Serving the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle was established in 1865 by two teenage brothers. Since achieving the largest newspaper circulation on the United States West Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle continues to provide the city with crucial daily and Sunday news. The newspaper has won six Pulitzer Prizes over the years for its journalistic excellence.

Our blog post explores the history of the San Francisco Chronicle, going right back to its founding in 1865. Our newspaper archive contains back issues of the San Francisco Chronicle, so you can read an original newspaper from your chosen date.

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Establishment

The newspaper was established as The Daily Dramatic Chronicle by teenage brothers Charles, aged 19, and M. H. de Young, aged 17, in 1865. In the Wild West at the time, San Francisco was the largest city, despite only having 60,000 inhabitants. The brothers declared that the newspaper would be“a daily record of affairs — local, critical and theatrical.” In their very first issue, the boys stated “We make our politest bowand “We shall do our utmost to enlighten mankind . . . and San Francisco . . . of actions, intentions, sayings, doings, movements, successes, failures, oddities, peculiarities, and speculations, of ‘us poor mortals here below.‘”

In order to fund the creation of the newspaper, M. H. Young managed to borrow a $20 gold piece from his landlord. Freely serving the San Francisco area, the newspaper was a four-page tabloid which the brothers claimed would be “the best advertising medium on the Pacific Coast.” Charles and the boy’s other brother, Gustavos, were featured on the initial masthead. The paper was small to begin with, and was distributed free of charge in all the restaurants, saloons, reading rooms, stores, boats, cars and among the audience at Worrell’s Olympic.

Three years after the newspaper was founded, the brothers decided to extend their tabloid to cover news daily, and the first issue claimed that the newspaper would be “independent in all things, neutral in none.”  It only took 10 years for the newspaper to achieve the highest circulation westward of the Mississippi River.

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Original Building, Office and Headquarters

After searching for their new headquarters, the two brothers decided to commission a building at 690 Market Street, from Burnham and Root, one of the most famous architectural companies of the 19th century. The new headquarters was situated at the corner of Third and Kearney Streets, which would later become known as Newspaper Row. The building was the first skyscraper to be built in San Francisco, and was finished in 1889.

Following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the building was damaged. Burnham’s associate in the city, William Polk, was in charge of the rebuilding. The building became known as the DeYoung Building, or the Old Chronicle Building, and still stands today. It’s now a historic landmark of San Francisco, now housing the Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences. 

In what is now known as the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood of San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle moved to a new headquarters in 1924. The headquarters was located at 901 Mission Street, on the corner of 5th Street. Charles Peter Weeks and William Peyton Day originally designed the building in the architectural style of Gothic Revival, however, the Gothic details were taken down in 1968. This was at the time that the building was re-clad with stucco. With other companies now based there as well, the building continues to be the headquarters of the San Francisco Chronicle in the present day. 

san francisco chronicle history

San Francisco Chronicle Building
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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The Early Dramatic Chronicle Days

The newspaper began with a very interesting format, being made up of a theater program, newspaper, satirical review, and many adverts. The first issue of the newspaper featured a big news story of the death of the statesman Edward Everett, who’s address at Gettysburg has been greatly overlooked by that of Abraham Lincoln.

The newspaper began as a lighthearted publication, bringing together anecdotes, jokes and theater news. Author Mark Twain contributed some jokes to the newspaper in return for office space, and Bret Harte was another famous name who wrote for the newspaper. When the two men achieved their fame, the newspaper regretted not giving them a byline at the time of their contributions. The publication was printed very small in its early days, achieving a circulation of 2,000. The brothers would go to theaters to collect the newspapers and send them to hotels. 

By the end of 1865, the paper reached a circulation of 6,000, and in 1868, circulation got to 8,000. The brothers recognized that printing mostly about theater and shows was limiting the newspaper, and decided to replace the Dramatic Chronicle with the Morning Chronicle. The brothers claimed the new newspaper would be “a bright, bold, fearless and truly independent paper.” The Morning Chronicle focused on covering big news stories throughout the 1860s, including the 1868 San Francisco earthquake, which has been deemed the greatest disaster in the history of the city, and their biggest story, the transcontinental railroad completion in May 1869.

