Real Estate

Investigate the Presidio’s money


EDITORIAL National parks are places where wildlife is preserved, saved, encouraged. The trend in parks these days is to expand the ecological mix; the National Park Service is actually trying to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. But as Amanda Witherell reported Jan. 17 ("Where Are the Chicks?"), that’s not the case in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. At the Presidio a native species that was thriving not long ago — the California quail — is almost entirely gone. That’s a sign that the ecological management of the park is a mess — which is no surprise. The park is run by a semiprivate trust that’s driven by real estate development and moneymaking. If new condos conflict with quail habitat, guess who has to go?

Then there’s the Presidio’s balance sheet. As we reported Jan. 24 ("The Presidio Trust’s Mystery Millions"), the park is sitting on $105 million — a huge chunk of cash — yet has asked Congress for a $20 million loan. What’s all that money for? The trust won’t tell us — it’s a secret.

This is exactly what we feared would happen when Rep. Nancy Pelosi created the first privatized national park 10 years ago: environmental damage, financial unaccountability, and intolerable secrecy. The trust board (appointed by President George W. Bush) meets in public only once a year. Its press office is openly hostile to reporters and makes it exceptionally difficult for the public to get even basic information about park activities.

This is Pelosi’s pet project, and she’s now the most powerful person in Congress, but that doesn’t mean the Presidio should be able to continue operating in this fashion. The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D–W.Va.), ought to hold hearings on the Presidio and examine how the trust is operating, whether it’s fulfilling its mission, and how its enabling legislation should be changed. A growing number of environmentalists are now calling for Pelosi to repeal the original bill and turn the Presidio over to the National Park Service, which runs parks as public treasures, not as potential real estate developments.

At the very least, Congress should refuse to provide any more loans to the Presidio Trust until an outside auditor conducts a public review of the books — and explains why a national park is holding $105 million in taxpayer money in the bank for secret projects, then demanding even more public money. *



JAN. 18


Piers Faccini

Could there be a more unlikely combination of
characters than an introspective, globe-trotting
European (Piers Faccini) who creates delicate
dreamscapes as both a songwriter and a painter; a
multicultural DJ (DJ Felina) with a tropical vibe; and
a couple of brash local indie bands (Boy in the
Bubble, Sir Salvatore) all sharing one bill? It’s fun
for the whole family — those over 21, that is. (Nicole

9 p.m., $7
Hotel Utah
500 Fourth St., SF
(415) 546-6300


“Henry Wessel: Photographs” and “R. Crumb: Drawings”

Just one look is all it takes to become smitten with
the 65-year-old photographer’s singular, sardonic
perspective on subjects such as real estate and
settings such as San Francisco. Henry Wessel’s images
of California in the ’70s are as laconically sharp and
languidly iconic as David Hockney’s poolside paintings
from the same area and era. This gallery show of
selected early work — paired with café placemat
drawings by R. Crumb — is a fine appetizer for an
upcoming Wessel exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Johnny Ray Huston)

Through Feb. 24, 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., free
Rena Bransten Gallery
77 Geary, SF
(415) 982-3292

Live free or die hard


KIDS’ TV GONE WILD There’s a scene in Half Nelson — a top contender for most depressing scene in a movie loaded with ’em — in which Dan, Ryan Gosling’s drugged-out high school teacher, trudges home for a meal with his post-hippie parents. As the evening shuffles into boozy awkwardness, his mom throws Free to Be … You and Me on the hi-fi, and the sounds of "It’s All Right to Cry" fill the house. It’s the perfect choice for so many reasons; for Dan, a product of the 1970s, any song off that iconic ’72 album would signal bittersweet nostalgia. But the Rosey Grier–crooned "It’s All Right to Cry" — which follows the skit "Dudley Pippin and the Principal," an intense two minutes packed with sand table–tipping drama and flute-playing guidance — is also the pitch-perfect choice for an educator on the downward spiral.

I’m also a child of the 1970s. When I was in high school, a friend made the casual observation that everything he needed to know in life he’d learned from Free to Be … You and Me. And that’s basically true, isn’t it? If everyone took the lessons of Free to Be literally, there would be no gender stereotypes. People would share a lot more, and they’d be kinder to grandmas, parents, and crybabies. My favorite Free to Be cut was always "Ladies First," penned by Shel Silverstein (himself an avalanche of nostalgia material, what with Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, The Giving Tree, and the rest). Read by Free to Be‘s guiding force, Marlo Thomas, it’s the poignant tale of a greedy girl who learns it’s not always best to be first in line — especially when the line ends at the dinner plate of a hungry tiger.

I didn’t realize until years later — when I read That Girl and Phil, poison-penned by her former majordomo Desmond Atholl (with Michael Cherkinian) — that the sweet-voiced Thomas was so worthy of being a tasty tiger snack herself. The knowledge adds a certain cynical slant to lyrics such as "In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman." Her own bitchy woman, that is. It’s unclear whether the artists participating in "Free to Be … You and Me Invitational," the first in the PFA’s "Together Again: Collectively Created Compilations" series, take the personality of Free to Be‘s figurehead into consideration. Curated by Thomas Beard (who’ll be there in person) and Nick Hallett, the 55-minute program features fresh takes and mashups of original 16mm copies of the 1974 Free to Be film by video artists such as Big Noise Films, Nao Bustamante, and Lynne Sachs. Intriguingly, the program also features a short "joint jest" that takes on Mary Worth, one of the more inscrutable soap opera comics ever to take up funny-page real estate. (Cheryl Eddy)


Wed/17, 7:30 p.m., $4–$8


2757 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249


Where are the chicks?



It’s a warm, blue-sky day in late November, and about 35 people are gathered outside one of the National Park Service buildings in the Presidio, trading tales of where and when they last saw California quail. Point Reyes is named most frequently. The Marin Headlands get a few nods from the bird enthusiasts. Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park raises a minor cheer. Someone mentions "Quail Commons" in the Presidio, and an "Ooh" ripples around the circle, but it turns out the sighting was a while ago.

The enthusiastic volunteers, mostly bird lovers and Presidio neighbors, have turned out for today’s annual Quail Habitat Restore-a-Thon, an event aimed at transforming Quail Commons, the quarter-acre sliver of property located behind the Public Health Service Hospital on the western edge of the Presidio, into the national park’s premier quail habitat.

And the handful of quail that still live in the Presidio will surely appreciate it — although they might have a better time if only there were some ladies around.

Unfortunately, there aren’t. After a long morning of trimming back trees and planting sprouts of native coffee berry and coyote bush, Damien Raffa, a natural resources educator for the Presidio, confirms all the rumors that have been raked up with the weeds: the quail population has reached a new low. There are just six remaining in the Presidio. And yes, they’re all male.

The demise of the local quail population sounds like something only bird nerds would be fluffing their feathers over, but the strange thing is that the birds didn’t just fly away while the binoculars were trained elsewhere. A concerted effort to save the city’s quail population was made by multiple parties, costing thousands of dollars and using hundreds of work hours.

In 2000 the Board of Supervisors named the sociable fowl with the cunning head plumage the official bird of San Francisco. Since the informal inception of the Habitat Restore-a-Thon in the late ’90s, the number of volunteers has increased more than fivefold, and hundreds of park staff hours have been spent restoring habitats to the quail’s particular standards.

The Golden Gate Audubon Society dropped $15,000 on a Quail Restoration Plan and budgets $6,000 a year for the project. In the Presidio education has included a Web site, bright yellow "Quail Area" bumper stickers, and road signs in sensitive areas warning drivers to watch out for the little ground-loving birds. For the past two years biological monitors have been hired by the Presidio Trust to study the precious few remaining quail, with the hopes of pinpointing why they’re disappearing.

So why are the plump little fowl more commonly found trussed in gravy on sterling platters in some of the Embarcadero’s finer eating establishments than nesting under scrubby bushes among the windswept dunes on the western side of the city?

What went wrong? And what does it say about how the Presidio and other natural areas in the city are being managed?


A mere 20 years ago, the state bird of California, Callipepla californica, was so bountiful in the Presidio that the average bike ride down Battery Caulfield or along Land’s End yielded at least one sighting.

"Brush rabbits, wrentits, Western screech owls, and the California quail" are the common wildlife listed off by Josiah Clark, a San Francisco native who spent his childhood scrambling around the Presidio with his binoculars. He’s now a wildlife ecologist and runs an environmental consulting company called Habitat Potential. "Those were once ‘can’t-miss’ species when I was a kid. Now I’m more likely to find a vagrant bird from the East Coast than a wrentit or a screech owl in the Presidio."

Since the former US Army base was decommissioned and opened to the public, the wrentit and screech owl have disappeared, and the quail are flying the coop too, despite the protective national-park status of the city’s largest natural area.

"Sometimes I think about the irony of it," says Dominik Mosur, a former biological monitor for the Presidio Trust who still birds in the national park once or twice a week. "The Presidio Trust was founded in 1998, at the same time habitat restoration for the quail really started happening. The more people got involved in somewhat of a misguided manner, the less successful it’s become."

Having a species of animal disappear from a national park is very unusual, according to Peter Dratch, who oversees the Endangered Species Program for the National Park Service. "It’s a rare event for a species in a national park to become locally extirpated," he says. Just three national parks have lost an animal out of the thousand endangered and threatened species he tracks.

Mosur is concerned that economic interests are trumping ecological needs in the Presidio. "I’m not saying that ecologists who work for the trust want to see the quail extinct," Mosur says. "But I think their bosses wouldn’t mind. Preserving nature and making money are really conflicting things. You can’t make any money off of an open lot of sagebrush with some quail in it, but you can make quite a bit of money converting Letterman hospital into a lot of apartments."

And making money is the bottom line for this national park. The Presidio, unlike any other national park in the country, is forced to fully fund itself, according to a mandate proposed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the mid-’90s. Guardian investigations and editorials over the years have raised questions about the viability of this arrangement. The cash cow is supposed to be the abundance of housing and development opportunities made possible by the abandoned army barracks and buildings, which means this national park is in the business of real estate, not natural resources.

