One of the last great American newspaper wars ended yesterday when Hearst Corp. announced that it is buying the San Francisco Chronicle and putting its own, weaker paper, the San Francisco Examiner, up for sale.

If no one buys the afternoon Examiner, whose circulation has dropped by more than half to 111,018, Hearst plans to combine it with the morning Chronicle, whose daily sales of 475,244 make it Northern California's largest newspaper. That would wipe out San Francisco as one of the last major two-newspaper towns, leaving a New York-based chain in charge of the sole remaining paper.

"I have very mixed feelings about this," said Chronicle Editor William German. "I have rooted for and fought for an organization absolutely independent of chain ownership. . . . It's not exactly a victory when you're being bought by the people you've competed against for half a century," he said.

"It's terrible to lose any newspaper voice," said Larry Kramer, a former Examiner editor who now runs CBS "But in recent years, everyone [at the Examiner] had a sense of impending doom. . . . What you worry about is that the surviving paper loses its edge entirely."

Examiner editor Phil Bronstein and his staff declined to comment.

The Bay Area shootout has a colorful history, most recently including the Chronicle sniping over Bronstein's marriage to actress Sharon Stone. William Randolph Hearst took control of the Examiner in 1887, and the family kept it long after most of their other newspapers shut down. The Chronicle was founded in 1865 by Michael DeYoung, whose heirs have controlled it for the past 134 years.

Hearst has promised to offer jobs to all Examiner employees if the papers are combined. One likely reason for offering the Examiner for sale is to win approval from the Justice Department's antitrust division, which must be convinced the Examiner would otherwise fail.

The Chronicle and Examiner compete editorially but have been partners since 1965 in a joint operating agreement, a federally approved arrangement that allows them to combine business and printing activities and publish a joint Sunday paper. That agreement expires in 2005. Hearst is also buying the two papers' combined Web site.

New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and Denver are among the last major cities with two competing newspapers not bound by a joint agreement. Over the past two decades, second papers have shut down in such major markets as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas and Houston.

Both the Chronicle and Examiner have gone head-to-head in San Francisco, with the Chronicle more dominant in the suburbs. But the morning paper has lost nearly 100,000 in daily sales since 1990.

The Chronicle's German could not resist noting that Hearst "is buying the Chronicle because the Chronicle is the successful newspaper." He said the deal could give the Chronicle the resources to open more bureaus and make other improvements once it is no longer splitting its profits 50-50 with the Examiner. It remains unclear who would edit the combined paper.

But many will miss the newspaper war. "It was fun journalism, and the competition is half of what made it fun," Kramer said.