Volume 41 Number 37

June 13 – June 19, 2007

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Reform the recall


EDITORIAL The Board of Supervisors — and the very notion of representative democracy — is under attack in San Francisco.

As city editor Steven T. Jones reported in last week’s paper ("Hazy Recall") and on our Politics blog ("Connect the Recall Dots"), a recall campaign has targeted Sup. Jake McGoldrick, citing his advocacy of car-free spaces in Golden Gate Park and a bus rapid-transit initiative that recall advocates believe district residents oppose.

Behind its claims of being a grassroots effort with legitimate concerns about McGoldrick’s leadership are some troubling indicators that there’s a lot more to this than potential petition signers might realize. The campaign’s biggest financial contributions come from the Residential Builders Association (which has long battled McGoldrick over conditions and restrictions he’s tried to place on developers) and the conservative property rights group Small Property Owners of San Francisco.

The lion’s share of the $24,000 raised so far has gone to Johnny K. Wang’s JKW Political Consulting. Among JKW’s other clients are the reelection campaign of Mayor Gavin Newsom (who would get to appoint McGoldrick’s successor, and whom the supervisor publicly criticized over Newsom’s sex scandal), Google and Earthlink (which Newsom wants to build a wireless Internet system for the city, a deal McGoldrick has taken the lead in scrutinizing), and malevolent downtown player Citizens for Reform Leadership (an attack group created by Newsom treasurer Jim Sutton).

It’s no surprise that Newsom and his downtown allies would want to knock off McGoldrick or any of the progressive supervisors who have been effectively setting the city’s agenda for at least the past two years. In fact, critics of the board have now launched another recall campaign, against board president Aaron Peskin, as well as a lower-level effort against Sup. Chris Daly. And this follows an unsuccessful 2004 effort to recall Sup. Sophie Maxwell, which had some behind-the-scenes support from downtown attack dog Wade Randlett.

None of these four supervisors have committed the acts of corruption, incompetence, or gross malfeasance for which the tool of the recall was created. Instead, people are trying to recall McGoldrick, Peskin, and Daly simply for being effective legislators with whom some of their more conservative constituents disagree.

This is an outrageous and dishonest abuse of the recall. Newsom should immediately and publicly express his opposition to the recall campaigns, and citizens of the district should refuse to sign the petitions. But that’s not enough. It’s time for the Board of Supervisors to consider placing a charter amendment on the ballot that would reform the way recalls are handled in the city, which is far more lenient than under state law.

The San Francisco signature threshold of 10 percent of registered voters is ridiculously low, particularly for district-elected supervisors, for whom only about 3,500 signatures are needed. Statewide, the standard is 20 percent of registered voters, and that should be our standard as well.

Raising the signature threshold is particularly important given the advantage that downtown interests have in recalling supervisors. The City Charter treats recall campaigns like ballot measures, allowing for huge political contributions rather than the $500 limits applied to candidates. This is grossly unfair to truly grassroots groups and should also be changed to cap contributions at $500.

Finally, we should remove the temptation for allies of the mayor to use the recall as a way of undoing popular elections and giving more power to the mayor. Most recall elections in California entail the replacement of a successfully recalled official by a vote of the people (as we saw when Gov. Gray Davis was recalled), but in San Francisco, the mayor chooses the successor. That needs to change.

Too often these days, the recall is a weapon wielded recklessly by wealthy special interests to subvert the true will of the people. By setting reasonable financial contribution limits, creating a high but still attainable signature threshold, and making the recall more democratic, San Francisco can once again make the recall an honorable — and seldom used — tool of the people. *

From the ashes


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

"They may label you, try to classify you, and even call you a crazy bitch — but don’t flinch, just let them," Honey of Radio Phoenix says to the women of New York City after her black feminist–run station gets bombed by government agents, after her comrade in arms is found dead in her jail cell, as the fireworks are about to go off in a certain tall tower in Lower Manhattan.

There’s no denying the evocative weight of that last image these days. But Lizzie Borden’s 1983 Born in Flames — and in particular, advice like Honey’s — comes to mind every time I watch a film in which grrrls are running riot in the street or on the radio or in the clubs, a slowly but surely growing subgenre as the decades pass (at least in my home video collection).

In the thin line of plot running patchily through Borden’s vérité-style feature, surfacing at the Roxie Film Center on June 22, the War of Liberation has brought about a single-party system run by Socialist Democrats, the postrevolution economy is in the toilet, and working women are bearing the brunt of the mass layoffs that have ensued. Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield) is the leader of the Women’s Army, a loose circle of radical lesbian feminists — or vigilantes, as they’re called on the nightly news — who, among other pursuits, patrol the streets on bicycles with whistles at the ready in search of men behaving badly.