While an annual $20 million federal allocation has been meted to the park during its teething stages, the Presidio Trust is tasked with weaning itself off that funding by 2013. Halfway through the 15-year deadline, the 2006 annual report for the trust shows that revenue is up just 4.5 percent while overhead costs have jumped 22 percent from last year’s numbers.

So making money is more important than ever. The doubtful are invited to trawl the Presidio’s Web site, where it’s easy to find information about housing rentals and development opportunities, the new restaurants that have opened, and the free coffee now available at transit hubs, but only a deep search will reveal anything about birds, trees, and flowers. A click on the "Nature in the City" link scores you a picture of the very common and abundant great horned owl. If you want to "read more," you get a blurb about mushrooms. The "Save the Quail" link, which was up as recently as this fall, has disappeared, just like the bird itself.

At press time, spokespeople for the Presidio Trust had not answered our questions about quail habitats or future restoration plans, despite repeated inquiries.

To be fair, the decimation of local quail is a phenomenon not exclusive to the Presidio. The population in Golden Gate Park has also dropped to a dangerous low. Annual citywide "Christmas Bird Counts," conducted by the Golden Gate Audubon Society, show more than 100 quail 10 years ago but as few as 40 just 5 years ago. Last year there were 27. This year promises to have even fewer.

"When a population gets low, it’s easier for it to get really low really fast," Clark says.

Most local bird-watchers and ecologists agree that it’s been a collision of conditions such as increased predation, decimated habitats, and unsavory, incestuous mating stock that has meant the gallows for the quail. But poor management decisions on behalf of the people in power have been the tightened noose.


Mention quail to anyone in management at Golden Gate Audubon, the Presidio Trust, or the city’s Recreation and Park Department, and you’ll be directed to Alan Hopkins, who has lived and watched birds in the city since 1972 and is the most widely regarded local expert on quail.

Initially, it wasn’t one of his favorite species. "They were a little too cute," Hopkins says. "But the more I started to study them, I saw how social they were. They’re fascinating, and they were here way before we were."

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that he really started making a special effort to look for them during his daily bird-watching. Within a few years he began to worry about the health of the local population as he saw an increase in predators like raptors and feral cats.

At the same time, habitats were decimated by an aggressive campaign to purge the parks of homeless people. This involved cutting back the deep underbrush where quail like to hide out. In addition, the preservation of tall, stoic trees such as cypress, pine, and eucalyptus has meant an increase in habitats for quail predators like hawks and ravens, which prefer to spot prey from a heightened roost. As these factors conspired, numbers continued to drop, and the breeding stock became more and more narrow, until the coveys were rife with incest.

While predation is always a possibility, it doesn’t start having a big effect until the quail take to the streets, driven by disrupted habitats and dismal mating prospects. Though not generally migratory birds, when a spot becomes inhabitable, quail have been known to move around the city using wild property edges for succor until they find another covey or place to roost. And in San Francisco, they really are in the streets. Quail can’t fly long distances, and they travel mostly on foot.

Two birds wearing leg bands left the unpalatable conditions of the Presidio and resurfaced in Golden Gate Park, which means the unappealing mating scenario and disrupted habitat drove them to negotiate several city blocks in search of greener pastures. "They probably went through people’s backyards," Hopkins says. "That’s one of the reasons we think people need to preserve their backyards."

But increased gentrification has destroyed these wild, backyard corridors, which have been the secret highways for wildlife through the city.

Hopkins started an education-and-restoration campaign called "Save the Quail" in the ’90s. His hope was that the more people were aware of the quail and the small things they could do to save them, like preserving certain plants in their yards and keeping their cats indoors, the more it would benefit the birds and the parks.

"If we can restore the quail, it’s a good harbinger of health in the city," says Peter Brastow, director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit group that works to restore biodiversity in San Francisco by encouraging citizens to work and play in natural areas. "If we have great success with them, then we’re probably doing a lot for many other species too."

And that, Brastow argues, is important for the health of the people who live here. "Connecting to nature should be a bona fide recreational activity. Going bird-watching, walking your dog on a leash, [and] doing stewardship are all ways for urbanites to reconnect with these threatened natural areas that need people to sustain them. People need nature. It’s a feedback loop."

But, as is so often the case in San Francisco, for every pro, there’s a con.


As the quail preservationists beseeched the city’s Rec and Park Department and the Presidio Trust for places to restore habitats, efforts were waylaid by the competing interests of feral cat fans and off-leash dog lovers.

"It really became a polarized issue," says Samantha Murray, Golden Gate Audubon’s conservation director. "Unfortunately, quail have had a lot working against them for the last 20 years, and none of that helped."

As arguments played out in public meetings, time ticked away for the birds, and the population continued to plummet. Eventually, a strip of unused land between Harding Park Golf Club and Lake Merced was granted as a new place for a quail habitat, even though it’s not an area where quail have ever been seen.

"It was a compromise," Hopkins says.

In addition, a quail niche was carved out of a quarter-acre plot in the Presidio where a covey still existed. Dubbed Quail Commons, it became the locus of restoration efforts, with regular work parties weeding out nonnative invasive species and sowing new shoots of quail-approved plants.

It wasn’t long, however, before the plot became more of a poster child for the trust and less a place where effective restoration occurred. Hopkins and other local birders and ecologists proffered regular advice on what might work, but they say the trust depended too heavily on outside studies by experts and seized on a rigid formula rather than a fluctuating plan that responded to unexpected changes in the local ecology.

"Quail are dependent on a lot of nonnative species for food source and cover," Hopkins says. In a burst of antipathy toward nonnative species, much of the Himalayan blackberry and wild radish, two of the quail’s favorite plants, were scourged from the parks. The native plants that replaced them provide a very limited diet for the birds.

"One bad year for those plants," Hopkins says, "and the ability to eat is gone."

He points out that providing water or food where necessary and introducing more birds when the population became so inbred could have been very effective.

"I think it’s naive to think if you simply restore habitat, it’s going to be enough," he says. He admits that contradicts statements he’s made in the past, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to ecology. No specific formula is guaranteed to work in every situation, which is what, some scientists say, makes local knowledge so valuable.

"Local knowledge is huge," says Karen Purcell, leader of the Urban Bird Studies project at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, which uses "citizen scientists" from around the country to supplement its bird research. "People who know their birds and what’s going on in their areas contribute information that many times we could never get."

To maintain reliability, the lab gathers as much data as possible from as many sources as are available, so that rogue or ill-informed data is diluted.

"There are so many people like myself who’ve spent so much time watching this place and the animals that live in it. People from as close as Marin couldn’t even say the things that we know," says Hopkins, who’s been hired by the trust to consult for a few projects but not granted any regular position or much compensation for his expertise.

"The people I’ve had to deal with through the Presidio Trust and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy try to do their best, but I always get the feeling there are conflicting interests," he says. "There’s always the budget. There are always aesthetic issues."

When it comes to action, things drag at the federal level much like they do when negotiating with competing interests around the city. "As far as the National Park Service goes, they’ve got to have a study," Clark says. "And the study has to be done by qualified academics. That’s the way the system works."

This past year’s Presidio biological monitor, Chris Perry, describes himself as "not really a birder," even though "99.5 percent of my job was monitoring quail." Perry has a master’s degree, and the bulk of his career has been spent doing a variety of environmental work. "It doesn’t require someone to be a birder to be a good ecologist."

Perry agrees with the locals on one contentious issue: efforts to reintroduce quail into the Presidio are long overdue. Hopkins says he hoped for reintroduction years ago, but politics invaded.

"They hemmed and hawed about it. It costs money," he says. One of the problems with reintroduction, he adds, is that you can’t just "open the cage and let them loose." Quail are social birds, and like any new kid in town, the birds are more likely to succeed if there are some old-timers around who know the local ropes.

That may be a problem for the other primary habitat-restoration area in the city, Harding Park, where no quail have been spotted.

"We’d like to do reintroduction a few years from now," says Murray of Golden Gate Audubon, which for the past three years has been working to establish a habitat there. "If we do it — invest the resources and time — we want it to work."

In the past year the group has decided to ramp up the effort, hiring a part-time volunteer coordinator, Bill Murphy, to oversee the planting of lupine and coffee berry and the weeding out of English ivy and ice plant.

The hope is that "if you build it, they will come," Murphy says of the site. But it doesn’t take an expert to realize that Harding Park is far from being a perfect place for quail. Tall cypresses dominate, and the ground is thick with heavy wood chips and duff, rather than the sand quail prefer.

Brush piles have been another issue, falling into the aesthetics category. Quail experts have long advocated them as an easy way to naturally house species. If done properly, the small mountains of sticks, logs, and branches — resembling something you’d take a match to for a first-class bonfire — can have a screening effect, with openings large enough for a quail to squeeze in and take cover but too small for a pursuing cat or dog.

"At Land’s End I suggested they put up brush piles, which are very beneficial, and they agreed to do it," Hopkins says. "But the landscape architect they hired is complaining because they think these brush piles are unsightly."

In addition to being unsightly, the ones that have been built are too uniform, resembling the neatly laid bare poles of a teepee. According to Clark, they are essentially ineffective.

"The brush piles in the Presidio are like skeletons," he says. "It looks like a brush pile, but it’s not actually serving any purpose. They’re almost analogous to the whole structure of the restoration program."


Consider the boundaries of the city: water laps the edges on three sides. San Francisco not only thinks and acts like an island — it practically is one. The parks and natural areas, separated by streets and concrete and scattered throughout one of the most densely populated cities in the country, are oases for humans as they shed the stresses of busy workdays. They’re also habitats for wildlife who began life on this peninsula and have no way to really leave it.

Those interests are sometimes in concert, sometimes in competition.

