They buried Bill German on a hilltop overlooking Mt. Tamalpais Sunday, a great editor whose 62-year career at The Chronicle spanned the last great era of newspapering in San Francisco.
Mr. German was a principal player in the Bay Area’s final, fierce and full-scale newspaper war of the 1950s and ‘60s, which secured The Chronicle’s dominant position in the market. “The Voice of the West” then boasted “the largest circulation West of the Mississippi,” back before the World Wide Web, when that really meant something.
Working mostly behind-the-scenes for a half-century afterward, he was a driving force at the Chronicle and in the community, a tough, wise and sometimes tyrannical editor, whose ideas, values and standards shaped the way his audience saw and learned about themselves and where they lived through the pages of the paper, during decades of economic, political and social transformation in the region.
Mr. German, who died last week at his home in San Rafael, was 95.
“He had an absolute feel for what the readers wanted,” said Jack Breibart, himself a superb news editor, who worked for 25 years for the late Mr. German. “He was a great newspaper editor who could do everything on the paper.”
Stomping the Examiner: That bottom line comment appeared in the paper’s obit, written by fellow Chronicle lifer Carl Nolte. Nolte’s piece in itself was a tribute to “German,” as he was inevitably called in the newsroom.
Composed and ordered in the understated style of wordsmithing the late editor favored, it offered a clear and focused account of German’s career, from the great newspaper war to his final years, in a felicitous voice well suited to sophisticated readers.
He worked first under legendary Editor Paul C. Smith, and then under the flamboyant Scott Newhall, whose idea of newspapering was to lure readers with entertaining headlines and stories and keep them interested by producing solid journalism.
Newhall had the ideas; Mr. German made them work. He looked for offbeat stories especially in the 1950s and ’60s when The Chronicle was in an old-fashioned newspaper war with the old San Francisco Examiner, then the largest newspaper north of Los Angeles…
As editor, he picked the top stories and figured out how to play them in the paper. Some of them were pure entertainment — like the paper’s fabled Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt, or a series denouncing the city’s purveyors of coffee: “A Great City’s People Forced to Drink Swill”…
Newhall and German defeated the once-mighty rival Examiner on the streets, but the plutocratic owners of the two papers soon after cut a backroom deal to share publishing expenses while keeping the newsrooms separate; by the 1990s, the small circulation afternoon Brand Ex, as Herb Caen called it, was a financial parasite, sapping revenue and investment capital from the popular morning Chron.
But in 2000, the Hearst Corp., the Examiner’s owners, bought out the Chronicle’s family proprietors and relegated German to the post of “editor emeritus.” In an alleged “tribute” to German last week, former Hearst CEO Frank Bennack termed him “a hugely talented and tough editor who was, to say the least, a formidable competitor for our Examiner during the years before Hearst acquired The Chronicle.”
This just in from the California Republican Party: Jerry Brown is “to say the least, a formidable competitor for our Neel Kashkari.”
Calbuzz looks back: For a Calbuzzard who spent a quarter century working for him, the lasting image is of a 65-year old German happily tossing bundles of the competition’s papers into a dumpster at the Moscone Center on the third night of the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
The Chron got an early copy of the morning paper into the hands of newly nominated presidential candidate Walter Mondale, proclaiming his victory across six columns; Mondale hugely grinned while displaying it for network cameras and wire service photographers in his hotel suite; pleased with the beat, German didn’t want pictures of the other guys’ early paper, distributed on the convention floor, on national TV too – and personally made sure it wouldn’t happen.
German was a terrific line editor, meticulous, demanding and invariably right, who always sent columnists marked-up printouts with Zen-like, red ink judgments: “Just words” was code for an utter failure; “Good one” was high praise.
His long battle with the entrenched and eccentric City Editor Abe Mellinkoff was legendary. German finally won the war, and the late Mr. Mellinkoff was banished to the op-ed page.
Commenting on a particularly abstruse Abe offering, German returned it to the page editor with this bottom line: “Solution Tomorrow.”
A political reporter, back in the office after months on the campaign trail in 1988, was summoned to German’s office by Helen Greene, his sweet, school librarian secretary, with the six words that chilled anyone who heard them: “Bill would like to see you.”
Seething about the correspondent’s overly eager efforts to be funny in his weekly column, Mr. German offered a mortifying tirade: “Take the goddamn lampshade off your head,” he began, finally ending with a trademark wave that meant, go and sin no more.
“Sitting next to Bill on the news desk was an extraordinary experience that went far beyond editing,” recalled Dave Hyams, one of his bulldog news desk protégés.
“Bill was the impresario of our unique story selection, mixing important politics with reader-grabbing entertainment; master of the Chronicle’s bare-knuckles office politics and turf wars; and thankless buffer for the newsroom without alienating the owners — all done with impish humor and an appreciation of arcane references to movies and sports. The smartest person in the room.”
Former Sports Editor John Curley said German provided him “one enduring bit of advice about editing a section that has carried over” to life in general: “‘if you see a piece of dog shit on the sidewalk, don’t step in it.’”
The healer: Tough as he was, German earned lasting affection from staff members during and after the bitter 1994 newspaper strike.
When management was publishing an anemic edition throughout the strike, German served as fill-in editorial page editor. Rather than predictable anti-union attacks, he wrote delightful, if meandering, reflections about everyday pleasures, including the glories of pasta.
Current editorial page editor John Diaz recalled that after the strike, German led the band of executives who stood at the door to welcome back Guild members with handshakes.
As the staff gathered in the newsroom, tensions and awkwardness at peak levels, German acknowledged that management’s clumsy attempt at a strike paper (thin stories under comical pseudonyms) was no match for the workers’ enterprising online…alternative, the Free Press. You outdid us, German told the returning workers.
“You are The Chronicle,” he told the troops.
RIP: Last Sunday, about 70 people said farewell to Mr. German at a Jewish burial service on top of a hill at the Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery. Present was an all-star lineup of Chroniclers past and present, including Nanette Asimov, Tom Benet, Breibart, Dave Bush, Bruce Colvin, Audrey Cooper, Diane Curtis, Tom FitzGerald, Gary Fong, Leah Garchik, Richard Geiger, Caroline Grannan, Jesse Hamlin, Hyams,
Josh Jeff Johnson, Rod Jones, Marshall Kilduff, David Kleinberg, Gerald Nachman, Nolte, Dave Perlman, Dick Reinhardt, Dan Rosenheim, Steve Rubenstein, Peter Stack, John Stanley and Judy Stone.
Best line of the day, from son Steve: “We’d never let him see our school papers, or else he’d edit them.”