Norris begins to see their basically peaceful efforts to gain equality going nowhere and becomes convinced that armed struggle is the only way to get the government’s attention and force a change. When she dies in jail, the news sends a charge through the gathering underground, bringing together disconnected feminist forces that have long kept their distance. Borden’s aim, perhaps unrealistic and perhaps naive, is to present an expanding patchwork of radicalized women unified across lines of class and race in the face of overarching sexism.

You couldn’t call the women of Born in Flames riot grrrls with a straight face. The spiky commentators at Radio Regazza — trash-talking, white punk-rock counterparts to Radio Phoenix’s Honey — look familiar, but this is the second wave of feminism personified (evidenced, for one, by an unquestioning opposition to sex work). But if Borden’s point in setting Born in Flames in a future United States run by socialists, of all things, is that nothing much has changed for the second sex postrevolution, there’s a parallel in watching as a new clan of young women is born in flames onscreen every few years.

Such latter-day films — Kristine Peterson’s 1997 Slaves to the Underground, documenting the Portland DIY scene of the early ’90s; Barbara Teufel’s 2003 part-fiction, part-doc Gallant Girls, set amid the direct-action anarchopunks of late-’80s Berlin — regularly surface at the Frameline fest. And this year adds a couple more to the pack: closing night’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a tale of teen radicalization by But I’m a Cheerleader‘s Jamie Babbit (who cites Born in Flames as an inspiration), and the Spanish film El Calentito, by Chus Gutiérrez, set in 1981 on the eve of a coup d’état by Fascist vestiges of Francisco Franco’s gang. These, as well as Flames contemporaries Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980) and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, 1981), are filled with rude girls hijacking the radio waves or the stage, flinging out slogans and manifestos, and screaming bloody murder. Though only Borden’s future radicals are prepared to cause it. *

BORN IN FLAMES (Lizzie Borden, US, 1983). June 22, 10:30 p.m., Roxie

Hit it or quit it


Black White and Gray (James Crump, US, 2007) If Andre Téchiné’s The Witnesses colors the early ’80s red, this documentary about Sam Wagstaff (and by extension Robert Mapplethorpe) opts for a relatively bloodless palette. Though its voice-over shows class chauvinism in asserting that Patti Smith brought validity to punk, Black White and Gray perceptively uses its enigmatic subject as a window onto the changing role of photography within the art world. (Mapplethorpe’s objectification of black men is left uncriticized.) Crump brings in some excellent sources, such as Hanuman publisher Raymond Foye. He also brings in at least one horrible blabbermouth: spewing bitter opinion, historian Eugenia Parry deserves every hearty hiss she’s going to get from a Frameline crowd. The film ends on a flat note by allowing Smith to recite one of her pedestrian recent lyrics, but otherwise she’s a trustworthy and likable source on the relationship between Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe. Maybe the DVD version will bring more of her reminiscences and less of Parry. (Johnny Ray Huston)

June 21, 7 p.m., Victoria

DarkBlueAlmostBlack (Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, Spain, 2006). The term Almodóvarian is being thrown around these days with almost the same frequency as the term Hitchcockian (Almodóvar’s Bad Education was called Hitchcockian) and just as vaguely, but screenwriter-director Sánchez Arévalo’s DarkBlueAlmostBlack is Almodóvarian, resembling his postscrewball phase: it has melodrama without histrionics, likable characters doing absurdly unlikable things and vice versa, malleable (different from queer) sexuality, and near-incestuous family dynamics. The only thing missing is a hideously decorated apartment. In a world littered with the fruits of vacant and wild-eyed Almodóvarians (see — or don’t — Frameline 30’s unintentional disaster film The Favor), a disciple with some chops is cause for applause. Bitterly funny and narratively exciting — it toys with an amiable glibness that always comes back from the brink with devastating human emotion —Sánchez Arévalo’s dark but not quite jet-black comedy could be one of Almodóvar’s strongest films. (Jason Shamai)

