remodel of the Warfield Building at Sixth and Market streets — the company began selling off its assets, starting with its smaller newspapers and then its printing plant, and eventually The Examiner itself.
THE CONSERVATIVE YEARS
The Fangs found a seemingly unlikely buyer for their San Francisco newspaper — one of the most conservative media moguls in the country. Denver-based entertainment entrepreneur Philip Anschutz bought The Examiner in 2004 and franchised its name to a variety of media, including new Examiner newspaper titles in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and an online user-driven content machine called examiner.com.
Locally, Anschutz’s short-lived ownership of The SF Examiner reached a crescendo of disfavor in 2008, when the paper, despite being located in a blue state’s bluest city, endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the presidential ticket.
Anschutz’s Examiner began bleeding untold millions with each passing year. The staff was told in 2011 that the figure could be near $7 million in annual operating loss. The time had come, Anschutz told high-level company officials, to shut down the paper. But then a buyer emerged as Canadian community news publisher David Black, leading a small group of new owners.
Today, The Examiner is published by the San Francisco Media Company, which is owned by Oahu Publications Inc.
Still feisty and focused on The City’s complex social issues, The Examiner continues to operate alongside its sister paper, SF Weekly, despite financial obstacles and an increasingly fragmented media landscape.
Considering its survival over the past 150 years, it’s not going away anytime soon. Based on its colorful and scrappy past, it will more likely reinvent itself again and again, and continue to be a lively and independent news source for San Francisco.