The Presidio is the largest of the islands, and the fact that the 1,400 acres were once an army base with stringent rules about access, populated by a military with a predictable routine, worked to the advantage of local wildlife for many years.

"There weren’t as many cats, no off-leash dogs, not as much street traffic." Hopkins says. "Army bases across the country are a lot of our best habitats because of benign neglect."

"Military activities are actually easier for many of these species to deal with than an area with wide public access," says John Anderson, a professor of ornithology at College of the Atlantic who specializes in island avian populations. "It serves as a ‘habitat island.’ This is why you have nesting birds at the end of the runways at JFK. As long as you get a jet taking off every 30 seconds, it doesn’t have much impact. On the other hand, if you have a jet making a low pass over a nesting colony once a summer, it is likely to cause a lot of disturbance."

If there’s the equivalent of a jet flying low over the Presidio, it would be the increase of hikers, bikers, park staff, and volunteers regularly traipsing through areas that until recently never saw much action.

And one place that’s stood empty and secluded for years is about to see an enormous influx of people.

The Public Health Service Hospital is slated to become condominiums with 250 to 400 market-rate units. It’s the largest housing development in the park, and the Presidio Trust is relying on at least $1 million in net revenue from the project: it’s a keystone in the overall plan for financial sustainability.

However, the decrepit building is located next to the oldest relic scrub oak habitat in Presidio Hills. "This area has been here since time began," Clark says on a recent tour through that tucked-away corner of the park.

Indeed, the overgrown dunes have an ancient, haunted feel. Listening to the unique song of the white-crowned sparrow, standing among the small scrub oaks and some of the rarest plants in the Presidio, it’s possible to forget the nearby high-rises, highways, and houses and imagine a time when the whole western edge of the city was little more than acres and acres of windswept sand and scrubby brush.

"This is the first place I had interactions with park stewards and saw them doing something that worked," Clark says. "They took down a couple of trees, and people complained, but so much diversity popped up where those trees were. Pines can be great and support a lot of birds, but in an intact, native ecosystem they aren’t very helpful. This area is a relic, and quail are a part of that relic."

It’s clear that this original setting would be perfect for quail and anything else is just a compromise. The soil is loose and sandy, perfect for the dirt baths that clean their feathers. The ground cover is negotiable for their small stature, but there’s good shelter and ample food and water.

We’re just down the hill from Quail Commons, where the last six Presidio quail live, but there’s a lot of unfriendly activity between here and there — a road, a fence, a parking lot, and a dump where construction debris is regularly tossed.

"These two areas would be so much more valuable if they were connected," Clark says.

Through the trees that line the hills, it’s possible to see the back of the old abandoned hospital. It remains to be seen if more quail will be able to live here among more people and all the things that come with them — dogs and cats, trash and cars. Will the new inhabitants take quail education to heart?

As if they’re harbingers of what’s to come, two joggers with a baby stroller and a dog cruise by. As the dog leaps through the scrub, the couple pass by without a glance at the Quail Habitat sign. *

Off the record



Among the mansions and box stores popuutf8g Silicon Valley are several major tech firms at the heart of a stock option backdating scandal that has metastasized through corporate America over the last two years.

The hall of shame includes Juniper Networks, McAfee, Nvidia, Brocade Communications Systems, and most notably for this story, a Mountain View–based firm called Mercury Interactive, which came under scrutiny in late 2004, making it one of the earliest companies identified for allegedly tampering with the lucrative stock options given to employees.

While some of the half-billion-dollar backdating mess at Mercury has appeared in the business press already, additional details contained in a civil lawsuit filed by investors are under seal in Santa Clara County Superior Court, and three news outlets want them opened up by a judge.

"These companies fleeced investors, and the public has a right to know," Karl Olson, an attorney for the outlets, told Judge James Kleinberg during a hearing Jan 5. Olson is representing the San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg News, and the Recorder legal newspaper. He added the defendants have "not shown an overriding interest that supports sealing any of these records."

Attorneys for the company and its fallen former executives have not cited trade secrets or proprietary information — commonly used excuses in corporate litigation — as reasons for keeping the filings sealed. Instead, they seem to be worried the documents will paint an even more sordid picture of executive misdeeds than what’s already come out, and they want to block the press from telling the full story.

But there is an interesting irony to the Chronicle insisting it is entitled to access this information. The newspaper’s parent company, the Hearst Corp., asked a federal judge to withhold from the public some of its own company records unearthed amid a federal civil suit leveled against it and other media giants over the summer.

San Francisco real estate mogul Clint Reilly filed an antitrust claim against Hearst and its rival–cum–business partner, Denver-based MediaNews Group, owner of several Bay Area newspapers, arguing that a bid between the companies to share business expenses was illegal. The Guardian has joined an effort with the nonprofit Media Alliance to unseal records related to Reilly’s suit.

But in the Mercury case, attorneys for the company and its former executives complain individuals not listed as defendants "would have their identities revealed and be implicated in alleged misconduct."

Mercury certainly would like to forget its troublesome past. Computer giant Hewlett-Packard is closing out its purchase of the company for $4.5 billion, taking on Mercury’s liabilities and obviously hoping to put the backdating matter to bed.

Nationwide, somewhere between 150 and 200 companies (reports vary) are internally investigating options problems or have received inquiries from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the federal agency charged with ensuring publicly traded firms reveal essentially every major move they make.

Mercury was founded in 1989 and produces business software for companies worldwide. In another bit of irony, Mercury specializes in making a group of applications designed to help corporate clients fully comply with the new federal financial disclosure rules passed by Congress as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act following Enron’s implosion.

Amnon Landan, the former Mercury CEO who resigned in November 2005 under pressure following an internal probe, is said to have exercised $5.5 million worth of options and sold 1.04 million company shares for a total of $73.6 million "during the period of wrongdoing," according to another suit filed by investors in federal court last spring.

Two additional executives resigned at the same time as Landan. The list of plaintiffs in the federal suit, which charges that Mercury’s backdating imbroglio greatly damaged the company’s market value, includes the retirement system for New Orleans municipal employees.

The value of a stock option is determined by its closing price per share on the day the option is granted. Instead of listing that particular date when the options are later exercised, backdating an option generally involves picking a spot earlier on the calendar. That way, employees of companies that make it big can reap huge windfall profits far bigger than they were entitled to receive. As Duke law professor James Cox somewhat famously described backdating, it’s like betting on a race and knowing who the winner will be.

Silicon Valley’s start-ups during the tech boom relied on hopes and dreams more than directly available cash assets to flashpoint their growth. To attract the best executive talent around, they offered stock options in exchange for hefty salaries. If the top suits performed well from the beginning, when the stock price was low, they could sell the shares much later when their value had climbed sky-high.

But some of the still relatively young companies that dot the fringes of Highway 101 where it weaves toward downtown San Jose are today being charged with failing to inform investors and government regulators just how many zeros were involved in those enriching IOUs.

Defense attorney James Kramer made an important point about backdating, however, to Judge Kleinberg during last week’s hearing. "There is nothing about backdating that is illegal," he said. "The issue is whether you properly account for it."

Yet Mercury didn’t properly account for more than $567 million in compensation expenses over a 12-year period in its SEC filings. And that’s what is illegal. The IRS heavily taxes earnings from backdated stock options, which are akin to tax-free bonuses that aren’t reported to the SEC. Investors say the failure to disclose the backdating exposed the company to heavy tax penalties, money that came from shareholders.

"Throughout the development of the options scandal, Mercury Interactive has been one of the most significant companies for the public to watch, due to both the primacy and seriousness of its options problems," Recorder reporter Justin Scheck wrote in a declaration to the judge last week. The Recorder, which serves about 20,000 readers in the state’s legal community, asked Jan. 5 for Kleinberg to open the records.

Recorder attorney Olson, who regularly represents the Chronicle in such open-records cases, argued in a memo to the court that the desire to shield top Mercury execs from "adverse publicity" and "potentially embarrassing corporate documents" doesn’t justify withholding up to 17 exhibits that Mercury wants to keep away from the press and the public. Petitions submitted to the court regarding the sealed portions of the case are public and were obtained by the Guardian last week.

The defendants’ attorneys said the investors signed a confidentiality agreement early in the suit so that evidence could be more freely exchanged with Mercury during discovery, and they want that promise kept.

"The plaintiffs in the [Santa Clara] suit are not roving attorneys general who are tasked with pursing every defendant who they believe has done something wrong or caused harm to someone else," Brandon Wisoff, a defense attorney in the case, said in a phone interview. "The purpose of a derivative suit is for a shareholder to recover on behalf of a corporation in which he or she owns stock, because he or she is indirectly impacted by any harm that allegedly occurred to the corporation."

The Santa Clara suit’s status as a derivative claim could lead Judge Kleinberg to toss it out, since HP has purchased Mercury. For that reason, Wisoff says, documents produced before the sale aren’t going to be used in court and so shouldn’t be accessible to the public.

"Non-defendant third parties also would have their identities revealed and be implicated in the alleged misconduct" if the records were opened, attorney Thomas Martin wrote in a declaration to the court. In other words, the documents could suggest how much was known about the problems with backdating at Mercury. And that might be of concern to more than just the company’s investors.

Martin, who declined to comment over the phone for us, is representing Kenneth Klein, a former Mercury chief operating officer who left the company in 2003 and has not officially been linked by Mercury to backdating problems but is nonetheless listed as a defendant in the Santa Clara suit.

Thomas and the other defense attorneys argue the investors’ court filings openly cite sealed discovery material, which presumably includes references to Klein’s alleged involvement in or knowledge of backdating, given his status as a defendant, as well as the names of others possibly listed in the documents. They’re arguing Mercury and its executive defendants could not publicly rebut suggestions made by the media about their involvement.

While Kleinberg seemed sympathetic to the notion that the press doesn’t always do the best job reporting on civil allegations, he said it’s a fact of life that most civil complaints — even ones that say "very outrageous things about people and institutions" — fall into the public domain.

