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So What Do You Do, Phil Bronstein?

The Chronicle's executive editor discusses buying out a quarter of his staff and his paper's bright future online

By Julie Haire - August 29, 2007
Say what you will about San Francisco Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein (and many people do), but the man has some serious mettle. With a background as a war correspondent in revolution-era Philippines and El Salvador among other places, not to mention one highly publicized marriage and divorce to actress Sharon Stone, he has tangled with the best of them.

Bronstein started his journalism career doing movie reviews for a local paper in Davis, Ca., (where he made the seemingly inexcusable error of omitting the movie's title in his first review). He started at the San Francisco Examiner in 1980 as a beat reporter and then did investigations before becoming their foreign correspondent, where his work covering the fall of the Ferdinand Marcos regime earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1986. After nine years overseas, he returned to a desk job and swiftly moved up the ladder, ultimately landing at the Chronicle when, in an anti-trust maneuver, Hearst sold the Examiner and bought the Chronicle.

He's managed to stay atop the Chronicle's masthead in times that could only be described as punishing. Current economic realities have not been kind to Northern California's largest paper, with dropping circulation rates, ever-shrinking budgets and recent buyouts that saw the 400-person staff reduced by 25 percent.

Despite the gloom, doom and downsizing, the 142-year old paper is looking to the future; Bronstein points to recent innovations that marry service, advocacy and interactivity, like the popular outing-public-officials feature "ChronicleWatch." Now the buzzword around the newsroom is "journalism of action," a Hearst-era phrase that casts the newspaper as activist-cum-solution-generator. Here, Bronstein talks about the paper, the profession and his detractors.

Name: Phil Bronstein
Position: Executive vice president and editor, San Francisco Chronicle
Education: "Virtually none. I was thrown out of at least two schools before I even got to college. And I dropped out of college."
Hometown: Born in Atlanta, grew up in a variety of places
First job: Reporter for a TV station (First "real" job)
Last 3 jobs: Managing editor, San Francisco Examiner; executive editor, San Francisco Examiner; executive editor, San Francisco Chronicle
Birthdate: October 4, 1950
Marital status: Married
Favorite TV show: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Last book read: God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell
Most interesting media story right now: "For us the most interesting media story is the killing of this editor in Oakland [Chauncey Bailey] -- fascinating. There are some cultural aspects that I definitely want us to get out of there."
Guilty pleasure: "I would say relaxation, but I don't remember the last time I really relaxed. Guilty pleasure is probably reading the tabloids, though not nearly as fun since News of the World went out of business."

What is a typical day like for you? How much actual editing do you do on a day-to-day basis?
We just went through staff cuts -- pretty significant -- so I'm doing a lot more. We have a continuous news desk, which is in charge of getting stories that are breaking and getting them on So I talk to [the editor] -- she gets in at 7 am., [and] usually by then I will have looked at the stories in the Chronicle; I get a couple other papers at home and I will have looked at them and some blogs and other Web sites. The next major thing that happens, other than informal conversations, is we have a 10 o'clock executive committee meeting with all of the company, so I represent the newsroom. 10:30 is our first formal news meeting. And then there's another meeting at 3 that kind of formalizes what's going to happen the next day, and I'll usually look at the pages either here or I can do it from home later on in the evening. And everything that goes on in between could involve the editing of stories, particularly Page One stories or special projects, investigative pieces. I'm always the last set of eyeballs on those.

You have an impressive history as an investigative reporter. Do you ever miss being out in the trenches?
Every day. Every day. Foreign reporting too...

Right. You were in El Salvador and the Philippines...
And a few other places... Peru, the Middle East. All the interesting places at the time.

When you came back to the US, did you immediately go into being an editor or did you spend more time being a reporter based here?
No, no, it was like windsheer. I immediately went into being an editor.

I've always thought not all reporters make good editors.
That's very true. And I think you'd have to ask the people I work with if that has to do with my case or not.

Do you feel like you had certain skills or tendencies that enabled you to make the jump?
Well, I think certainly think being a war correspondent doesn't hurt. You certainly learn how to deal with crises and [have to] attempt to remain calm in difficult circumstances. That's very helpful, especially these days in the newspaper world. I think what I brought with me from reporting, which I think all journalists and particularly all reporters ought to have, is two basic traits -- one is an abiding curiosity, like really, almost an obsessive curiosity, and the other is an open mind. There's a tendency in journalism to want to make things black and white -- this person's a bad guy, this person's a good guy. It just makes for more of a great Walt Disney tale, but life is not like that and people are not like that. And I think that's a valuable piece of information to have absorbed.

You seem to take a very practical approach from what I've read, like "People just don't tell the truth sometimes."
Well, especially, public officials. I think one of the key things that's made [Jon Stewart and] The Daily Show popular is that he seems to have an overarching principle, which is, if I'm reading it right, never take a public official at their word. I think that's not a bad way to go. Because people in a position of power and authority and institutions that are powerful and authoritative, their job is to create some mythology. And so one of the things we exist to do is to try to pull back the curtain on the mythology and see if it's just a little guy cranking up the wheel.

