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For the last 20 years, Neil Shapiro has been the chief libel and First Amendment attorney for the San Francisco Chronicle. And for the last 11 years, the S.F. Examiner has relied on Roger Myers to keep it out of legal trouble. But now that the two papers have merged their editorial staffs in the wake of the Hearst Corp.’s purchase of the Chronicle, one of the men may be out of a job. It’s a problem that just about every corporate merger creates. But rarely are a lawyer’s fortunes tied to a newspaper editor as they currently seem to be at the “new” Chronicle. And conversely, the decision of who will ultimately be the Chronicle‘s libel lawyer could define the paper’s executive pecking order. Myers and Shapiro are each backed by a different executive, reflecting the paper’s continuing struggle to merge “old” Examiner staffers with Chronicle reporters and editors. But choosing its legal counsel remains a critical decision for the Chronicle. The libel/First Amendment attorney is crucial in helping shape stories with sage legal advice to avoid major mistakes, beat back lawsuit threats or secure public documents. “You should expect a big legal bill, but it should come in prepublication costs and not in public court,” said Steve Cook, assistant managing editor for enterprise. “You want to stop these blunders before they get into print.” Shapiro has the backing of Matt Wilson, the Chronicle‘s executive vice president of news and associate publisher. Reporters and editors, who spoke privately to stay out of the executive crossfire, say Wilson feels “comfortable” with Shapiro, a McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen partner. Myers, a partner at Steinhart & Falconer, has the support of Phil Bronstein, whose reporting was “lawyered” by Myers before he became the “old” Examiner‘s top editor. ( Recorder senior writer Dennis Opatrny worked at the Examiner for 25 years.) Bronstein is now the Chronicle‘s senior vice president and executive editor. Having worked closely with Myers as a reporter and editor, the two have developed a comfort zone to match the Wilson-Shapiro professional relationship. No one at the paper seems to know who carries more clout since the merger, Wilson or Bronstein. That’s why the selection of a libel lawyer may be the tip-off. “It’s safe to say that people who have worked with one or the other and have feelings toward one or the other prefer him,” Wilson said. Bronstein said he has yet to get acquainted with Shapiro, but knows Myers’ work. “It’s fair to say that I have a connection to Roger that I don’t have with Neil,” he said. Bronstein sought to downplay his purported power struggle with Wilson by saying “we all have our separate jobs and [they are] well-defined . . . to see it in a lawyer context is foolish.” Yet the two executives recently tussled over offices for their secretaries, with Wilson claiming prime space for his, a Chronicle columnist recalled. Wilson said both Myers and Shapiro “are independent lawyers who work for reputable firms.” But he declined to say which is better for the Chronicle. “Phil and I haven’t talked about it,” Wilson said. “The reality is both have been working for the Chronicle since Nov. 22,” the date the Hearst Corp. took control of the paper. Bronstein said the decision may ultimately be made by Chronicle publisher and CEO John Oppedahl. “He wants for the time being to use both [lawyers],” the top editor said. That’s what Oppedahl did at the Arizona Republic, where he was the publisher until being hired by Hearst late last year. “I feel comfortable with using more” than one lawyer, Oppedahl said, but added that he is also “comfortable with using one.” “For now, we’re going to use both of them,” he added. Shapiro said he didn’t know what the future held for him, but he’s content to keep providing legal advice on demand. “All I can tell you is that I get calls and do things for the Chronicle,” he said. “Roger and I have worked on a number of things together.” Myers, a former newspaper reporter before attending law school, said for the time being “they have enough work for both of us.” He wasn’t sure what the future holds. ‘LIGHT FINGERPRINTS’ The newspaper’s choice of counsel is likely to affect far more than just the profits at Myers’ and Shapiro’s firms. Different legal philosophies can change the tone and direction of a newspaper’s coverage. Shapiro said he doesn’t view his job as telling reporters how to compose their stories. He said that is their decision. “My job is not to write or rewrite the stories,” he said. “My job is to find areas of risk. We’ve been pretty successful at that. “The thing that makes me most proud is that over the years I’ve looked at a lot of articles. I don’t think that any of those has led to a lawsuit,” Shapiro said. And, he added, “I try to leave light fingerprints, if any at all.” Myers said the more aggressive a newspaper is, the more it relies upon its newsroom lawyer for prepublication advice. “My main job is to help them inform the public of what’s going on with the highest degree of legal protection that I can give them,” Myers said. He added that “if you make a serious mistake, you could wind up in court for several years and it could be very expensive.” Charles Morgan Jr., a successful solo plaintiffs libel lawyer, said his practice thrives when newspapers fail to talk to their attorneys. Morgan said most of his cases stem from stories where “the lawyer hasn’t been involved in it. That’s why they have a problem.” Cook, who edits investigative stories that often are controversial or include allegations of wrongdoing, said lawyers can “send you back from the wrong direction” that could cause trouble for the paper. “A good libel lawyer will spot errors the reporters and editors will not,” Cook said. “What a lawyer says can change the way you write a story.” James Chadwick, a San Jose Mercury News libel lawyer, says flatly “I’m not an editor.” “I can give a newspaper some comfort that it is doing what it can to minimize the risk before the problem develops,” said Chadwick, a Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich partner. “It’s your decision. It’s not my decision.” He also stresses that newspapers are not legally bound to tell both sides of a story. “The law imposes less rigid standards than good journalistic standards,” Chadwick said. “I tell clients that if you’re already practicing good journalism, you’re minimizing your legal risks.” James Bettinger, director of Stanford University’s Knight fellowships program for professional journalists, said the libel lawyer should be considered a part of the paper’s staff. “A good libel lawyer is like another good editor on the story,” said Bettinger, a former Mercury News reporter. Paul Grabowicz, assistant dean at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, said cost-conscious lawyers can ruin a reporter’s day. “You want a lawyer that is trying to figure out how to get this story into the paper . . . rather than trying to keep the publication out of court at all costs,” said Grabowicz, a former investigative reporter with the Oakland Tribune. Celeste Phillips, a former Examiner libel lawyer who currently works at keeping the Orange County Register out of court, said reporters shouldn’t look at their attorneys as “widgets” but friends who can help formulate their stories and make them better. “You help reporters shape stories by getting them the documents that the government agency says they can’t have,” said Phillips. As a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Levine Sullivan & Koch, which is a national litigation counsel for CBS News, Phillips said her job and the work of reporters often intersect. “We’re both trying to avoid the ambiguities of language,” she said.

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