June 20, 9:30 p.m., Victoria

Finn’s Girl (Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert, Canada, 2007). While other lesbians in the fest ponder whether to start a family, in Finn’s Girl conception is a fait accompli. How exactly it was accomplished is a bit of a mystery, but more pressing questions present themselves. One is whether Finn, a workaholic running a besieged Toronto abortion clinic and mourning the death of her wife, will get her head blown off by antichoice snipers — apparently, religious wingnuts live in Canada too. Another is whether she’s up for single-parenting the charming, precocious, enraged, and increasingly unmanageable Zelly, whose expressive 11-year-old eyes are particularly off-putting when narrowed above the smoke of a joint. Finn’s Girl covers a lot of terrain (grief, reproductive rights and technology, the travails of parenting, tween sexuality) with a fairly light tread, though Zelly’s scenes carry a particular charge of unpredictability. The result is a somewhat involving, sometimes sketchy picture of a family in transition. (Lynn Rapoport)

Sun/17, 12:30 p.m., Castro; Tues/19, 6:30 p.m., Parkway

Fun in Girls’ Shorts (various). Excluding Filled with Water, a smart, beautifully shot animation about a woman who falls for a TV-enclosed ballerina, and Succubus, a semicomedic film about a lesbian couple struggling to have a child, adolescent identity issues and anxieties constitute the major themes of this short-film compilation. With its attractively blurry cinematography, Pariah, about a 17-year-old black girl who keeps switching identities to please her parents and friends, is the most complete example of the suffocative effects that the suppression of one’s identity can have on a person, let alone a teen. (Maria Komodore)

Sat/16, 1:45 p.m., Castro; June 24, 11:30 a.m., Castro

Homos by the Bay (various). Though uneven, this program of shorts by local filmmakers does boast some standouts, including a stop-motion pair by Samara Halperin (who notably queerified Beverly Hills, 90210 in 2001’s Sorry, Brenda): the minute-long rhapsody on hot dogs, Plastic Fantastic #1, and Hard Hat Required, featuring two Lego men who do more than construction on the job. The Clap’s Gary Fembot uses his DJ skills for Mondo Bottomless‘s delightfully vintage pop soundtrack, a perfect match for its 16 minutes of cavorting men in bathing suits. And Nao Bustamante has a joyful punk-rock awakening in the black-and-white suburban fantasy The Perfect Ones. (Cheryl Eddy)

June 23, 1:15 p.m., Victoria

Jam (Marc Woollen, US, 2006). This is a fantastic, fascinating Roller Derby doc about Tim Patten, a local HIV-positive man who ferociously attempted to revive the sport after its virtual demise in the ’70s and, with it, the legendary Bay Area Bombers team. In San Francisco in the late ’90s, Bombers matches at Kezar Stadium were the hottest after-dark tickets in town, uniting swing revivalists, rockabilly fans, queer hipsters, and anyone into exquisitely goofy WWF-type antics but not into scary WWF crowds. Director Woollen takes us behind the scenes of those derby matches, delivering plenty of colorful history and personal drama (along with a few trade secrets) and uniting the disparate stories of the eccentrically flamboyant gang of wheel-heeled dreamers who signed on to Patten’s dream into a rollicking tale of subversive triumph. Now that’s a party. (Marke B.)

Mon/18, 7 p.m., Victoria

No Regret (Leesong Hee-il, South Korea, 2006). If you like movies about sexy orphans who become male prostitutes, you have at least two options at Frameline this year: Twilight Dancers and No Regret. Neither really addresses the issues it promises to (class politics, sex politics, et al.). But No Regret — essentially Pretty Woman for gay male depressives — is at least a better time at the movies. The South Korean film successfully tricks us into thinking its condom-thin melodrama is worthy of our tears, which is nothing to sneeze at. Just don’t expect to come out of the theater having unpacked the psyches of mopey Adonises for hire and their equally mopey rich lovers. (Shamai)

June 22, 10 p.m., Victoria

On the Downlow (Abigail Child, US, 2007) Some of the best pure moviemaking in this year’s festival can be found within this documentary by Abigail Child. Reflecting Child’s background as an experimental filmmaker, On the Downlow finds a lot of poetry and grit in urban Cleveland: a shot of a hooker moseying across the street and a sequence set at a barbecue are great examples of the poetry in motion that can happen when a talented woman with a camera looks at another woman. (Shot by men, these sequences would almost unfailingly be presented in a crude fashion or simply left ignored.) Of course, the main subjects here are men. Child also films them well, adding portraiture to talking-heads segments. On the Downlow‘s somewhat frustrating paradox is that it can’t really directly present its title subject — the guys talking here are either in love with DL guys who aren’t interviewed or they’re young gays- or bi’s-to-be taking awkward first public steps toward an out identity. (Huston)

