120th Anniversary Edition: Warren Hinckle: Journalism’s “Pirate” Icon

Warren Hinckle pictured during his time at USF. Photo courtesy of Pia Hinckle.

Warren Hinckle left a mark on American journalism as a maverick editor and writer. Being one of the most famous editors that the Foghorn has ever seen, Hinckle was known for his strong personality, steadfast determination, love of drinking, fearless approach to life, and for his eyepatch — which he wore due to losing his left eye in an accident during his childhood. Throughout his life, Hinckle accomplished many feats “with all kinds of lunacy [that] nobody can get away with,” said his daughter Pia Hinckle. “That’s why my dad was a pirate,” and journalism was his sea.

Born in 1938 in the Sunset District of San Francisco, Warren Hinckle took an early interest in journalism and displayed a knack for questioning authority, which he applied to his work at the school newspaper of Archbishop Riordan High School. In his memoir “If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade,” Warren Hinckle recalled turning the newspaper into his “personal fiefdom to indulge my insatiable craving for the joys of printing.” His hunger for print was even deeper by the time he arrived at USF to study psychology, where he eventually became Editor in Chief of the Foghorn in 1960. 

His memoir also detailed his time at the Foghorn, where once during a dull news week, in an attempt to have something worth writing about, Warren Hinckle and his friend Brennan Newsom burned down a wooden guardhouse at the entrance of campus, and turned the event into a front-page editorial, heavy with calls upon the Dean of Students, Rev. Francis A. Moore, to expel whoever did it. Despite his suspicions, Fr. Moore had no evidence to prove that Warren Hinckle was behind the stunt, marking only the beginning of the cat-and-mouse dynamic that the two would have during Hinckle’s time at USF. 

During his time as editor, Warren Hinckle famously turned the Foghorn into a daily publication, the first of its kind in the U.S.; “which pissed off the [Jesuit] brothers to no end, because, of course, he did not ask permission,” said his daughter, Pia Hinckle. 

Warren Hinckle secretly wrote up a press release — “New Era of Journalism at USF: Foghorn Becomes First Catholic College Daily Newspaper in U.S.” — and handed it off to Foghorn alumnus Carl Nolte, USF’s Director of Public Information at the time, to secretly distribute to the media under Fr. Moore’s nose. Warren Hinckle’s plan to blindside the institution with headlines from well-known publications was foiled when Nolte decided to run the plan by Fr. Moore for approval first, which Fr. Moore immediately shot down. 

In retaliation, Warren Hinckle threw a party to celebrate its relaunch as a daily and invited various judges, city officials, prominent USF alumni, a high number of San Francisco reporters, and even congressmen in Washington D.C. to celebrate. He sent telegrams to every newspaper in the state with the announcement, many who later ran editorials congratulating USF on their big journalistic stride. According to Warren Hinckle’s memoir, Fr. Moore walked into the party looking pale in shock at the sight of drunk reporters, students, Jesuits, local politicians, and alumni raising toasts to the Foghorn. In a mix of pride for what he accomplished and satisfaction of knowing how angry he made Fr. Moore, Warren Hinckle handed him two telegrams of congratulations that he had received back from the slew that he sent out — from then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy. 

The Daily Foghorn ran sensational headlines like “Virginia City Priest Assaults 47-Year-Old Woman Polio Victim” and “ROTC General Attempts to Strangle Student,” rarely running stories about the school itself, as detailed in his memoir. He installed an AP wire to pick up on hotter stories to cover, much to the disapproval of the University. In 1960, Warren Hinckle assigned himself to cover the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., where he would telegram stories back to the Hilltop every night and ran the newspaper via telephone for two weeks. 

One Halloween, Warren Hinckle stole the press run of San Francisco State’s college newspaper, which led Fr. Moore to file grand theft charges against him. Fed up with Warren Hinckle’ antics, the Administration repeatedly tried to cut off the Foghorn’s funds to stop him, which he fought with budget diversions. 

Near his graduation day, Warren Hinckle received a bill of $13,000 from the Dean, claiming that it was a Foghorn’s deficit he needed to pay personally in order to receive his diploma. He never did. 

“USF gave him the platform he needed to be what he became — a big success,” said Nolte, who later went on to work with Warren Hinckle as a fellow journalist. 

According to his daughter, Warren Hinckle’s time at the Foghorn was where his legacy of unorthodoxy in journalism really began. “Why wouldn’t you report on things that were distasteful to the administration? That’s the job of the press,” she said, when speaking on the mentality that Warren Hinckle worked with while at USF, and throughout his career. 

Hinckle’s career unfolded against the backdrop of the 1960’s with its turbulent and counterculture narrative, which coupled with his radical style of reporting allowed for him to forge his career as a gonzo journalist. After USF, he became a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, then the executive editor of Ramparts, where he turned the subdued Catholic magazine into an award-winning publication with illustrated political and literary content, known for its sophistication and embrace of anti-war rhetoric. Despite the publication only lasting eight issues, its legacy as a muckraking magazine has been credited as the precursor to other publications like Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Slate. 

After transforming Ramparts, Warren Hinckle went on to create the journal Scanlan’s Monthly alongside journalist Sidney Zion in 1969. While at Scanlan’s, Warren Hinckle connected the famous duo Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman for the first time in an assignment which eventually became the 1970 article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” credited as the first work of gonzo journalism. This new style of reportage placed the reporter as a protagonist in the story, and was unique in its combination of social commentary and self-satire. “[Thompson] made a lot of money off of it and made a lot of fame out of it, but it was a Foghorn editor that sent him to Kentucky and came up with the headline for the article,” said Foghorn 1980s staffer John Shanley

In the 1980’s and 90’s he worked as a columnist at the Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner,  and the San Francisco Independant, where he created a reputation for turning stories on their head and pushing the buttons of local politicians. In 1987 he ran for mayor of San Francisco, not with the intention to win, but to gather insider information for his reporting about the mayoral election, according to his daughter Pia Hinckle. 

In 1991, Warren Hinckle revived The Argonaut and produced it out of his own apartment. “He had the publication bug,” said Chris Carson ‘12, who worked with Warren Hinckle in 2010 while he was still an undergraduate student. “I feel like if he wasn’t working at the high level that he was at, he would have just been another old-headed San Franciscan printing off zines, or handing out one page essays on the street,” said Carson.  

Warren Hinckle’s passion for print carried on through his writing projects until his death in 2016. Through his legacy, he inspired others with his fearlessness, and never awaited approval from anyone to do whatever he wanted. “Warren taught me that you don’t need to wait for that — you can make it yourself. Which is basically the philosophy of his entire career… he blazed his own path,” said Carson. 

Jordan DelFiugo and Drew Moss contributed to the reporting of this story.

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