But Amber Eck, an attorney for the investors who are now advocating for the filings to be opened, says the complaints made in the suit are far from frivolous and the company’s own board investigation identified who had participated in the misconduct and who knew about it. She said the whole story hasn’t been told.

"There’s a lot saying there was backdating and the amount of the [SEC financial] restatements," Eck said in a phone interview. "But what I was explaining to the judge was that as far as the details on the manner and the process in which it happened … that isn’t really out there yet, and that’s contained in our complaint and the exhibits."

Janet Guyon, an editor at Bloomberg News in New York who has watched the options backdating scandal unfold, told the judge in a declaration that the public deserves a "window into this litigation" to ensure fairness for investors who are expected to trust promises of transparency made by public companies.

"More than 80 companies have announced earnings restatements totaling over $8.8 billion, including $84 million most recently by Apple Computer, which admitted it forged documents recording a directors’ meeting to award its CEO backdated options," Guyon stated. "At least 65 executives or directors have resigned and 300 lawsuits have been filed against 100 companies. Yet little light has been shed on how this practice got started and why it continued." *

Declaration by Bloomberg News editor Janet Guyon to judge Kleinberg on why the Mercury records should be unsealed.

Declaration by local reporter Justin Scheck on why the Mercury records should be unsealed.

Application by attorney Jared Kopel for defendant Kenneth Klein on why the records should continue to be sealed.

Declaration by attorney Thomas Martin for defendant Kenneth Klein on why the records should continue to be sealed.

Will the McClatchy sale of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune bring Manhattanization to Minneapolis?


By Bruce B. Brugmann (B3)

Well, well. There’s more of an odor to the McClatchy sale of the Minneapolis Star Tribune to a New York private equity firm than was originally reported. (See previous blogs.)

The Star Tribune reported coyly on Dec. 31 that Avista Capital Partners was interested in buying the Star Tribune “for reasons beyond its considerable newspaper and internet presence, or so goes the buzz in the Twin Cities business world.”

The Star Tribune, it turns out, also owns five square miles of semi-prime real estate west of the Metrodome, mostly in surface parking, and that the real estate “has caught the eye of New York developer and Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.” He wants to replace the Metrodome with another downtown Minneapolis stadium. Avista could “probably fetch a pretty good price on land currently valued at $20 million to $25 million by Hennepin County.”

And so the sale raises yet more questions: Does this mean that a towering chunk of Manhattanization is coming to downtown Minneapolis and if so what will the paper’s development policy be? The story said that the Vikings representative declined to comment about whether the Vikings had tried to contact Avista. The story did not say whether the paper had tried to contact Avista for comment. Will this be the policy in dealing with the new owner: not even bothering to call for comment? B3

Star Tribune: Paper holds lots of appeal

The next big fight


San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods — the Mission District, Potrero Hill, Showplace Square, Dogpatch, the Central Waterfront, and SoMa — are shaping up to be a prime battleground in the fight over who will determine the city’s future.
Can city officials, working with community groups, set development standards that will create adequate housing for all income groups, protect the job-generating businesses that use light-industrial property, and include enough open space and other community benefits? Or will the community have to, for the most part, simply accept what the market forces are willing to provide?
This is the basic dichotomy at the heart of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which has been in development for years and will be unveiled by the Planning Department sometime in 2007. In anticipation of that release, members of the Board of Supervisors are attempting a preemptive strike in the form of a resolution demanding the plan prioritize affordable housing and other public needs.
The 11-page resolution — which was sponsored by Supervisors Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, and Tom Ammiano — restates policies from the city’s General Plan, particularly its Housing Element, and emphasizes the need for the Planning Department to ensure those policies are reflected in land-use decisions for the eastern neighborhoods.
The problem is that the city isn’t meeting its goals, particularly in the realm of affordable housing. The resolution notes that the Housing Element calls for 28 percent of new housing to be affordable to people with moderate incomes, 10 percent affordable to low-income residents, and 26 percent affordable to those with very low incomes.
Yet the city’s inclusionary housing law calls for developers to offer only 15 percent of their units below market rate, and a study associated with that law’s recent update indicates most developers won’t build if asked to contribute more (see “Homes for Whom,” 6/18/06, at The vast majority of what’s now being built isn’t affordable to even middle-class San Franciscans — a far cry from the 64 percent of such housing called for in city policies.
“We do not have a housing crisis in San Francisco,” Maxwell declared during a Dec. 12 hearing on the resolution. “We have an affordable housing crisis.”
Most of the progressives who constitute the board majority agree with Maxwell’s statement, which has been made before by housing activist Calvin Welch and some of the community groups pushing the resolution. They all want the eastern neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of low-income San Franciscans live, to be where the city begins to correct its housing imbalance.
“We need land specifically set aside for affordable housing, and the best place to do that is in the eastern neighborhoods,” Maxwell said at the meeting. “Let’s make this official city policy.”
Or as McGoldrick told the Guardian, “What we’re talking about here is a paradigm shift of major proportions.” He sees the eastern neighborhoods as the ideal place to create and protect working-class housing with aggressive affordability goals, and he said, “Those developers who can’t meet those goals will have to build in other parts of the city.”
But real estate speculators and developers who have spent years waiting to move forward their projects in the neighborhoods have attacked the resolution and its goals. The stakes are extremely high. The plan will set standards for the 4,800 housing units already proposed in the eastern neighborhoods, including 11 projects in the Showplace Square area that total 1,800 units, and more on the way.
“Our projects are being held hostage,” Residential Builders Association president Sean Keighran told us, saying of his members, “They were speculators, but they were playing by the rules.”
Keighran insists RBA builders will help bridge the affordable housing gap if the city works in partnership with them and uses incentives like density bonuses and height variances rather than strict limits and set-asides. But the resolution, he said, “will be interpreted as a tool to stop market-rate housing.”
That’s something even progressive Sup. Chris Daly doesn’t want. Daly emerged as the primary critic of the resolution during the Dec. 12 meeting, blasting it as unnecessary and offering a list of confusing amendments that set the stage for Sup. Bevan Dufty to successfully continue consideration of the resolution to Jan. 9, 2007.
Welch and community leaders such as Tony Kelly of the Potrero Hill Boosters were unhappy with Daly’s maneuver. Kelly told us, “It’s the community groups of the eastern neighborhoods who pushed for this.” He felt it was important for the board to give planners specific marching orders. “It’s meant to say this is what we’ll accept.”
Daly said he supports the basic goals of the resolution — and even said at the meeting that he will ultimately vote for it — but he told the Guardian he would rather find creative ways to work with developers on increasing the amount of affordable housing than draw bright lines that might block market-rate housing.
“I’m not sure it’s the right resolution at the right time,” Daly told us.
During the meeting he also questioned city planner Ken Rich on what impact this nonbonding resolution would have and concluded that it’s merely symbolic, although Rich did say it might spur planners to investigate and present more mechanisms for meeting affordable housing goals.
Daly then suggested a complete revision of the Housing Element to overcome the “balancing act” Rich said planners must perform between competing imperatives, such as facilitating jobs, open space, and housing.
“The General Plan asks us for a lot of different things,” Rich told the board.
“If that’s a weakness in the General Plan, we need to work on that,” Daly said, making the motion that the resolution also require planners to develop a list of “contradictions in the General Plan that will require them to balance conflicting mandates.”
“That could be a thesis topic in itself,” Peskin responded.
Daly’s motion was discussed among the supervisors, clouding and sidetracking the discussion, but it was preempted by Dufty’s motion to delay the matter until the next board meeting. Maxwell said she’s not giving up on the measure, which she sees as necessary to focus planners who feel constrained by market forces.
“Affordable housing seems to be last on the list, and we want it to be a priority,” Maxwell said at the meeting.
It’s an open question whether she has enough votes to win approval and what kinds of pressures and distractions the RBA and its allies will bring to the debate. But the heated division over this simple resolution is a harbinger of what’s to come next year, when the real fight over San Francisco’s future socioeconomic makeup begins.
Or as Peskin said at the hearing, “This is just a preamble to our receipt of the plans themselves.” SFBG