June 23, 6 p.m., Victoria

Tan Lines (Ed Aldridge, Australia, 2006). The Aussie surfside ensemble drama has deep roots, stretching at least from preasshole Mel Gibson’s 1977 feature debut, Summer City, to last year’s superb, as-yet-unreleased (at least here) crime docudrama Out of the Blue. Landing somewhere between Gus van Sant and shark-bait territory, director Aldridge’s first feature focuses on the few days when 16-year-old surfer Midget (Jack Baxter) falls in first love — or at least first lust — with his best mate’s briefly returned, gay-disgraced brother, Cass (Daniel O’Leary). With its cannily used nonprofessional actors and streaks of absurdist humor, Tan Lines is an offbeat delight for half its length. The charm fades a bit thereafter, but this is still worth a look. (Dennis Harvey)

June 23, 3:30 p.m., Castro

Tick Tock Lullaby (Lisa Gornick, UK, 2006). Flirting with the idea of having a child and confronted with the difficult question of how to go about having it, Sasha (Gornick) and Maya (Raquel Cassidy), a lesbian couple living in London, set out on a sperm escapade. Inspired by the thought process that Sasha goes through as the couple’s hunt progresses, three additional stories emerge and intermingle, representing variations on the potential of becoming a parent. Shot with a beautifully fluid camera, Tick Tock Lullaby is an intimate, complex, and elaborate exploration of sexuality, relationships, and most important, parenthood. (Komodore)

Sat/16, 9:30 p.m., Castro

For more short takes on Frameline 31, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.

Don’t let PG&E kill CCA


EDITORIAL For decades, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been a deceptive and corrupting influence in San Francisco politics, time and again subverting efforts to create a public power system that would save city ratepayers tens of millions of dollars annually, comply with the federal Raker Act public power mandate, and create a greener power portfolio.

PG&E is prohibited by state law from interfering with community choice aggregation, an eminently worthy project that will allow San Francisco to develop sustainable energy projects and to buy and distribute power on behalf of residents. So, to circumvent the law, PG&E works quietly and aggressively through the Chamber of Commerce, the mainstream media, and community groups. It also spreads a blizzard of greenwashing ads around the cityscape.

The Guardian obtained a memo that PG&E secretly distributed to various community groups around town a few weeks ago, calling the CCA plan flawed and the city unfit to enter the power business. As Amanda Witherell reported on our Politics blog, Committee on Jobs director Nathan Nayman then plagiarized whole chunks of the PG&E missive for a May 23 guest editorial that he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner (a PG&E ad nestled close to his op-ed on the Examiner‘s Web site).

Then the Chamber of Commerce got into the act, purporting to conduct a poll of 111 business executives, most of whom said — surprise, surprise — that they would rather just keep doing business with PG&E. We got a copy of the poll, and it showed that only l,500 of the city’s 50,000 or so businesses were canvassed, and less than 10 per cent bothered to respond. The company that conducted the poll, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, lists PG&E as a client on its Web page but does not list the chamber.

Despite the obvious bias of this survey and the chamber’s clear intention to do PG&E’s bidding, both the Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle dutifully reported the results but didn’t include any comment from public power people. How close was the coordination between PG&E and the chamber? When the Chronicle called PG&E for comment, the reporter wrote, a chamber spokesperson called back on PG&E’s behalf. Neat. And the chamber’s James Lazarus testified on the poll results at the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee CCA hearing June 6.

To its credit, the committee saw through the charade and voted unanimously to move CCA forward. The full board was scheduled to consider approving CCA on June 12 after our press time, and approval appeared likely. CCA is an important first step toward public power, consumer choice, and an energy policy that is sustainable and independent. Let’s put CCA on the fast track and keep exposing PG&E’s sneaky maneuvers and the people and businesses that promote them. *

Editor’s Notes


› steve@sfbg.com

I’ve been obsessed with high-speed rail for a couple of months now. It started in March when I was in France and had my first experience on the TGV trains that zip between Paris and Lyon in less than two hours, about a third of the time it takes by car. The ease with which I stepped onto the train made my airport experiences seem like torturous tests of my capacity to endure long lines, inexplicable delays, nosy cops, bureaucratic madness, and fellow travelers made cranky by it all.

As the French countryside flew past me at 200 mph, I wondered why California has been unable to build a high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, cities quite similar to Paris and Lyon in terms of distance and cultural importance. So I researched the issue and learned that the single biggest obstacle is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as I reported recently in "The Silver Bullet Train" (4/18/07), a story that the San Diego CityBeat then ran as its cover article in its last issue.