It's interesting you say that because I read -- you did that interview with -- and I read all the responses from the people...
You enter the blog world today, especially as an editor and probably particularly me because I have a slightly more unusual history than some, and you're just asking for it. And I knew that.

Some people were just so angry in response to your interview, talking about how they felt the Chronicle was very aligned with local politicians and government and sympathetic to the Bush Administration.
Boy, I tell you, I think if you ask any of those people you would not at all get that same reaction. We have had very contentious -- appropriately contentious -- relationships with a string of San Francisco mayors. If you ask [San Francisco Mayor] Gavin Newsome today if he felt the Chronicle was helpful to him, you would get an answer very different than what these folks think.

It's sort of like a no-win situation. You don't get love from any angle.
I think the expectation of love professionally is something that an editor should just not aspire to. I think it's an unrealistic expectation.

We do things like we sent Sean Penn to Iraq and Iran. We want to have some fun, and that's a good thing. Newspapers have taken themselves very seriously, this kind of "higher calling disease."

You recently told SF Weekly that you thought you'd negotiated enough buyouts with the staff to avoid any more forced layoffs. So you think it's good news for the foreseeable future?
Yeah, I think the foreseeable future is all we can talk about.

How do you think all these cuts -- almost 100 of 400 staffers -- affect morale?
Any kind of cut that size isn't going to make people happy. [But] I think people were not shocked -- maybe with the size of it, but we had put off cuts for quite some time when they were going on at a lot of other newspapers. It's always really difficult for people, you know, when it's their lives, their families, their livelihood involved. So we said in this meeting "It's over" and these are buyouts, not layoffs... But I do think, in discussing last week what kind of things [are in store for] the future, people actually clapped, which is pretty rare in the newspaper world.

Shortly after you joined the paper, you said you wanted it to lose its unserious or "goofy" reputation. Do you feel like you've done some things to succeed in that direction?
I hope I haven't succeeded completely. There's a question of credibility, which is more what I was trying to address. We've got a guy named Don Assmussen who does a cartoon called "Bad Reporter." He's so out there, in the great tradition of San Francisco satirists. And we do things like we sent Sean Penn to Iraq and Iran. We want to have some fun, and that's a good thing. Newspapers have taken themselves very seriously, this kind of "higher calling disease." Higher calling disease often [means] newspapers completely losing touch with the people they're supposed to be serving. The example I use, which may or may not have ever happened, is a reporter who says "I have a reader on the line, but I just don't have time to talk to them because I'm writing my story." I think there's been this piety in journalism that evolved I don't know where that has a lot of rituals that go along with it that people take very seriously, and I think there's been too much of that. So we've done some fun things. We took some people's calls, voicemails -- in essence audio letters to the editor -- and we put them in a podcast we call "Correct Me If I'm Wrong." One of them, this guy called up, ranting about how we used the phrase "unmanned drone" and whether it was redundant. [Ed Note: The actual offending phrase was "pilotless drone."] He just started yelling -- really interesting phone call. It was the first one we had and it went crazy all over the Web, people made ring tones out of it and t-shirts. So we like to have some fun, but that's a little bit different than credibility.

That leads me to my next question about your online presence and your recent promotion of former blogger Eve Batey [for the new position of managing editor of online]. Where do you see that going?
I think Ben Bradlee said not too long ago that "It's still about telling stories," and he's right. Only now we have all these useful technological tools that help us provide those narratives in a variety of ways, both in the telling and in the presentation -- on the screen, phones, Blackberries. So you combine our expertise at sussing out the story -- understanding what its essence is, vetting it -- with the wide variety of multimedia options and you get something that's much more interesting and much closer to the truth.

Are there plans to ramp up or expand what you're doing?
What we're doing is ramping up. Let me give you an example. A guy falls off Half Dome [in Yosemite National Park], and we sent a reporter to interview the rangers, report on the scene, come back, and do a very nice story about it. We also had Tom Stienstra, who is a very well-known outdoors writer, [do] a blog, and the blog got hundreds of responses, including from eyewitnesses. So suddenly you have, if you verify these, much more than just the ranger talking about what he understood happened, you've got people who were actually on the Half Dome -- above the guy who fell, below the guy who fell -- and you can create a much broader picture, a much bigger story of what actually happened. You also had people talking about what was wrong, why such a thing could have happened.

The next step is: Here are the problems and suggested solutions so then we can use the editorial page and whatever other means are appropriate and push for those changes. William Randolph Hearst created this thing called "journalism of action." Journalism of action is really about -- it's not about advocacy, which people particularly in the priesthood say you can't do in newspapers -- but journalism of action was described as connecting people to solutions. You don't just say, "Here's the information, good luck, see you later." Journalism of action is, in Hearst's case, they talked about his newspapers injecting themselves routinely and conspicuously correcting ills in public life. But in our own way, journalism of action is "How does this story affect me?" But the second important question is, "What can they do about it?" So we started this thing a couple years ago called ChronicleWatch. It's this little graphic box on the front of the local section. Basically people send us in problems -- pothole on my street, graffiti on the mural, light switch in my kid's classroom won't work -- and we have a little picture of the problem and then we find out who the public official is who's supposed to get paid to fix it, and we put his or her picture there along with phone number and email. And we run it until they fix it.