Unseal the court files


The lawsuit that seeks to stop the monopolization of daily newspapers in the Bay Area isn’t just a business dispute. Real estate investor Clint Reilly argues that he would be personally harmed by the deal (which gives him standing to sue), but in reality, this is about the future of mainstream news media in one of the nation’s largest and most politically active markets. If the Hearst Corp. and Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group have their way, it’s entirely possible one corporate entity could effectively control every single significant daily paper in San Francisco, southern Marin, the East Bay, the South Bay, and the Peninsula. And since TV and radio news stations tend to take their cues from the daily papers, that means one corporate entity would decide, to a great extent, what sort of local news will be available to several million people.
It’s more than a legal issue. It’s a major public policy issue — and that’s why the papers shouldn’t be allowed to fight this out in secret.
On Dec. 21 the Guardian and Media Alliance, a nonprofit media activism organization, filed a motion in federal court seeking to intervene in the Reilly lawsuit and asking Judge Susan Illston to unseal the key records in the case. Our point: this is a huge national story, and the public interest in knowing what the biggest and most powerful newspaper chains in the country are planning for the Bay Area is clear and overwhelming.
But the way the big chains have set things up, there’s no way for the public to find out much of anything — except what Hearst and MediaNews want us to know. Under the terms of a court order the chains wrote and got approved, anything — evidence, briefs, depositions, even legal motions — the newspaper barons want to mark secret is automatically sealed. Of course, the newspaper lawyers can decide to publicize anything they want to put out to bolster their side of the story. In other words, the newspapers — which, after all, are accused of trying to violate antitrust laws and create a media monopoly in the region — have complete control of what information does and doesn’t come out of the trial. That’s exactly how they want it — and exactly how things will go if they get away with their merger plans.
It’s hard to fight the big chains. Almost every experienced media lawyer in town works for or has partners who work for one of the chains, so they all have conflicts of interest. The news media organizations, like the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the California First Amendment Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists, all have board members who work for the chains.
And of course, the big newspapers themselves, which love to fight to unseal court records in other cases (like billionaire Ron Burkle’s divorce case), are all either involved or have allies who are involved, so they won’t touch the case.
So it’s fallen to the Guardian, an independent paper, and Media Alliance, an independent activist group, to work with the First Amendment Project, an independent public interest law firm, to promote the public interest in unsealing the records.
We know there’s a lot of information that ought to be out in the light of day. Already, one document discussed in open court shows that Hearst, which owns the Chronicle, has discussed ad sales, printing, and distribution deals with Singleton’s group — which is supposedly a competitor. What else do these companies have planned for the Bay Area? Will Hearst and Singleton wind up in some sort of joint operating agreement? Is this the end of daily newspaper competition? Will one billionaire publisher be able to put a conservative spin on all editorial coverage in the region? The public has a right to know.
Court documents are presumed public, and the newspaper chains have shown no reason why anything other than a few narrowly defined records should be kept secret. Judge Illston should revoke the secrecy order and open up the key documents in the Reilly case.
PS Where is the federal Justice Department? Where is outgoing state attorney general Bill Lockyer or incoming AG Jerry Brown? We haven’t heard a word from any of the public officials who ought to be intervening in this case. At the very least, they should support our efforts to open the records.
PPS: If Hearst and the big chains get away with sealing these documents, it will set a terrible precedent for future cases in which business interests want to keep secret information that ought to be in the public domain. How can any of these big media companies ever go into court in the future (as they have done in the past) to push for unsealing court record when they have gone to such lengths to seal their own records?
PPPS To see our legal brief, press release, and links to media coverage, go to