So I was intrigued to hear what Schwarzenegger had to say on the subject last week when he came to speak in a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. auditorium for an event sponsored by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. When asked about it, the governor said, "I’m a big believer in mass transit. I’m a big believer in high-speed rail. I think this high-speed rail is a great possibility, but I want us working on the public participation — private partnerships — then we can commit to the $10 billion to put in from the public sector."

Which, of course, is complete bullshit. The governor’s budget made big cuts in mass-transit spending, including chopping $28 million from BART and $36 million from Muni. And it proposed gutting the California High Speed Rail Authority, which has long planned for the need for private-sector funding support that Schwarzenegger claims will preclude next year’s $10 billion high-speed rail bond measure. Those who know the issue know how ridiculous the governor sounds.

"Based upon your encouragement, we have prepared the financing plan. If your support for an appropriate level of funding in 2007–<\d>08 is contingent upon securing specific commitments of funding from various public and private entities, you are the logical leader who can bring together California Congressional leaders and private financiers," CHSRA chair Quentin Kopp wrote to Schwarzenegger on May 25.

And still Schwarzenegger does nothing to support the project, which the downtown think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) makes the focus of its June newsletter under the headline "High Speed Rail Essential to Keep California on Track: Trains Offer Best Bet for Fast, Clean Transport as State Grows."

It’s time for Schwarzenegger’s deeds to start matching his words, particularly on this crucial project.*

Club Six survives


› news@sfbg.com

A two-year battle over noise may have finally come to a relatively peaceful close June 5 when both sides made concessions about the presence of Club Six on historically blighted Sixth Street.

In one corner were a few discontented residents of the Lawrence Hotel atop the club and their champion, Paul Hogarth of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and managing editor of www.BeyondChron.org, who say the noisy club disrupts their lives. On the other side of the ring was Angel Cruz, Club Six’s owner and operator, and dozens of supporters who assert that Cruz and his club have revitalized Sixth Street and enriched their lives.

The two sides faced off in front of the Entertainment Commission, which was charged with mediating the dispute and was considering a 30-day suspension of the club’s entertainment and after-hours permits. The commission decided to forgo the suspension for now and place the club on a 120-day probationary period, during which any sound violations could trigger an expedited return to the commission and possible shutdown.

Cruz pledged to use the time to finish soundproofing Club Six. He has already poured about a quarter-million dollars into buffering the club’s noise, and he just hired an esteemed acoustic consultant to finish the process.

The movement to shut down Club Six was spearheaded by Jim Ayers, a long-term, low-income tenant of the hotel who claims that the noise generated by the club keeps him up all night and that the vibrations are strong enough to knock items off shelves (see "Fury over Sound," 5/23/07).

"The funny thing about this whole process is the better [the soundproofing] gets, the more complaints we get," Cruz told the Guardian. "As long as we are open, Jim Ayers is going to complain."

But not all residents of the Lawrence Hotel are against Club Six. Julius Countryman, another long-term resident, told the commission — to rounds of applause from supporters — "Club Six keeps me rockin’. It keeps me movin’."

In fact, only a few of the 41 residents of the Lawrence showed up at the hearing to voice displeasure. One tenant claimed "intimidation" kept them away.

Club Six supporters turned out in such large numbers that the hearing had to be moved to a bigger room. Dozens filed before the commission to give impassioned, one-minute pleas as to why the club needs to stay. A few even said Club Six saved their lives. One man who was beaten unconscious down the street from the club said he may not have been alive if Club Six security hadn’t stepped in. Another recovering drug addict thanked Cruz for giving him a job when no one else would hire him.

So for now, there’s a break in what had been an animated and polarizing conflict pitting low-income residents against those with concerns about growing threats to nightlife and urban culture. (The Guardian‘s last story on the conflict generated more readers comments than any recent story on our Web site, most of them critical of our perspective.)

Yet the overwhelming response at the hearing brought a perspective to the issue different from what Hogarth and his clients have pushed. And that is, if Club Six closed, more than 50 people employed by the club would face financial hardship, and a unique venue supportive of music, art, and cultural diversity would be sorely missed.

But it remains to be seen whether Cruz can mollify his neighbors and the city officials who are now watching — and listening to — Club Six.

Exclusive to SFBG.com


The ongoing layoffs at the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News are a human drama as well as a financial one, particularly given the relationship between the parent companies of those two publications: the Chron’s Hearst Corp. and Merc owner MediaNews Group.