In 1870, the population of San Francisco had been recorded at 150,000, meaning the city’s population had become more than twice the size in one decade. 

Lincoln’s Assassination

When M. H. de Young visited their local telegraph office one morning in  1865, their newspaper already printed for the day, the manager informed the brother that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Despite their newspaper already in circulation that day, de Young took the opportunity to print an extra edition of the newspaper. 

Other newspapers were experiencing significant, and violent, backlash to their stories for ridiculing the late President, which the Dramatic Chronicle benefited from as they could feature this in their afternoon addition. The Chronicle’s feature about Lincoln’s assassination marked its first major news story, establishing the publication as a worthy news source that had beaten its rivals to provide the public with a big scoop. 

The Death of Charles de Young

San Francisco in the 1870s was an ever-growing city, experiencing business prosperity in the day time, and crime, prostitution and gang culture at night. Chris Buckley was at the head of politics at the time and with a drought and depression in 1877, political orator Denis Kearney began to proclaim the “The Chinese must go!” and “Bullets must replace ballots!” His views reflected the notion of “hanging the rich” and his mobs attacked Chinese citizens and frequently roamed the streets of the city. 

The newspaper greatly opposed Buckley, and particularly Kearney, calling the latter man “a political mad dog” and wrote negatively about Isaac Kalloch, his candidate for the role of mayor. The Chronicle discovered that Kalloch had an irregular past and decided to print a big feature that exposed the man, who was also a pastor. In response, he greatly insulted the brothers and Charles de Young shot and wounded him. 

Later on, Kelloch had marginally won the election for mayor of the city, and the mayor’s son burst into the offices in the Chronicle and shot Charles de Young dead with a pistol. Naturally, his younger brother Michael took over the paper, and their managing editor had referred to Charles as “the ablest newspaper man the city had produced.

Michael de Young Takes Over 

With the younger de Young brother now in control of the newspaper, he decided to start looking at Southern California and expanding their readership. He was particularly intrigued in promoting California, and the Morning Chronicle was already reaching audiences as far as Northern Oregon. By this time, the newspaper was the largest on the West Coast. 

Notably, de Young turned attention to Los Angeles, noticing that the city only had two hotels and advised the city to become optimistic in the establishment of Los Angeles as a great Californian city. The newspaper wrote: “We may look forward to the day when at least two large cities will grow up in Southern California and when that time arrives, the commerce between them and this port will attain proportions we scarcely dream of now.

By the 1890s, the newspaper was focusing on “journalism that does things,” which aimed to amplify San Francisco and present the newspaper’s weather bureau. de Young was also keen to establish a fair that would present California’s industries. Bringing in 1.3 million visitors, the fair took four months to construct and was open to the public for seven months. Towards the end of the century, the Klondike gold strike became a story of significance, with 8 men sent by the newspaper to explore. 

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The Turn of the Century

The turn of the century provided more challenges and stories for the Morning Chronicle. In particular, more political difficulty would come to fruition. Abe Ruef, a lawyer, and a bandleader named Eugene Schmitz who would be elected mayor in 1901, emerged as crooked politicians. Ruef, in particular, would accept payoffs for activities such as gambling and prostitution. The Morning Chronicle began a campaign to fight against these two men, but did not succeed as they won three consecutive elections. After winning their 1905 election, the clock tower of the Chronicle was set ablaze when they organized a parade to gather outside the building. 

1906 was the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, giving the newspaper another huge story to focus on, but also putting printing issues in their way. This earthquake was around 10 times more extreme than the earthquake of 1989 and almost destroyed the entire city. During this time, the three major newspapers in San Francisco published combined issues at the Oakland Tribune. This was a major event in San Francisco Chronicle history, since its building had caught fire and the newspaper still found a way to ensure its readers were receiving their news.