And how's the success rate on that?
Like 90 percent. It's huge -- and, by the way, the most popular feature in the paper. So people want that, and what's interesting, in a nice convergence, is that the Bay Area has probably the highest volunteerism rates of any place in the country. People want to get involved here. So this journalism of action, we sort of adopted the phrase, we can do it obviously in a contemporary way with all these other tools -- these technological tools. You don't have to just do the reporting; you can find out what the problems are, get a sense what the solutions are, and then, if you want to, push for the solutions.

It's like your readers are giving you your next angles.
Right, but then we in turn are giving them the information so they can go fix it. It's not like we're going to go fix it. It doesn't hurt that we have leverage as a major metropolitan newspaper and you don't want your picture in there next to a problem day in and day out if you're a public official. But it's really just a pass-through -- it's like we're saying to readers, "Here is the guy responsible. Go get him. Go make him fix it."

And they do.
And they do.

And that was another thing in the article. A lot of people felt you weren't doing enough local coverage.
Well, I did see that, and I think to some extent that's true because I think we were trying too hard, like a lot of major metropolitan papers, to be "buffet journalism" -- give you a little bit of everything. So we would have reporters in Iraq, the Middle East, in China, or Mexico. And I think there's so much that needs to be done here in the way of reporting and in the way of this journalism of action idea that we're going to be concentrating much more on that. And I think we're going to pick, with the staff's input, what we call "master narratives" -- major topics that are of significance here. Technology would certainly be one of them, green living is huge here. That doesn't mean we're only going to do those, but those are going to be areas where we're going to concentrate resources and time.

And does that mean more investigative journalism?
Investigative journalism is absolutely essential. You want to take some of the aspects of investigative journalism and use them every day. Certainly ChronicleWatch does. But we have a very good team -- you know the BALCO story came out of two reporters here. We will continue to have a strong investigative team, there's no question about it.

What's your response to [San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher] Bruce Bruggman's blog entry about the PG&E story and your consumer reporter David Lazarus -- he said the Chronicle totally avoided the biggest consumer story in San Francisco history?
That's been Bruce's line for 30 years, and I love him for it. Maybe one of these days he'll find another topic to complain about. I think he's single-handedly almost maintained this sort of curmudgeonly alternative weekly in San Francisco, and I think it's a great thing.

Which stories excite you the most?
I'm big on cultural stories, and I don't mean arts. I mean the culture of the place -- what is the underlying culture? When I was in the Philippines, I tried very hard not to just talk to the usual suspects -- the politicians, the clergy, the people who were directly involved in the battles over there -- but also the artists, the playwrights, the filmmakers and so on to get a real sense [of the place]. The Philippines was such a unique kind of culture -- it was a colony of Spain for 400 years and I think it was the only colony the United States ever had. And it was in the middle of Southeast Asia, so you had this strange interwoven tapestry. So understanding what that was about, and I think that's true of any story anywhere, you have got to understand the culture. News events are like pin balls -- boing-ing around, and to understand why they happened you have to have some sense of the underlying cultural story. So I love it when we're able to capture that.

To me I'd think having a diverse staff would then be very important.
Its' very important, and we're like a lot of newspapers -- we're really, really struggling with that. It's not just recruiting journalists from different communities but retaining them. And it's very difficult when you get talented minority journalists, and any paper that's not The New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post -- those three publications are going to come and scoop them up. Now that's not an excuse; that's just a fact. I think that's very critical, and we're a city that's 30 percent Asian, so I think if you don't have people on your staff -- and we do -- but if you don't have people on your staff who are a part of that community who understand or speak whatever languages are spoken, then I think you're going to miss something.

What will the Chronicle be like in 5 years, 20 years?
If I knew that I would be retired now doing consultant work when I felt like it. I have no idea. I do know that this paper is going to be much more of an activist, much more of an aggressive paper in the way that I described. And we'll use all the multi-media tools that we can get our hands on and use the web in whatever ways we can.

Do you see yourself with the Chronicle for the short and long term? Or that's not up to you?
A) It's not up to me, and B) I think it remains interesting to me. And I think as long as it's interesting, I'll have an interest in doing it.

I also wanted to ask you what your reaction is to Rupert Murdoch's takeover of the Wall Street Journal?
I think people have a big investment in puffing up their chests and offering opinions. And again, people like to see things in black and white. And Rupert Murdoch in some instances [has] been a bad guy, particularly if you're a fan of in-depth journalism. I read something today that said the head of the editorial pages is going to maintain some autonomy, but the editorial pages of the Journal are pretty conservative anyway. I'm not sure that that would be a big switch. It's a great, wonderful, raucous debate. Anybody who says they know for sure what the Journal will look like and be like in five years is blowing smoke. So I'm not going to sit here and be one more person offering a useless opinion.

Julie Haire is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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