For years I'd been considering painting the San Francisco Chronicle building at 5th and Mission. I 'd hesitated because the location seemed so difficult. When the Hearst Corporation announced it was shutting down the Seattle Intelligencer and eying the San Francisco Chronicle for closure, I hurriedly set up my easel on what Leah Garchik would describe as a “boomerang shaped traffic island”. This was one of the busiest sites at which I've worked. It was also one of the most interesting.
I started Sunday, March 15 . There was a strong wind and heavy clouds. I got soaked and my easel very nearly blew over into the traffic but I managed to block in an ominous sky.
Monday, I'd just started painting when I caught sight of Joel Selvin striding towards me in a maroon overcoat. Like everyone that I would talk with, Joel was concerned about the future of the paper, but, unlike most, he was not upset about leaving. “I'm 59 and I have a book deal. So I'm taking a buyout. I started here as a copy boy when I was seventeen. It was so different then. You know, the presses used to be down there.” He pointed to the far end of the building. “When they started to roll the building would rumble and shake. You felt the building lurch and you knew we were going to press. There were grates over those windows. Hot air would be driven out by the machinery. After work I'd stand on the street below inhaling the smell of the presses.”
Over the next few weeks, as I talked with reporters, columnists, editors, copywriters, and teamsters about the crisis, I had the sensation that I was standing in the eye of a storm. Of course, the Chronicle's drama was unfolding against the backdrop of collapsing economic institutions, and the huge brouhaha over "retention bonuses" at AIG which added a surreal dimension to this local event.
An insurance agent “between jobs” stopped to chat. Referring to AIG, he volunteered his opinion of management in the insurance industry. “These guys at the top, four rungs above me, with their Yale and Harvard degrees, all they know how to do is play golf, walk around in expensive suits, and tell you where to eat that'll cost you $ 300 or more. They couldn't run a hot dog stand!” When I asked him about his chances of finding another job. He replied confidently.”Oh I'll find another job. I know how to talk.”
Chronicle writers and staff were less sanguine. Being in the newspaper business they had a sense of the “big picture” and they could see that that if they took a buyout or were laid off they would probably never have a job like this again. I became aware of a real esprit de corps which in the current circumstances was accompanied by gallows humor: I was told that the joke making the rounds was that the paper must be going under because it was having its portrait painted.
Kenneth Baker passed by on several occasions. One day he remarked on the ominous clouds in my painting. I told him that they had taken this form almost by accident. That I was pleased with the 'fissure' in the clouds falling diagonally towards the silhouetted Chronicle building. “More like slow lightening.” he replied.
Just about every afternoon, around the time that I put on the clock, the Executive News Editor, Jay Johnson, would stop on his way to work. One afternoon, observing his long face, I asked him how he was doing. “Not so well. Last night I had to say goodbye to a hundred and twenty employees.”
Friday, March 3, was the last day for many of the 120 who'd opted for buyouts. Steve Rubenstein and a number of other reporters paused to chat with me on their way to a final lunch. Steve posed for a photo next to my painting. An associate told me that Steve was brokenhearted to be leaving, but that staying was too risky.
This last observation was reinforced by a younger reporter, Jonathan Curiel, with whom I had a stimulating conversation about the Middle East and about Robert Fisk whom he had interviewed. I inquired if he had taken a buyout. “No, but maybe I should have. The paper needs to shed another 30 people. They could fire me next week.”
Shortly after he left, a gentleman stopped whose wife was completing her last day at the paper. “Who's going to monitor our local and national government if we lose our newspapers?” He asked, “ It's newspapers that generate most of the investigative reporting. I don't think Americans realize what the loss of newspapers will mean for our democracy.” “A democracy that we barely salvaged in the last elections.” I added. He nodded grimly and crossed the street to meet his wife at the entrance on Mission.
A lifetime subscriber, who'd overheard him, shared her concern. “ I'm so upset. Every time I receive my paper it's a little thinner. It's like watching someone on chemotherapy. I just hope it survives and recovers.”
Those who remain at the Chronicle, and many good people remain, must strive that much harder to reinvent it. To somehow link it effectively into cyberspace while remaining a tangible paper of record. Non profit institution, investigative reporting by subscription, these and many other ideas swirling around probably need to be explored.
Whatever our criticisms of the paper (and Chronicle readers are a diverse and critical bunch) the paper functions as our public square. It is a place. It leaves a permanent record. The mercurial internet is everywhere and nowhere. Words cut into stone in the ancient forum. Words printed on paper today. Ok, so I can print words from the internet and pass them around to my friends. But will they be in news stands on the street, in coffee houses, on breakfast tables all over town? Will they remain as part of the common historical record in ten or twenty years?
Friday, April 10 my last day on the street I spoke for a few minutes with Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Lois Kazakoff. She had no doubts as to the value of the Chronicle. “ It tells our stories.” she declared.
Like it or not, over the years the Chronicle's reporters, editors, columnists have laid the cobbles or bushwacked the trails that constitute much of the intellectual landscape that we navigate in the Bay Area. We should all work to keep this institution alive.
I am offering a special of $5 Shipping & Handling on all prints on paper. Prints on canvas are also available online. To purchase the original painting please inquire: [email protected]