Two teenage boys and a borrowed $20 gold piece were not a promising beginning for a newspaper in the rough setting of San Francisco in the 1860s, but they were the primary ingredients that were developed with hard work and ambition into the multimillion-dollar news enterprise known today as the San Francisco Chronicle.
On Jan. 16, 1865, native Missourians Charles and Michael de Young began publishing the Dramatic Chronicle. Initially referred to as a theater house bill, its subtitle, “A Daily Record of Affairs Local, Critical and Theatrical,” revealed the true intention of its founders and proclaimed the direction of the four-page paper.
The De Youngs showed foresight in choosing drama as their vehicle for recognition and popularity. San Francisco was a community completely devoted to the pleasures of the theater, and its citizens prided themselves that the greatest of artists visited them.
The Chronicle was the only local newspaper that paid close attention to the artists, those who had visited and those planning an engagement in the city. Had the De Youngs simply put out a playbill, their enterprise may have ended as it began. Fortunately, they had loftier goals, the only semblance to a program being the formal mode of printing the names of characters and players present.
The young editors would distribute the paper free of charge in the middle of the day at crowded restaurants, saloons, stores, hotels, boats and lodging houses. Patrons looked forward to reading the little paper with its bits of news and bright writing.
This circulation in theaters and public places brought the Chronicle to a level of importance to attract the interest of advertisers. As the circulation brought in no cash, the revenue of the paper had to be obtained from advertisers, and the Chronicle accounts steadily increased.
The Dramatic Chronicle contained an assortment of original and selected matter, some news, both local and wire. The most conspicuous feature of the little paper was the criticisms and satirical allusions directed against the writers on the contemporary press.
Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller frequently visited the young journalists at their tiny print shop, which became somewhat of a resort for early writers. The established writers contributed occasionally to the paper, often to take pot shots at public characters.
Three months after its first edition, the Chronicle scooped the other city papers with the first account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The morning papers of April 15,1865, had all been issued prior to the word of the tragedy, but at 8 a.m. the city’s telegraph office received a bulletin with some details of the killing.
Michael de Young was at the office when it came over the wire, memorized the information and raced back to The Chronicle to help put out the paper’s first “extra.” The telegraph office received additional information later that day, and the De Youngs capitalized on it by running a second extra.
An interesting fact connected with The Chronicle’s publication of the assassination news is the recognition by its young editors of the need for illustrations. On April 16, the paper ran a wood cut of assassin John Wilkes Booth, and a scene of the assassination ran a few days later.
It wasn’t so much journalistic innovations that gave the older San Francisco papers concern, but the fact that the Dramatic Chronicle was experiencing such a rapid increase in advertising patronage.
On Sept. 1, 1868, the paper appeared as the Daily Morning Chronicle. The Chronicle had become a full-size daily, selling for 5 cents a copy.
Its tremendous and rapid success has been credited to the fact that both of its proprietors were capable, practical printers who kept a well-organized staff and together possessed an instinctive news sense.
Charles was the managing editor, a tireless, enthusiastic newspaper genius with a limitless capacity for grasping news opportunities and turning them into brilliant accounts.
Charles also made a habit of coming into the office late in the evening, generally with a story unknown to its competitors, and began at once tearing up all the layout arrangements for the next morning’s edition.
He would send out as many as a half-dozen reporters to gather facts. When they returned, Charles would rapidly run through their copy indicating features and angles to be further developed. After clearing the carefully made-up pages for their appearance, he would remain only to see that heads were written and the presses begun.
Michael, known as M.H., handled the business affairs and was at public meetings, social gatherings and at every other event in the city in his ambition to increase the circulation and advertising patronage of the paper.
In keeping with their editorial policy, the brothers took sides on all issues and fought to expose fraud and corruption in government.
Charles’ death came about as a result of the Chronicle’s stand in opposing a candidate for mayor — the Rev. Isaac S. Kalloch. A Chronicle story related how Kalloch had been forced to leave Boston for improprieties in public address.
Kalloch did not deny the charges but retaliated by assaulting the character of the De Youngs’ mother. Charles became upset and shot Kalloch, wounding him slightly.
After the election, which Kalloch won, the mayor’s son went to the Chronicle office and shot and killed Charles de Young.
After the death of Charles, M.H. assumed control, giving close attention to the details of every department.
The two brothers had worked in such unison that there was no perceptible change in the policy of the paper. Its career of vigorous enterprise continued, and The Chronicle became known throughout the country as an exponent of “the journalism that does things.”
Michael became active in politics and served three times as delegate to the Republican National Convention.
He served as a commissioner to most of the great expositions that flourished at that time. He was director of the Associated Press for 25 years and was a civic leader.
Michael de Young died in 1925 at the age of 75.