The morning after


The plight of newspapers is a popular news story these days, from a late-August cover package in the Economist (“Who Killed the Newspaper?”) to National Public Radio’s On the Media last week (“Best of Times, Worst of Times”).
It’s usually told as the story of an industry on its deathbed, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds and those delivered by Wall Street, Main Street, Craigslist, and the blogger’s laptop. Ad revenues have nose-dived in recent years. Circulation is down nationwide. Journalism scandals and shortcomings have damaged the whole profession’s credibility.
And staff newspaper blogs alone won’t be enough to bring a new generation of tech-savvy Americans back to hard-copy publications that even smell stodgy and old.
Yet the bottom line is still the bottom line. The truth of the matter is that many publicly traded newspaper companies have healthy profit margins ranging between 15 and 20 percent. But the tendency of the doom and gloom business press to sensationalize bad news may actually make things easier for William “Lean” Dean Singleton, the cost-cutting king of Denver-based MediaNews Group, which recently announced a round of staff reductions at its Bay Area newspapers. The cuts came amid claims of a massive dip in ad income just a few months after Singleton promised that his company’s buyout of local newspapers wouldn’t diminish the quality or quantity of journalism here.
“Given continued declines in revenue, we need to reduce expenses significantly, and thus have no alternative but to implement a reduction in [the] work force,” George Riggs, who was recently appointed to lead the company’s Northern California operations, told employees in a memo Oct. 20. Several such memos have now been posted on the Internet.
If this is how quickly the news biz can turn ugly, it’s a wonder MediaNews was attracted to print journalism in the first place. Who knows what newspapers around here will look like in another few months? How much fat can they trim before they start hitting bone?
They aren’t just cutting staff. The Bay Area’s newspaper establishment is now outsourcing work to circumvent those pesky labor unions. The press operators’ union at the San Francisco Chronicle — which was the sole union holdout against management’s demand for expanded control and decreased benefits — could disappear in three years as a result of a new printing contract with a Canadian company. MediaNews recently announced plans to outsource ad production positions to India.
Consolidation already has amounted to fewer reporters covering individual stories that are distributed to several publications, including at least one story about the latest layoffs. That means fewer editorial perspectives on key public policies (and possibly fewer editorial positions) for readers in a market that’s notorious for its high intellectual demand and robust political participation.
Only an ongoing federal Justice Department investigation and a civil lawsuit threaten to slow down big changes going on at the Bay Area dailies. A federal judge ruled just before deadline in real estate mogul Clint Reilly’s antitrust claim against the Hearst Corp., publisher of the Chronicle, and MediaNews that for now, at least, the two could not combine circulation and advertising operations to save money.
The companies had secured a court order sealing key records unearthed during discovery, including depositions and exhibits, citing the right to protect confidential trade secrets. It’s an ironic move for a group of papers that have regularly sued government agencies for public records and made a great show of their First Amendment pieties.
Federal Judge Susan Illston on Nov. 28 blocked the two companies from merging some advertising and distribution operations, a consolidation she said was probably illegal under antitrust laws. And she sounded her concern that Hearst isn’t the “passive equity investor” it had represented itself in court to be. She also revealed the contents of letters written in March and April by company executives: “Hearst and MediaNews will enter into agreements to offer national advertising and internet advertising sales for their Bay Area newspapers on a joint basis, and to consolidate the Bay Area distribution networks of such newspapers, all on mutually satisfactory terms and conditions, and in each case subject to any limitation required to ensure compliance with applicable law.” (For more extensive information on the ruling and related coverage, see
For those who regard newspapers as more of a public trust than an engine for deep profits, the future is starting to look a bit unsettling.
When Singleton expanded his control over the Bay Area threefold last summer, he temporarily quelled some discontent by assuring skeptics that there were no planned changes in staffing and salaries as a result of the transactions.
“We’re looking forward to doing a lot of good things here in Northern California,” Singleton told San Jose Mercury News staffers, according to the paper’s story on the buyout.
But employees at the papers still had every reason to be nervous about Singleton’s $1 billion takeover of the Contra Costa Times, the Mercury News, and other papers from the Sacramento-based McClatchy Co.
MediaNews already owned the Oakland Tribune, the San Mateo County Times, and the Marin Independent Journal among others in California before it carved excess properties out of McClatchy, which had grown too large following its purchase of the Knight Ridder chain earlier this year.
The purchases allowed Singleton to seize almost complete control of 14 metropolitan and suburban media markets. The only remaining daily print competitor in the Bay Area was the Chronicle and its parent company, the Hearst Corp., which subsequently purchased $300 million in MediaNews stock, a deal the feds are still investigating. When the transaction with Hearst was finalized, top executives at MediaNews were collectively awarded about $2 million in bonuses.
Some profiles of Singleton have depicted him as a good old-fashioned newspaper journalist, but knowing his cost-cutting reputation, only a fool would assume there were no plans to consolidate major operating functions to save money regardless of any promises made. Singleton has always been more about business than news.
Clustered ownership and shared management were prominent features of the company that MediaNews presented to investors at a Deutsche Bank “Global High Yield” conference in October. An April letter that reappeared in federal court last week during a hearing in Reilly’s suit confirmed that MediaNews and Hearst hoped to shed costs by possibly combining circulation and advertising operations.
Layoffs are also a big part of Singleton’s MO. Respected but tough Contra Costa Times editor Chris Lopez was let go in October because he’d become “redundant,” according to a memo company executive John Armstrong sent to employees.
“That came as a shock to a lot of people in the newsroom,” one source at the paper told the Guardian. Known for handing cash rewards out of his wallet to reporters who nailed concise stories for the front page, Lopez had attempted to play down Singleton’s reputation when the purchases were announced. Lopez had been at the paper for more than six years and had helped earn Singleton a Pulitzer Prize during a six-year stint at the company’s flagship Denver Post, received for its coverage of the Columbine shootings.
“In better times, we might have found a way to ignore an extra position or two or even three,” Armstrong wrote in the memo.
Lopez insisted to the Guardian in a phone interview that he had proposed his own termination to ease anticipated cuts elsewhere.
“My layoff from the paper was not unexpected,” Lopez said. “It caught the staff off guard, but I saw it coming. I made the recommendation. I was trying to save some jobs in the newsroom.”
The loss of an experienced editor may have saved some jobs … for now. But maybe not for long. Reporters have been asked to summarize their beats for managers to determine how they can cover single subjects for a number of papers. The idea seems to be maximizing staff output rather than ensuring broad coverage of the communities.
A story about Lopez’s departure written by a Times reporter also appeared on the Merc’s Web site. MediaNews is also looking into multimedia deals with local TV stations and arming reporters with cameras for podcasts, one source told us.
Armstrong told the Guardian in a phone interview that opinion columnists, for instance, could still cover the same stories. “But we had found some situations where reporters were sent to the same events like Oakland [Raiders] away games.” He said offering buyouts to staffers has been “successful,” but it wasn’t enough to stem declining revenue, triggering the need for “involuntary” layoffs.
All of this may make sense from a strictly economic perspective. After all, doing more with less is a widely accepted imperative for profit-driven corporations. But there is a public price that will be paid for this reality: Bay Area citizens will get less original reporting and fewer perspectives on the news.
A former senior staffer at a major Bay Area daily wrote an open missive outlining recent major stories covered by fewer reporters: “Three months after MediaNews Group added two major Knight Ridder dailies to its far-flung Northern California newspaper group, news coverage is well on its way to being homogenized in this formerly competitive market.”
The observation is borne out by a Guardian survey of three major MediaNews papers. Out of 10 top recent cultural and political stories in the Bay Area, nine were covered by the same reporter, who wrote the same article for all three papers. (For details, visit
Under the recent layoff announcement, the Merc could lose up to 101 employees, half from its newsroom, while more than 100 business-side positions will be reportedly moved to a new, nonunionized San Ramon office of the California Newspapers Partnership (CNP), a consortium of companies including Gannet Co. and Stephens Group that helped MediaNews fund its recent purchases. The centralized San Ramon space could continue to fill up with employees from the business side of the papers who have been forced to reapply for their jobs under the CNP corporate moniker. They would presumably fall out from under union protection.
The company’s Peninsula and East Bay papers saw cuts across their operations from Walnut Creek to San Mateo. Armstrong told the Times the layoffs were “broad but not deep.” East Bay Express writer Robert Gammon, a former Tribune reporter and union organizer, revealed in early November that MediaNews planned to leave behind the Tribune’s historic downtown tower and move many of its staffers to the San Ramon office. News-side functions could be moved to a cheaper spot across from the Oakland Coliseum.
“The question is how do we continue to put out a paper people want to read if we continue to cut further?” Luther Jackson, executive officer for the San Jose Newspaper Guild, which represents almost 500 workers at the Merc, asked the Guardian. “I have a concern that when newspapers face increased competition for advertising, why are we cutting service? Does it work for readers? Does it work for advertisers?”
The Bay Area isn’t alone. In the complex transactions that took place over the summer, Hearst bought the St. Paul Pioneer Press from McClatchy and shifted it to MediaNews in exchange for stock in the company. At the Pi Press, as it’s known in Minnesota, 40 positions were cut in November. A MediaNews paper in Los Angeles, the Daily News, recently axed its publisher and 20 other workers.
MediaNews enraged union workers at the Merc when it offered them a contract during September negotiations that was unlike anything they’d seen at the paper before. The company has since toned down some of its harsher demands but asserted that if a tentative agreement were accepted by Nov. 30, the Merc might see fewer layoffs, Jackson told the Guardian.
The proposal would grant management the right to modify insurance coverage without telling the union, freeze the paper’s pension plan and replace it with a 401(k), and change the types of work that could be assigned to nonunion employees. It would also allow the paper to hire new workers at “market-rate” salaries, which means their pay increases could be capped at lower rates.
The company may choose to simply not replace costly veterans who are retiring or accepting buyouts, meaning cub reporters could find themselves with fewer seasoned mentors around to help teach them government and private sector watchdogging.
The guild foresees losing nearly 200 members if the full number of layoffs and worker transfers are carried out. And many guild members fear it may also mean the beginning of the end of newspapers as we know them.
Corporations have the right to see to their bottom lines. But communities and individuals also have a right to the fruits that independent, competitive journalism bestows. And that’s the right being asserted now in civil court by Clint Reilly.
While federal and state investigators have largely been idling, Reilly sued Hearst, MediaNews, and its other business partners last summer. He asked Judge Illston to temporarily halt the transactions until the trial begins in his antitrust claim against the companies. She denied Reilly’s initial request for a preliminary injunction, in part because the Hearst investment had not been officially inked, even though the trial isn’t expected to start until this spring.
In her opinion, however, she suggested parts of the deal were troubling and has not ruled out forcing MediaNews to give up some of its newly acquired assets. Earlier this month Reilly’s attorney, Joe Alioto, again asked the judge for an injunction. The renewed appeal was inspired in part by the recently announced job cuts.
The plaintiffs are arguing Hearst and MediaNews previously withheld a letter from the court that the two companies had signed agreeing to discuss the possibility of combining some circulation and advertising functions to save money. In his request Alioto told the judge the companies were “rapidly consolidating, commingling, and irrevocably altering their San Francisco Bay Area newspapers so as to frustrate this Court’s ability to provide an effective remedy for their antitrust violations.”
During a tense hearing last week on the matter, Alioto asked that top Hearst and MediaNews executives be ordered to testify immediately. He suggested Hearst’s board of directors would never have agreed to invest $300 million in MediaNews if it couldn’t also merge distribution and ad sales with its competitor.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that they intend to end up with newspapers that are very different than they are today,” Alioto said. He wants any such discussions stopped by the court, adding, “We believe they intend to wipe out the possibility of any of these papers to remain freestanding. These papers will not be the same within a very short amount of time.”
Hearst attorney Daniel Wall angrily fired back that no one was trying to deceive the court with a price-fixing agreement and that the companies were merely discussing the possibility of “pro-competition collaboration,” which Wall described as a business partnership lawfully permitted by the Justice Department. He disclosed that the Chronicle was bleeding millions of dollars annually, partially because of lost revenue to the Web, and exclaimed that drastic cost reductions were necessary to keep the paper alive.
“These are tough times for newspapers, and they need to take cost out of the system,” Wall told the judge. “They need to find new revenue streams.”
Hearst has already faced something akin to all of this before. Reilly sued it in 2000 when the company bought the Chron and attempted to nix competition by shutting down its long-held San Francisco Examiner. Reilly didn’t block the deal, but the Justice Department forced Hearst to keep open the reliably conservative Examiner, today owned by another Denver-based company.
This week Illston ruled that Hearst and MediaNews must temporarily stop any agreements to combine advertising sales and distribution networks until Dec. 6, when she’ll decide whether to extend her prohibition on merging business operations.
Reilly has emerged over the last decade as a serious pain for corporate media executives and unshakable critic of concentrated newspaper ownership in the Bay Area. His most recent lawsuit charges that the Hearst and MediaNews partnership would dilute fair competition and limit alternatives for both readers and advertisers.
“They started the blood flow with the firings,” Alioto told reporters after the hearing. “We think when they’re done with this they’re going to have entirely different newspapers.”
Recent job losses don’t stop at just MediaNews. The Chronicle is getting in on the action too.
Divisive contract negotiations between the Chronicle and the Web Pressman and Prepress Workers Union Local 4 over the last two years ended recently when the union “reluctantly approved” an agreement, union treasurer Paul Kolter told us. The union was the last holdout at the paper to accept drastically reduced workers’ rights.
By successfully pushing its will on the unions, Hearst has virtually ensured that the press operators won’t pose much of a threat to the company anymore, because around the same time it signed a $1 billion outsourcing deal with the Canadian printing company Transcontinental.
The union’s new contract is up in about three years, and there are no assurances Local 4 will have any workers in the new plant Transcontinental has promised to build. That could mean the end of its relationship with the Chronicle and about 225 workers from the paper that it represents.
The previous contract ended in the summer of 2005, and under the paper’s new publisher, Frank “Darth” Vega, management called for drastic cuts in salaries and benefits. The two groups spent several intervening months battling over the proposed changes.
In July, Vega prepared the paper for a strike, issuing a memo that outlined exactly how to keep the paper operating throughout a work stoppage, and hired a notorious security firm that specializes in handling labor disputes.
The union points out that while the Chronicle complains of massive financial bloodletting, its parent company, Hearst, has somehow scraped together enough money for a brand-new $500 million office building in midtown Manhattan, the construction of which was completed over the summer. The company also sold the sprawling 82,000-acre ranch that surrounds Hearst Castle to the state early last year for nearly $100 million. It was once home to the notoriously belligerent and imperialistic newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Union members say there are wide ramifications to what’s happening here. In July the World Association of Newspapers published a report describing how more news services globally, including the New York Times, were outsourcing major tasks, even news reporting, to save money.
“There are a lot of labor unions that have an interest in what is happening with us,” Local 4 organizer and press operator Bruce Carlton told members at a meeting in late October. “If this flies, it will be a blueprint on how to break unions. We will be sent back into the ’30s.”
The mood is dark for many employees working under MediaNews and Hearst. The scrappy feel and hard-driving reportage of the CoCo Times under Lopez and Knight Ridder are believed by some to be at risk following the purchases. “No one thinks we’re going to be a better newspaper because of this,” one source at the paper told us.
In another memo MediaNews executive Armstrong wrote to Bay Area staffers last week, he stated that the company, in fact, predicted its “advertising revenue challenges.”
“We have no additional job reductions planned due to economic conditions, but we cannot guarantee that additional reductions might not be necessary in the future,” he wrote. “Our job level is dependent on our revenue performance.”
The memo also shows that the company plans to sell an office in Danville and two parking lots in downtown Oakland.
News accounts depicted third-quarter earnings for MediaNews based on Securities and Exchange Commission filings as a windfall profit caused by its purchases of the Times and the Merc. But the company’s ad revenue and circulation are actually down a few percentage points, and it made $16 million from the July sale of an office building in Long Beach, which offsets a simple analysis of its financial standing.
It’s still a company that topped $1 billion in revenue last year, a figure that has increased steadily since 2002, but Singleton has never feared doing business with loads of debt on the books, which he’s always used to fuel new purchases. For the Bay Area papers, MediaNews took on a $350 million bank loan in August.
MediaNews has still managed to take recent dire economic forecasts to a fever pitch despite its confidently large debt burden, enabling the company to implement a business model that’s hardly new for Singleton. He knows how to make money. Interestingly, for an industry that’s supposedly on the ropes, several billionaires (who didn’t become wealthy by investing poorly) have in the last few weeks publicly expressed interest in purchasing some of the nation’s largest dailies.
The Boston Globe noted earlier this month that rock industry tycoon David Geffen and grocery chain investor Ron Burkle were considering a bid for the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times. That paper recently endured a major shakeup when a top editor was fired for refusing to execute job cuts demanded by the company. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has considered a run for the Globe, and more buyout rumors have floated around the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant. Such deals could signal a fundamental shift in how newspapers are regarded with respect to their newsgathering responsibilities.
“Geffen has reportedly told associates that he’d be happy with returns comparable to the 3 or 4 percent he might get from municipal bonds,” the Globe wrote. Others have discussed turning individual newspapers into nonprofits.
But Singleton probably isn’t going anywhere, and a lot of people are going to have to learn how to get along with him around here, Texas drawl and all, unless the feds shut down his party.
Knight Ridder was a respected newspaper chain before investors grew restless and demanded greater short-term profit margins. It was sold earlier this year to McClatchy (begrudgingly for some top execs and Pulitzer-wielding journalists who openly fought with Knight Ridder’s financial backers prior to the sale). Knight Ridder posted a profit margin of nearly 20 percent in 2004.
Employees of the chain wrote a chilling open letter shortly before it was sold: “Knight Ridder is not merely a public company. It is a public trust. It must balance corporate profitability with civic purpose. We oppose those who would cripple the purpose by coercing more profit. We abhor those for whom good business is insufficient and excellent journalism is irrelevant.” SFBG

‘Pro-competition collaboration’


By G.W. Schulz

Real estate mogul Clint Reilly’s attempt to stop a major media buyout involving MediaNews and the Hearst Corp. turned a corner earlier this week when Reilly’s attorney, Joe Alioto, asked a federal judge for a temporary restraining order to stop certain business activities taking place at both companies that could change the dimensions of the Bay Area newspaper establishment.