The newspaper continued to grow in the early 20th century, with a correspondent for the newspaper in Europe reporting on the First World War when the United States joined in 1917. During the war, the masthead for the publication read “This newspaper is one hundred percent American.” Throughout the 1920s, the Chronicle reported on the sudden death of President Harding, growth and Prohibition

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The West Front of the New Chronicle Building, showing the damage done by the earthquake of 1906.
Image: U.S. National Archives

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World War II to 1971

San Francisco boomed during the war, and by 1948, the Chronicle had been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes and reached its highest-ever circulation of 180,000 in 1948. Despite this, readers were starting to drop. By 1951, it had dropped to a dangerous 152,672.

Following the Second World War, Scott Newhall, who joined the San Francisco Chronicle as a news editor in 1934, took a rather provocative approach to the publication’s presentation of news. Newhall was determined to increase readership and wanted to promote the West to do so. By looking at the circulation figures, we can see that under Newhall’s leadership, the circulation of the newspaper started to pick up.

The newspaper under Scott Newhall began to include investigative reporting by journalists like Pierre Salinger, who would soon after assume a prominent role in national politics. 

Zodiac Killer

The San Francisco Chronicle also employed Paul Avery, a journalist who followed the killer with the self-pseudonym “Zodiac Killer.” The Zodiac Killer case has been called the most famous unsolved murder case in the history of the United States, and prompted inspiring detectives to attempt to resolve the case. The killer murdered five known victims in the Bay Area between December 1968 and October 1959, targeting young couples and a lone cab driver.

In the midst of his 1960s murder spree, the Zodiac Killer sent a three-section cryptogram to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as two other papers. As well as this investigative journalism, the newspaper also featured colorful columnists such as Pauline Phillips, writing under the pseudonym “Dear Abby,” and who now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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The Battle With The San Francisco Examiner

The San Francisco Chronicle grew to become the largest newspaper by circulation in the area, but the San Francisco Examiner was not far behind. Throughout the 1950s, other newspapers in the area ended up closing, and left the battle for readership to the Chronicle and Examiner. 

In the 1960s, a financial toll was being taken on both publications due to the extent of the competition. In 1965, a Joint Operating Agreement was created as a kind of merger to support both newspapers and keep them both afloat. The Agreement ruled that the San Francisco Chronicle would print news in the morning each day, whereas the San Francisco Examiner would print in the afternoon. Naturally, both newspapers experienced declining readership. 

The San Francisco Newspaper Agency was in charge of both publications, including their sales and distribution, and had to ensure the circulation of one newspaper was not negatively affecting the other. The revenue between the two newspapers was evenly split, which was seen to benefit the San Francisco Examiner, since the San Francisco Chronicle had a circulation of four times its rival and subsequently subsidized the afternoon publication.

From 1965 to 2000, the two publications operated under shared, single classified-advertising. In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle would come under the complete control of the Hearst Corporation.

The Sunday Edition 

With the struggle of their battle continuing, the newspapers came together to print a joint Sunday edition. The San Francisco Chronicle was in charge of the entertainment section, which was tabloid-sized, as well as the book review. The San Francisco Examiner published the Sunday magazine and the news section. 

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The newsroom at the San Francisco Chronicle
Image: Flickr

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Expansion and Wider Competition

Despite previously being the most-read newspaper in the West, the San Francisco Chronicle was beginning to face competition outside of San Francisco in the early 1990s. The newspaper recognized that it needed to expand its suburban coverage to maintain its superiority in Northern California. The publication had comfortably become the “newspaper of record” in Northern California, with its issues being distributed as far as Honolulu, Hawaii. There was also marginal competition in the suburbs of the Bay Area, meaning the San Francisco Chronicle remained the dominant news force.