An anticipated 160 journalists and their editors are being cut from the Chron and the Merc, which means, of course, less news for you. The names of which editors were slashed by the Chron surfaced first on the local blog Ghost Word while the rest made it to the Web in an internal Bronstein memo leaked to industry watchers, a painful irony considering what news execs say is killing journalism jobs.

Those who have been let go paint an interesting picture of what happened and what’s to come. “When Frank Vega, the new publisher, got here a couple of years ago, he said only three things can happen: We can fix it. We can sell it. Or we can shut it down. They haven’t fixed it yet, so those other two things are what they have to be considering,” John Curley, a deputy managing editor let go from the Chronicle recently after more than two decades with the paper, told the Guardian.

An annotated photo of Curley’s desk at the Chron appeared on Flickr.com last week and elicited two successive waves of heartfelt e-mails and calls after the popular industry blog Romenesko linked it.
Early in his career, Curley worked in New Jersey under David Burgin, who was famously fired and rehired several times by MediaNews honcho Dean Singleton at a number of the company’s papers before briefly working at the San Francisco Examiner, once owned by Hearst before it took over the Chronicle. Curley also worked for Jim Bellows, an influential editor in American journalism, at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
“Even though this is officially termed a ‘reduction in force,’ I am surprised and dismayed that the organization thinks it can have a future without me,” Curley wrote below the photo on his Flickr profile. “To be honest, I thought I’d get the chance to help lead the paper where it needed to go to compete successfully in the digital age. But instead, off I go.”

Insiders told us managers at the Chronicle reiterate over and over that the paper will never be the New York Times. To be fair, Bronstein likes to change up his low expectations from time to time. Last year, he told media hound Michael Stoll in a piece for the SF Weekly that the daily can’t be another Los Angeles Times either.

Sunday editor Wendy Miller, an industry veteran of more than two decades who spent her last seven years at the Chron before being let go just recently, told us, “There’s no answer to that except, ‘Of course we can’t be the New York Times. But we could be the very best regional paper we could be and as good at doing in-depth regional stories as the national papers are at doing what they do. There’s not a lot of imagination in Chronicle management. They’re not a very flexible group.”

Chron executive editor Phil Bronstein told Editor & Publisher that the paper will focus more on local news, but he said it will also have to do fewer stories now. And staffers told us he’s admitted during recent meetings that he’s not quite sure what to do in order to save the paper.

The Chron has lately continued its strong coverage of police misconduct in San Francisco but chose to relegate a superb story about one problem officer to the back of the June 7 edition in the local section. The riveting tale of a scandalous trust-fund lawyer by long-time crime reporter Jaxon Van Durbeken was placed far from the June 10 Sunday edition’s front page as well.

Miller told us she was displeased with what the daily was choosing to promote on its Sunday front-page and wished it would more often showcase thorough local reporting done by beat reporters.

The Chron’s financial desperation is well-known by now, confirmed months ago by Hearst attorneys in federal court when local businessman Clint Reilly was suing the company along with MediaNews to stop – or at least limit – a $300 million investment scheme the two would-be competitors planned that has since enabled MediaNews to dominate most of the Bay Area’s newspapers outside of the Chron.

Hearst lost approximately $1 million a week last year, and all told, they’ve more or less dumped $1 billion into the paper, including its purchase price, since buying it in 2000. Sources say the losses are now closer to $2 million a week.

The company first announced in May that it was eliminating 100 newsroom employees out of its 400 total. We’re told that some guild cuts were officially enacted June 8 with more expected soon afterward, but no one’s entirely sure who’s accepted buyouts so far and much uglier terminations could take place soon. At the same time, nine editors were sent packing.

The Chron’s managing editor Robert Rosenthal announced he was leaving before the axe fell on the newsroom proclaiming that he couldn’t stomach the bloodshed.

The coincidence couldn’t be more profound. He spent much of his career at the respected Philadelphia Inquire before joining the Chron after growing dissatisfied with the Inquirer’s decision in 2001 to downsize more than 100 people under former owner Knight-Ridder, which also once owned the Merc.

“What I believe is that the real innovators are the journalists,” Rosenthal told us. “In the industry, the people who are not the innovators are on the business side. They’ve looked at this as a very traditional challenge and now they’re getting caught up in a whirlpool of change.”

At the Merc, expected cuts for the paper were first disclosed by John Bowman, who quit recently as editor of the San Mateo County Times, also owned by MediaNews Group. Bowman had grown angry over what the cuts had done to his own paper, and opened up like a geyser to GradetheNews.org telling them that shortcuts on copy editors were causing egregious errors even in headlines.