Alioto fears that if changes at several of the local daily papers become too significant, no decision made during trial could turn them back, including recently announced job cuts at the papers. The judge has yet to rule, but a decision will likely to be handed down by Monday.

The hearing on Thursday devolved at times into a heated exchange between Alioto and the Hearst attorney, Daniel Wall. Alioto says an April letter confirms that Hearst and MediaNews have been discussing the possibility of combining some circulation and ad functions. Wall fired back that the San Francisco Chronicle is bleeding millions of dollars annually and the only way to save it is to reduce costs through “pro-competition collaboration.”

More on this soon.

The new Iraq-war media offensive


The American media establishment has launched a major offensive against the option of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

In the latest media assault, right-wing outfits like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal editorial page are secondary. The heaviest firepower is now coming from the most valuable square inches of media real estate in the USA — the front page of The New York Times.

The present situation is grimly instructive for anyone who might wonder how the Vietnam War could continue for years while opinion polls showed that most Americans were against it. Now, in the wake of midterm elections widely seen as a rebuke to the Iraq war, powerful media institutions are feverishly spinning against a pullout of U.S. troops.

Under the headline “Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say,” the Nov. 15 front page of the Times prominently featured a “Military Analysis” by Michael Gordon. The piece reported that — while some congressional Democrats are saying withdrawal of U.S. troops “should begin within four to six months” — “this argument is being challenged by a number of military officers, experts and former generals, including some who have been among the most vehement critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies.”

Reporter Gordon appeared hours later on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, fully morphing into an unabashed pundit as he declared that withdrawal is “simply not realistic.” Sounding much like a Pentagon spokesman, Gordon went on to state in no uncertain terms that he opposes a pullout.

If a New York Times military-affairs reporter went on television to advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops as unequivocally as Gordon advocated against any such withdrawal during his Nov. 15 appearance on
CNN, he or she would be quickly reprimanded — and probably would be taken off the beat — by the Times hierarchy. But the paper’s news department eagerly fosters reporting that internalizes and promotes the basic worldviews of the country’s national security state.

That’s how and why the Times front page was so hospitable to the work of Judith Miller during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. That’s how and why the Times is now so hospitable to the work of Michael Gordon.

At this point, categories like “vehement critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies” are virtually meaningless. The bulk of the media’s favorite “vehement critics” are opposed to reduction of U.S. involvement in the Iraq carnage, and some of them are now openly urging an increase in U.S. troop levels for the occupation.

These days, media coverage of U.S. policy in Iraq often seems to be little more than a remake of how mainstream news outlets portrayed Washington’s options during the war in Vietnam. Routine deference to inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom has turned many prominent journalists into co-producers of a “Groundhog Day” sequel that insists the U.S. war effort must go on.

During the years since the fall of Saddam, countless news stories and commentaries have compared the ongoing disaster in Iraq to the
Vietnam War. But those comparisons have rarely illuminated the most troubling parallels between the U.S. media coverage of both wars.

Whether in 1968 or 2006, most of the Washington press corps has been at pains to portray withdrawal of U.S. troops as impractical and unrealistic.

Contrary to myths about media coverage of the Vietnam War, the
American press lagged way behind grassroots antiwar sentiment in seriously contemputf8g a U.S. pullout from Vietnam. The lag time amounted to several years — and meant the additional deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and perhaps 1 million more Vietnamese people.

A survey by the Boston Globe, conducted in February 1968, found that out of 39 major daily newspapers in the United States, not one had editorialized for withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. Today — despite the antiwar tilt of national opinion polls and the recent election — advocacy of a U.S. pullout from Iraq seems almost as scarce among modern-day media elites.

The standard media evasions amount to kicking the bloody can down the road. Careful statements about benchmarks and getting tough with the Baghdad government (as with the Saigon government) are markers for a national media discourse that dodges instead of enlivens debate.

Many journalists are retreading the notion that the pullout option is not a real option at all. And the Democrats who’ll soon be running
Congress, we’re told, wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — dare to go that far if they know what’s good for them.

Implicit in such media coverage is the idea that the real legitimacy for U.S. war policymaking rests with the president, not the Congress. When I ponder that assumption, I think about 42-year-old footage of the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

The show’s host on that 1964 telecast was the widely esteemed
journalist Peter Lisagor, who told his guest: “Senator, the Constitution gives to the president of the United States the sole
responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy.”

“Couldn’t be more wrong,” Sen. Wayne Morse broke in with his sandpapery voice. “You couldn’t make a more unsound legal statement than the one you have just made. This is the promulgation of an old fallacy that foreign policy belongs to the president of the United States. That’s nonsense.”

Lisagor was almost taunting as he asked, “To whom does it belong then, Senator?”

Morse did not miss a beat. “It belongs to the American people,” he shot back — and “I am pleading that the American people be given the facts about foreign policy.”

The journalist persisted: “You know, Senator, that the American people cannot formulate and execute foreign policy.”

Morse’s response was indignant: “Why do you say that? … I have complete faith in the ability of the American people to follow the facts if you’ll give them. And my charge against my government is, we’re not giving the American people the facts.”

Morse, the senior senator from Oregon, was passionate about the U.S. Constitution as well as international law. And, while rejecting the widely held notion that foreign policy belongs to the president, he spoke in unflinching terms about the Vietnam War. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Feb. 27, 1968, Morse said that he did not “intend to put the blood of this war on my hands.”

And, prophetically, Morse added: “We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world.
It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it.”


Norman Solomon’s latest book, “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” is out in paperback. For information, go

The new media offensive for the Iraq War. Why the Santa Rosa Press Democrat/New York Times ought to stop “censoring” and mangling Project Censored and its annual list of censored stories on Iraq and Bush et al


By Bruce B. Brugmann

Norman Solomon, a syndicated columnist who appears on the Guardian website, wrote a chilling column this week
on how the “American media establishment has launched a major offensive against the option of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.”

He noted that the “heaviest firepower is now coming from the most valuable square inches of media real estate in the USA–the front page of the New York Times. The present situation is grimly instructive for anyone who might wonder how the Vietnam War could continue for years while opinion polls showed that most Americans were against it. Now, in the wake of midterms elections widely seen as a rebuke to the Iraq war, powerful media institutions are feverishly spinning against a pullout of U.S. troops.”

Solomon cited a Nov. l5 front page piece by Michael Gordon under the headline “Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say.” Gordon then appeared hours later on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, “fully morphing into an unabashed pundit as he declared that withdrawal is ‘simply not realistic,'” Solomon said.

“If a New York Times military-affairs reporter went on television to advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops as unequivocally as Gordon advocated any such withdrawal during his Nov. l5 appearance on CNN, he or she would be quickly reprimanded–and probably would be taken off the beat by the Times hierarchy. But the paper’s news department eagerly fosters reporting that internalizes and promotes the basic world views of the country’s national security state.”

Solomon’s key point: “That’s how and why the Times front page was so hospitable to the work of Judith Miller during the lead-up to the leadup to the invasion of Iraq. That’s how and why the Times is now so hospitable to the work of Michael Gordon.”

And so it is not surprising that the New York Times and its Santa Rosa daily have been so inhospitable through the years to Project Censored, housed nearby at Sonoma State University. (See my previous blog and the scathing criticism by founder Carl Jensen and current director Peter Phillips of PD/NYT coverage of the 30th anniversary project and conference.)

I asked Jensen about the PD and Times record of covering what ought to be a top annual local and national press story. “At first,” Jensen said, “the PD merely ignored the Project. Then, after Newsweek ran a column about it, the PD was embarrassed into covering it. Which they did, using the annual results as an excuse to criticize me for being a liberal, left-wing agitator. Finally, they just started to run one story a year, or sometimes none, announcing the results. This year they didn’t even bother to announce the results for the 30th anniversary of the project. Instead, they did Paul Payne’s hit piece about Steve Jones. To my knowledge, and a Lexis-Nexis search, the New York Times has never run an article about the project.”

The PD has also not answered my impertinent questions about their censor-or-mangle coverage, which I emailed to the reporter, editors, and publisher.

Let us remember that IF Stone, in his famous IF Stone’s Weekly, exposed in l964 the Gulf of Tonkin scam only days after President Johnson used it as the excuse to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And ever after he led the journalistic charge brilliantly against the war. It took years and tens of thousands of dead American soldiers for the New York Times (and the other big “liberal” papers, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post) to figure out that Stone was right and change their “we can’t get out now” news and editorial policies in support of the war. If Project Censored had been going at that time, Stone and his powerful little four page publication would have had major stories on the Censored list every year.