In 1975, however, the Mercury News was consolidated by Knight-Ridder and later purchased the originally-titled Contra Costa Times (East Bay Times) in 1995. In 1985, the Media News Group based in Denver quickly bought the remaining newspapers on the East Bay, pushing the San Francisco Chronicle to respond to this growing competition and expand its news coverage.

In the Friday edition of the newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle began to feature five different sections, which covered San Francisco news and the news of four other suburban areas. Each section was unique to the community of each area, including enterprise pieces, local news and a columnist. In order to focus on these suburban sections, the newspaper created 40 new full-time positions. 

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The Hearst Takeover

The de Young family had been in charge of the newspaper, through the Chronicle Publishing Company, until Hearst Communications Inc. bought the newspaper on July 27, 2000. Hearst had already acquired the San Francisco Examiner, but with the purchase of the Chronicle, Hearst passed the Examiner to the Fang family. The Fang family publishes AsianWeek and the San Francisco Independent, and also received a subsidy of $66 million from Hearst. The Fang family made the Examiner into a free tabloid newspaper, which left the San Francisco Chronicle as the last daily broadsheet news publication in the city.

There have been a few changes to the newspaper since Hearst took over at the start of the new millennium, in terms of design and organization. However, in the newspaper’s 145th year in 2009, the Sunday edition of the publication brought out a redesigned newspaper, which included a changed logo, new page organization, a new section, a new headline and changed text typography. The San Francisco Chronicle’s front page lost it’s all-capital, bold-faced headlines. These changes were released in an issue with a note from editor Ward Bushee to state that the newspaper was beginning a “new era.”

The newspaper underwent a few more edits later in the year, with even newer section fronts, as well as a broader use of graphics and color photographs. This was due to new printing operations which publisher Frank J. Vega believed started “a bolder, brighter Chronicle.” Along with these edits, the broadsheet newspaper was reduced in size, following a trend with other newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune. Despite new designs, the changing demographics of readers, as well as economic situations, caused many publications to reduce the size of their issues.

Later in 2009, the San Francisco Chronicle also became the first newspaper in the country to start printing on high-quality, glossy paper. This paper is used for a few section fronts, as well as inside pages.

san francisco chronicle history

Bill German with Jack Breibart in the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom, 1994
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Pulitzer Prize Wins and Nominations

The San Francisco Chronicle has received and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize on numerous occasions:

YearStaff MemberCategory
1934Winner: Royce BrierReporting: “For his account of the lynching of the kidnappers, John M. Holmes and Thomas H. Thurmond in San Jose, Calif., on Nov. 26, 1933 after they had been jailed for abducting Brooke Hart, a merchant’s son.”
1942Winner: Stanton DelaplaneReporting: “For his articles on the movement of several California and Oregon counties to secede to form a forty ninth state.”
1952Winner: George De CarvalhoLocal Reporting: “For his stories of a “ransom racket” extorting money from Chinese in the United States for relations held in Red China.”
1981Runner Up: Allan TemkoCriticism
1988Runner Up: Allan TemkoCriticism
1989Runner Up: Frederic LarsonFeature Photography
1990Winner: Allan TemkoCriticism: “For his architecture criticism.”
1996Winner: Herb Caen Special Awards and Citations: “For his extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city.”
1999Runners Up: William Carlsen and Reynolds HoldingExplanatory Reporting
2002Runner Up: John KingCriticism 
2003Runner Up: John KingCriticism 
2005Winner: Deanne FitzmauriceFeature Photography: “For her sensitive photo essay on an Oakland hospital’s effort to mend an Iraqi boy nearly killed by an explosion.”
2010Winner: Mark FioreEditorial Cartooning
2014Runner Up: Lacy AtkinsFeature Photography 

 

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George Polk Award

The newspaper received the George Polk Award in 2004 for Sports Reporting, dedicated to Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. The two journalists were awarded for their work in discovering the BALCO scandal, in which Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants star player, became linked to performance-enhancing drugs. As well as Williams and Fainaru-Wada, the newspaper also has many other sports journalists of note, including baseball reporter Susan Slusser, who was the first female president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).

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Features of the San Francisco Chronicle 

John King’s architectural column is a particular area of note in the San Francisco Chronicle, as the column is only one of few about architecture in American newspapers. As well as this, the newspaper has regular sections about Style and Home & Food.

The reportage of news in the San Francisco Chronicle is not as extensive in the present day than it was in the past, despite the newspaper’s long history. The publication has followed the same trends as others, in which more attention has been focused on regional and local news, as well as entertainment and cultural criticism, moving away from the newspaper’s originally strong international and national coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle moved towards a more local focus when competition in the Bay Area brought other newspapers, such as the Oakland Tribune and East Bay Times, back into print.

The Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle features an arts and entertainment insert, called Datebook. This section is printed on pink-tinted paper in a tabloid format for decades. This particular section is also of note since it contains a unique rating system, using the “Little Man” as opposed to stars or a “thumbs up” to rate movies. This rating system stands out from other newspapers and is arguably more relatable to potential viewers, as it reflects their possible behavior while watching a film. The Little Man, compared with the star rating system, is explained to be: 

  1. Jumping out of his seat and applauding wildly – 5 Stars
  2. Applauding happily while sitting upright – 4 Stars
  3. Sitting in his seat attentively – 3 Stars 
  4. Falling asleep in his seat – 2 Stars
  5. Gone from his seat – 1 Star

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Making Cuts

In 2009, around the time that the newspaper was undergoing visual changes, it was announced by Hearst President Steven R. Swartz and Hearst chief executive Frank A. Bennack Jr. that the newspaper had been losing money each year since 2001. They declared that 2008 had been a particularly bad year, with the publication losing $50 million, and major cuts needed to be made in order to sustain the newspaper. If no cuts had been made and Hearst could not find a buyer for the newspaper, the publication would have been shut and San Francisco would have become the first city in the United States without a daily newspaper.

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Circulation and Online Website

DateCirculation
18656,000 approx.
1948180,000 approx.
1951152,672
1961300,000 approx.
1965363,322
2011742,817
2012695,515
2013711,403
2014737,546

The San Francisco Chronicle’s circulation has changed dramatically over the years. Under the leadership of Scott Newhall, the San Francisco Chronicle had overtaken its competitors, such as the San Francisco Examiner, and managed to achieve a daily circulation of more than 363,000 by 1965. This meant that the publication had become the largest newspaper in San Francisco. 

However, with the rise of the Internet and following the trend among other publications, the circulation of the San Francisco Chronicle fell dramatically during the “dot-com bubble” of the late 1990s. Between 2004 and 2005, daily readership of the newspaper fell by 16.6%, and readership failed to pick up substantially throughout the early 2000s. In an attempt to cut costs, a quarter of the publication’s newsroom staff lost their jobs in 2007, but, at the same time, the SFGate website grew to fifth in terms of U.S. newspaper websites. SFGate is the main digital portal for the newspaper, showing that its news is still being widely received, but in a different format. This difference strongly exposes the change in how the public receive their news, with websites causing sharp declines in print circulation.

Between 2007 and 2014, the daily print circulation of the newspaper fell by 8%, and Sunday print circulation fell by 6%. Despite this, Hearst claimed that “Combined with its online home, SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle reaches 22 million users each month.” However, the period ending in September 2009 would prove to be an even more negative year, with the newspaper experiencing a huge 25.8% drop in circulation, the highest drop in circulation out of all major newspapers in the United States. It was claimed by Frank Vega, San Francisco Chronicle publisher, that the newspaper had anticipated the drop, since it focused its attention on higher subscription fees from fewer readers. 

While print circulation has been declining, the SFGate website achieved 19 million unique visitors in 2015, placing in position 7 for the most-visited newspaper website in the United States.

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