State workplace safety cops are investigating the San Mateo paper’s offices where Bowman contends the building is without air and rats are a concern. Spokesperson Dean Fryer of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health wouldn’t discuss the case while it remains open. But federal records show MediaNews was fined $800 last fall for an asbestos-related complaint at the company’s nearby Los Gatos Weekly-Times.

The Merc and the Times are run by a consortium of companies called the California Newspapers Partnership with MediaNews at the helm and include the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. Online ad revenue actually went up last quarter for MediaNews along with its general profit margin while the cost of newsprint is going down, all good signs for Singleton’s wallet.

But print ad income and circulation, which continue to butter the company’s bread, remain on a downward march, according to earnings statements, and Singleton still must service the hundreds of millions in debt he accrued in recent years storming the nation in a frenzied haste to buy up both daily and weekly papers big and small.

In fact, the business press in recent stories about the company’s performance failed to point out that the Denver-based company is doing yet more big deals with Hearst in other cities. The two joined efforts last quarter to purchase the News-Times in Danbury, Conn. for $80 million in an arrangement very similar to what the companies created here, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. A few newsroom job cuts were announced recently at the News-Times.

MediaNews already owned the Connecticut Post, located about 20 miles away, and the deal included another nearby paper in New Milford. Combined, the three make a cluster, just as Singleton likes them, which enable him to thin and share staff and other resources between the publications as he’s been doing in the Bay Area.
Thin, of course, equals cutting more journalists.

Paper trail


› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Up to 160 journalists and editors being cut from the payrolls of the Bay Area’s biggest two daily newspapers will flood a shrinking media job market, forcing many from their homes and making it difficult to pay their rents or mortgages.

But it also means something else: less news, and therefore less accountability and diminished democratic debate.

That was the sad conclusion of many observers and media professionals after the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News both revealed recently that they’d be laying off about a quarter of their respective newsroom staffs.

"Something has to give," Chron editor Phil Bronstein told Editor and Publisher recently. "If you have 15 priorities, sometimes the bottom three or four don’t get done. You may have to do fewer stories, and you can do that."

The disturbing pronouncements by their parent companies, the Hearst Corp. and MediaNews Group, even led some veterans who weren’t immediately facing pink slips to leave on their own accord, unable to stomach the sorry state of their profession. Yet even as the bloodletting began in earnest at the Chron last week, Bronstein hadn’t presented much of a game plan for how Hearst actually expects to continue operating a major metropolitan newspaper.

"There’s no question that with the Bay Area — like other big metro markets — the diminishing number of journalists will definitely impact the public," just-departed managing editor Robert Rosenthal, who announced he was leaving two weeks ago as the cuts were about to begin, told the Guardian.

The paper even started a blog for fallen staffers to exchange leads on new opportunities. Among the first posts was a public relations gig in San Francisco, which to many earnest reporters is like crossing over to the dark side.

Despite its lagging finances, the Chronicle has still been the city’s main paper of record — based mostly on its extensive resources and large newsroom — no matter how many blogs, online journals, and alt weeklies claw at its heels, or whether people consider it a poor paper.

But Sunday editor Wendy Miller, who was squeezed out last week, told us that the paper has been promoting sensationalism while failing to put some of its best stories from beat reporters high on the Sunday front page. As an example, she pointed to Carrie Sturrock’s regular education coverage, like recent stories on far-flung alternative-energy research at Stanford University and the punishing collection tactics of student-loan agencies.

"That front page too often is driven by crime and tabloid and goofy local stories," said Miller, an industry veteran of more than two decades who spent her last seven years at the Chron. "I think this is too sophisticated of a market for a front page like that. While I do think there’s a lot of good work that we do, we don’t play it well…. We don’t put our very best work on the cover often."

Now the situation could grow worse, as changes are certain at the paper along with the layoffs. It’s not clear, for instance, that its Sunday edition will contain an Insight section anymore, laid-off editor Jim Finefrock, who spent more than 30 years at the paper, told us last week just after he cleaned out his desk.

Washington bureau chief Marc Sandalow was let go after more than 20 years at the Chronicle, 13 of them inside the Beltway, and the paper has also made an effort to cut the job of fellow longtime DC reporter Edward Epstein. The moves would halve the bureau’s staff and cast doubt on how the Chron would continue its knowledgeable stories on some of the most powerful members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who are only now attaining major leadership positions.