My impertinent advice to the Post Democrat and the New York Times: if you are are going to run Jayson Blair and Judith Miller and Michael Gordon and Paul Payne, then you sure as hell ought to be giving serious regular coverage to Project Censored at Sonoma State University and its annual roster of major “censored” stories the New York Times, PD, and the mainstream press don’t cover properly. Why not start by running Phillips’ op ed piece and inviting Jensen, Phillips, and their Project Censored crew into the PD for a full editorial conference and a podcast question and answer session? B3

The new Iraq-war media offensive
How powerful institutions like The New York Times are feverishly spinning against a pullout of U.S. troops


The Santa Rosa Press Democrat/New York Times “censors” the annual Project Censored story. Why? Some impertinent questions for the Press Democrat by Bruce B. Brugmann

Fits and housing starts


› a&
REVIEW There’s a new multistory condo complex rising on a sliver of SoMa between the freeway and the Caltrain tracks. It’s on one of those heretofore undesirable plots that stood vacant for decades, holding their own as a weedy buffer zone between transportation and industry. I wonder if the contractors are using a new high-tech glass that, in the space of a faux bay window, will neutralize the din of traffic. Who’d want to live there?
San Francisco is an urban area, don’t you know. But the way space here is quickly filling in with homes is reflective of a broader condition of (until recently) a healthy real estate market and the resulting sprawl. It’s something I experience when visiting family in unapologetically suburban Southern California. Just outside my old neighborhood, with streets named to invoke the American Revolution — Freedom Drive, Liberty Bell Road — were oak-shaded dry creek beds where I headed for adolescent escapes. Those once-wooded areas have been shaped into fields of roomy new houses in an unspecific Mediterranean stucco style. The arteries there are named after trees — Spruce Drive, Cedar Lane — that I don’t recall being indigenous. Is it progress or loss?
California denizens cannot avoid the quandaries of safe, “affordable” homes and the problematic environmental effects of building auto-centric communities far from any sort of civic center. The state then makes a fitting geographical framing device for a small but notable exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. “Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl” brings together a couple dozen artists who picture a half century of development in photographs, painting, video, and sculpture, revealing the allure and shortcomings of suburbia.
While compact and high density rather than sprawling and homogenous, “Suburban Escape” manages to address numerous social and cultural concerns, the first of which is the literal, almost sculptural creation of suburbs. At the start curator Ann Wolfe shows us distant views of cookie-cutter homes. The first piece is William Garnett’s grid of six black-and-white aerial photographs documenting the 1950 construction of the Lakewood, a Southern California community that from above looks like fields of housing starts that sprouted into a grid of cubelike buildings. They’re a perfect complement to Robert Isaacs’s 1968 photograph Ticky Tacky Houses in Daly City, an equally geometric composition that inspires waves of comfort and revulsion. The uniformity looks appealingly orderly from a distance, but the idea of living in houses so similar and close together is another concern altogether, something fraught with unsustainable foundations, not to mention nosy neighbors.
Suburbia is rife with ambivalent vibes, and they are noted throughout the show. Bill Owens’s photo of a Fourth of July block party expresses a cul-de-sac comfort zone and clean, new neighborliness. And yet, the picture also conveys the psychic isolation of spacious lots. Just one photo from Owens’s 1970s-era Suburbia series isn’t enough to convey his vision, although this picture speaks volumes.
Mimicking the physical structure of housing tracts, a number of the artists work in series. Freshly Painted Houses, a grid of small 1991 color photos by Jeff Brouws, shows the Daly City neighborhood where the artist grew up during the 1960s. The cheerful exterior schemes reflect the influx of Asian American immigrants who, the artist states in the exhibition catalog (which includes an expanded, more convincing range of works than the museum presentation), painted their houses in more vibrant colors than did most of “middle class mainstream America.” The piece adds a welcome layer of social context to architecturally insignificant structures.
John Divola’s provocative series Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone, House Removal Grid, Present (1975, 2005) is one of those frighteningly irresistible before-and-after projects. It shows a collection of doomed dwellings that were in the sonic path of LAX and the empty lots after the buildings were razed. Shot in a relatively short time span in the 1970s and printed only recently, the pairings suggest the aftermath of a smart bomb that vaporizes only stucco-faced structures. All that remains are a flat landscape, stoic palm and cypress trees, and the occasional pathway to a nonexistent front door. Next to these, Free House (2003), an acrylic work by Deborah Oropallo, addresses the surprising disposability of suburban buildings with images of boarded-up toy houses — literal model homes — inspired by Berkeley structures that were worth less than the land they were erected on.
That same cheap, serial construction of houses is noted in Mark Campbell’s sculpture Maximum Density (2000), a low platform covered with hundreds of tiny honey-hued rubber homes. At once seemingly organically formed and a highly constructed board game, Campbell’s project is difficult not to touch yet equally difficult to reconcile. Similarly, Destroyed Houses (1999–2004), a series of 30 collage paintings by Jeff Gillette, is a gleeful deconstruction of real estate advertisements set against bucolic landscapes. Like a willful child pulling wings off flies, the artist here has devious fun destroying unaffordable homes — and the pervasive dream of owning one.SFBG
Through March 4, 2007
San Jose Museum of Art
110 S. Market, San Jose
Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
(408) 294-2787

The Destroy California Initiative


If you knew there was an initiative on the ballot that would make it impossible for government to protect the environment, build affordable housing, raise minimum wages, and mandate health care, you’d vote no on it, right?
Especially if you knew this measure would force taxpayers to spend billions to prevent developers and private property owners from doing things that harm neighborhoods, communities, and the environment.
So why is Proposition 90, which does all this and more, still leading in the polls?
It’s all about fear — and the ability of one wealthy real estate investor from New York City to fund a misleading campaign that exploits legitimate concerns about eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the legal procedure that allows the government to take over private property. It’s been used traditionally to build roads, rail lines, schools, hospitals, and the like. But it’s also been used — abused, many would say — to condemn private homes and turn the land over to developers for more lucrative projects. And after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that doing so was OK, it was easy for property-rights types to whip those fears into a frenzy.
New York Libertarian and real estate investor Howie Rich, who hates government regulation, used the court decision to saddle up a herd of Trojan horses with eminent domain, stuffing the poison pills of “highest best use” and “regulatory takings” deep in their saddlebags, slapping their rumps with wads of cash, and sending them into California, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington.
Here in California, Rich’s millions went in large part toward paying petitioners a buck per signature to qualify Prop. 90 for the ballot. The pitch was stopping eminent domain — but there was little mention of the extreme provisions contained within the measure’s fine print that if passed, will mean more lawyers and fewer herons and hard hats.
For starters Prop. 90 changes the rules for calcuutf8g how much the government has to pay property owners when it takes their land. The new rules would dramatically increase the price of infrastructure and public works projects like building roads and levees, as well as purchasing open space and preserving habitats and endangered species.
Worse, Prop. 90’s language changes the valuation of regulatory takings. That’s legal mumbo jumbo, but what it amounts to is this: whenever the government takes actions that aren’t explicitly for the protection of people’s health and safety — like establishing rent control, minimum wages, and agricultural easements — property owners can claim that the value of their holdings was decreased. (Protecting an endangered species, for example, might prevent some parcels from being developed.) Under Prop. 90 those landowners can file claims of “substantial economic loss” — and put the taxpayers on the hook for billions (see “Proposition 90 Isn’t about Eminent Domain,” page 22).
Prop. 90 opponents predict that if the measure passes, its effects will be disastrous, wide-ranging, and immediate.
Bill Allayaud, state legislative director for the Sierra Club, told us it was Prop. 90’s “regulatory takings” clause that led to unprecedented opposition after individuals and groups analyzed the measure’s fine print.
“One little paragraph activated a coalition like we’ve never seen in California history,” Allayaud says.
Prop. 90 flushes away a century of land use and community planning, including regulations and ordinances that protect coastal access, preserve historic buildings, limit the use of private airspace, establish inclusionary housing, and save parks. In short, Prop. 90 destroys everything that makes California a decent place to live.
Over at the California Coastal Commission, executive director Peter Douglas frets that his agency will no longer be able to carry out its mandate to protect the coast.
“Every decision the Coastal Commission makes where we approve projects but impose conditions to protect neighborhoods and communities will be subject to claims,” Douglas says.
“Sensitive environments like the San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe will be exposed, along with residential neighborhoods, ag lands, and public parklands. And it will erode the state’s ability to protect against new offshore oil drilling, new liquid natural gas terminals, harmful ocean energy projects like offshore wind turbines and wave energy machines and make it impossible to set aside essential marine reserves to restore marine life and fisheries.”
Members of the California Chamber of Commerce oppose Prop. 90 because it will make it more complicated and costly to build new infrastructure like freeway lanes, sewer lines, levees, and utility sites.
President Allan Zaremberg observes, “At a time when California is trying to finally address the huge backlog of needed roads, schools, and flood protection–water delivery systems, the massive new costs of Prop. 90 would destroy our efforts to improve infrastructure.”
Among government agencies the outlook is equally bleak. Unlike Oregon’s Measure 37, which passed in 2004 and has already led to over $5 billion in claims, Prop. 90 isn’t limited to private land but extends to private economic interests. This wide-ranging scope means that it’ll be almost impossible for government to regulate business without facing claims of “substantial economic loss,” making it prohibitive to protect consumers, establish mandatory health care coverage, or raise minimum wages.
San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera told the Guardian, “If Prop. 90 passes, we might as well get out of the business of local government.”
Asked what California would look like if Prop. 90 had been law for a decade, Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, paints a sprawl-filled picture.
“All the project proposals that weren’t built would have been, open space and parks wouldn’t have been preserved, almost every public works project would have been affected, and things wouldn’t have been constructed, because there would have been no money because the cost of everything would have gone up.”
Currently, the cost of a piece of land is valued by the market. Under Prop. 90 land would be valued by what it might be used for.
“For instance, a piece of land alongside a highway could one day be developed into a subdivision,” Patton explains. “So that’s the price it would have to be bought at. So unless taxes are raised, Prop. 90’s passage would mean that California would be able to do less. Traffic would be worse. The affordable housing crisis would intensify. Fewer swimming pools and civic centers would be built. Everything that’s done through spending dollars collectively would cost more.”
Within the Bay Area individual communities have chosen to adopt urban growth boundaries, but if Prop. 90 was already in place, Patton says, many environmental and community protection projects wouldn’t have happened.
“Where now we have more focused growth, which is economically and socially as well as environmentally beneficial, there’d be lots more sprawl,” