SF Chronicle’s oil spill coverage shines

The San Francisco Chronicle seems finally to have figured out what to do with what in spite of several waves of layoffs is still a pretty fat newsroom, turning in very good coverage of the disastrous oil spill that hit San Francisco Bay last week.

When I was managing editor of the San Francisco Independent from late 2000 through 2003, and earlier when I ran the Independent’s neighborhood section, we regularly scooped the Chronicle on San Francisco news. The Chron and the Indy weren’t playing exactly the same game, so comparisons of the major metro daily with the three-day-per-week free paper are difficult. But it’s a fact that the Independent regularly scooped the Chronicle (and, earlier, the Hearst-owned Examiner), sometimes by months.

When the San Jose Mercury News timidly ventured into San Francisco in 2000 or late 1999 with a handful of people, we weren’t surprised that the Indy ate the Merc’s lunch. But the Chron had an enormous newsroom based right here in San Francisco — how was it possible for us to beat them? I’ve always said that if you gave me the right six reporters, this town wouldn’t know which ear to stand on, but it’s always been perplexing that the Chron seemed to mill about aimlessly with so many good reporters on staff and other resources on which to call. On paper, it shouldn’t even be possible to get a scoop in edgewise over the Chronicle.

But since Wednesday’s Cosco Busan spill, the Chronicle has really bumped up its game, using both old-school print skills and electronic tools very well.

One thing print still does much better than the web is the front page. That is, it can present, in a single combination of type and imagery, the *idea* of an event or story with instantaneous power that the busy pages of news web pages don’t seem to be able to muster.

In 2001, one of the most iconic images to emerge from the media following the Sept. 11 attacks was the San Francisco Examiner’s front-page photo of the burning Twin Towers capped by the headline, “Bastards!” Sept. 11 and the Cosco Busan oil spill are vastly different stories, of course, but just as thechron_scoter “Bastards!” front page captured the zeitgeist of the moment, so did the Chronicle capture the feelings of many people who love or live in the Bay Area with its front page of Friday, Nov. 9. The image by Michael Macor, which filled almost the entire expanse of the front page above the fold: the head of a surf scoter, completely soaked in oil, cradled in the hands of a Marin surfer who tried to rescue it. The banner headline: ‘Heartbreaking’.

But beyond the headlines, the Chronicle also has had very good ongoing coverage of the spill and its impact. I’ll update this post soon with links to specific articles and resources, but for now just check out the coverage at sfgate.com.

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