"I always knew it would mean extremely unpleasant belt-tightening," Sandalow told the Guardian, referring to the paper’s hundreds of millions of dollars in losses since Hearst took it over in 2000. "I just didn’t think it would be suffocation."

Bronstein apparently is unsure of how the Chron can even begin to change the course of its unique money-losing trajectory. Despite the industry being wounded by fleeing subscribers and competitive Web outlets, most newspapers are still making big profits, with the Chron being a fairly rare exception. Sources add that the job cuts might save just $8 million or so per year, not nearly enough to make up for the paper’s staggering losses, for which no one had any reasonably good explanations.

"Something’s not right with our structure," John Curley, a deputy managing editor who’d been at the paper for more than 20 years, told the Guardian. "There isn’t another metropolitan daily that has a dominant position the way the Chronicle does that loses money."

Indeed, SFGate.com is among the most regularly visited newspaper sites in the country, and the model has greatly expanded the paper’s readership. But Curley explained that local advertisers "don’t necessarily want to reach someone in Zurich who might be interested in reading our political analysis." For most papers, online ads still generate remarkably little revenue.

The company initially announced in May that it was eliminating 100 newsroom employees out of its total of 400. We’re told that some guild cuts were officially enacted last Friday, with more on the way, but no one’s entirely sure who has accepted buyouts so far, and much uglier terminations could take place soon. "People are terrified," one source said. "Their phone rings, and they don’t want to answer."

At the same time, nine members of the top brass, including two deputy managing editors, Curley and Leslie Guevarra, were sent packing. Bronstein worked hard to appear assured of the paper’s future in Editor and Publisher, telling the journal recently that the Chron would be focusing more on local news as part of its strategy, with less of a "buffet-style," but he offered few specifics. He nonetheless told staffers during recent meetings that he doesn’t really know what to do and invited them to offer their own solutions.

The mood’s been decidedly glum at a modest SoMa dive known as the Tempest, where Chron staffers are known to commonly lurk and where some of the recent sendoffs for departing staffers have been held.

"Business has been very good for me this week," a bartender there said late at night on June 8. "But I know 25 percent of these people won’t be coming back. This won’t be good for business in the long run."

As for the Merc, www.GradetheNews.org fueled the rank and file’s worst fears by first reporting that 60 newsroom positions at that paper would get the ax, in addition to the 35 union employees who were shoved out last December.

The paper got the tip from John Bowman, now former executive editor of the San Mateo County Times, also owned by MediaNews, who disclosed the layoffs to the public after deciding he was "fed up" with MediaNews honcho Dean Singleton’s slash-and-burn business strategy.

Amid the chaos, the Merc‘s brand-new top editor, Carole Leigh Hutton, sent a memo to staffers begging them to remain calm and "focus some of that energy on doing the journalism we do so well" instead of indulging in rumors at the watercooler about what was planned.

Furious over cuts at his paper, Bowman decided to quit the same day that he talked to GradetheNews about an April meeting he attended with other MediaNews editors at which the layoffs were discussed.

Singleton, the industry’s undisputed king of consolidation, months ago cut some copyediting jobs and moved others to a single hub in Pleasanton where its Tri-Valley Herald was formerly located. Bowman told GradetheNews the move had caused "an incredible number of errors," including glaring geographical mistakes even in headlines.

"You want copy editors who know your city, who know your beat, who can ask great questions and help make your story better," Luther Jackson, executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, told us. "That’s just a general rule, I would say. Copy editors are really underappreciated in general."

Jackson added that Bowman’s figure of 60 isn’t set in stone, and while the paper has admitted it plans to initiate more layoffs soon, it still hasn’t decided how many. GradetheNews also interviewed reporters at "several of the chain’s papers" who echoed Bowman’s complaints and wrote that some of the papers are dreadfully short of reporters, including beat writers who specialize in specific local subjects.

We never heard back from Bronstein, Singleton, California Newspaper Publishers Association executives George Riggs and Kevin Keane, or former Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg, who high-tailed it out of San Jose recently for a job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But Merc business reporter Elise Ackerman, who’s worked at the Peninsula daily for seven years, told us the paper’s union plans to provide execs with suggestions on how to improve the paper and boost income, though she didn’t give details.

"I do think that this is really just a rough transition, and I was really impressed with Carol Leigh Hutton," Ackerman said carefully. "She’s communicating very clearly…. I don’t think that she’s going to preside over the bloodletting that we saw at the Chron." *

For more on this evolving story, visit www.sfbg.com.