anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.

articles, beach, dissipation, energy, environment, journalism, language, really?

Newspapers Say the Darndest Things

Chronicle front page 8 november“Crunch!”? Really? 

A huge cargo ship bumps into the Bay Bridge and spills 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel–not just oil, but bunker fuel–and this is the Chronicle’s headline? Is it supposed to be a joke? 

When I looked at my copy this morning, I originally thought this was a feature recapping some little disaster that I hadn’t heard about. But, no. This is breaking news.

crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate


In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

dissipation, journalism, San Francisco

The San Francisco Chronicle: Can’t Stop the Magic!

So it’s taken me a while to get around to this but here goes.

On the San Francisco Chronicle‘s web site, a new blog popped up earlier this month: “Colleagues Remembered.” Based on the title, it sounds like a bunch of death notices. But it’s actually a series of tributes to various editors and reporters who have been laid off as part of the deep cuts taking place in the newsroom (25% over the summer).

A few of them are familiar names or faces. James Finefrock, for example, whom I met last fall, was the editor of the Insight section of the Sunday Chronicle, one of the few places at the paper open to freelancers (a good example here). Marc Sandalow, who headed the Washington bureau, wrote a farewell message posted here. Meanwhile, John Curley, who started the Flickr Pickr–the only new thing at the Chron that seems to have engaged anyone I know–is out, too. He announced his departure–doesn’t exactly sound like a voluntary buyout (“I am surprised and dismayed that the organization thinks it can have a future without me.”)–on his own Flickr page.

News like this is not exactly the most reassuring to anyone who’s thinking of being a journalist, whatever the medium. Newspaper internships are particularly prized for the opportunity to get bylined stories. That makes it hard enough to get a newspaper internship, harder at places like the Chronicle.

“We only want to hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience without an internship. It’s a catch-22,” an editor from the Dallas Morning News once told me with an apologetic shrug. What’s more, these internships have turned into something different from the learning experiences or apprenticeships most beginners need. They’ve become a way for papers to get cheap labor–or so an editor from the Chronicle told me with a dismissive wave.

Some enterprising survivors at the Chronicle have set up a blog to send job leads and suggestions to their colleagues. Awfully thoughtful, but hardly reassuring, especially for the beginner, also looking for work. How do you compete with all these 20- or 30-year veterans who’ve been kicked to the curb? They’ll get all the good internships.

journalism, politics, San Francisco

Even If You Aren’t Interested In Sports

Who said that even if you aren’t interested in sports, you should still read Ray Ratto’s sports column for the San Francisco Chronicle? Because that person is probably right. Ratto’s columns are articulate, sharply observed, and appropriately sarcastic. Today’s column, for example:

Newsom indulges stadium delusion” stands as evidence that when we talk about sports, it’s all politics (see also: World Cup). Yesterday, the Chronicle‘s Matier & Ross reported that Mayor Newsom wants San Francisco to be the site of the 2016 Olympics. The big promise in the current iteration of this plan–the Bay Area always seems to be angling for the US Olympic Committee’s choice as candidate site–is a new stadium that would eventually host the 49ers at Candlestick Point. (I think one reason our last Olympics bid failed was because almost all the events would be held at the Stanford Stadium, which has since been torn down. Didn’t a previous Olympic bid promise a BART system encompassing the entire Bay Area?)

“Remember, children,” writes Ratto, “this is San Francisco, where the best politicians do nothing more strenuous than talk the walk.” He points out that by 2016, Denise and John York will likely have transferred ownership of the 49ers (who would probably prefer a new stadium in less than ten years, anyway). And by 2016, Newsom will either have moved on to higher office as most suspect, or to greener pastures–what Ratto calls the “life of the mildly indolent rich.” Ratto writes:

Thus, [Newsom] is mostly gasbagging this issue, because it doesn’t cost him anything, whereas actually trying to make it happen would cost him plenty. There is no political will for such an audacious (read: expensive) plan, and there is even less for helping out the Yorks, whose work on the 49ers’ brand name makes slumlords everywhere whistle in admiration.Of course, Newsom is framing this little make-work plan through the prism of Anne Cribbs, head of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee, known mostly by its acronym, CLEARLY NUTS. . . .

But that, according to Ratto, is not even the real take-away message. Read the rest here. Maybe you’ll like it.

environment, publictransport, San Francisco

Who Says the Bay Area is Any Different From the Rest of the Country?

Today may be the hottest day of the year. The hot weather wreaks havoc with our air quality, and a few friends have remarked on the thick layer of smog that settled over San Francisco yesterday (imagine the view in this photo, but browner). Normally, Pacific winds keep us cool and blow all of our pollution into the East Bay and the Central Valley, home to some of the nation’s worst air.

And so the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has declared today the first “Spare the Air” day of the year. That means commuters can ride any of 25 regional public transportation systems for free today and tomorrow (another Spare the Air day), in an effort to encourage people to leave their cars at home. The question is, will they?

One of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s more entertaining sections is 2 ¢ents, a forum in which a pool of readers answer a question posed by the newspaper. I’ve never lived in a place where the local paper had one of these features, and when I first saw it, I thought it was a joke like The Onion‘s “American Voices.”

Today’s question: “What would get you to use public transportation for your commute?” A good question, since that’s the point of the free rides on a Spare the Air day like today. As a daily public transportation rider for the last four-and-a-half years, I believe higher ridership would help prompt our transportation administrators to improve services. (Of course, if they improved services first, ridership would probably go up as a result. Chicken or egg, you know?) Some people made good points (e.g., “People shouldn’t have to use sites like just to figure out how off-schedule our buses and trains really are.”). Nearly all of them complained about public transit and gave reasons why they still would not ride it. One of my favorites was this guy:

What would it take to get you to use public transit? My daily transit history is as follows:

  • February 2002–December 2003: Muni and Caltrain
  • January 2004–Present: Muni
  • August 2006–June 2008 (anticipated): Muni and BART
politics, really?, unfortunate

It’s How You Play the Game: Modesto Edition

My favorite bit of news for the day comes from SFGate’s Politics Blog. The San Francisco Chronicle’s estimable political reporter Carla Marinucci describes the political bloodsport that the Republican primary for the 25th State Assembly District (Modesto and environs) has become. Candidate Bill Conrad has sent a negative mailer casting doubt on candidate Tom Berryhill’s potential capacity to fulfill his obligations, were he to be elected assemblyman. To whit: “Tom Berryhill doesn’t have the HEART for State Assembly.”

“The Average Lifespan of a Heart Transplant recipient is 7 years,” notes that same direct-mail piece. It continues, “Berryhill’s transplant was 6 years ago.”

What else do I need to say? Read more here.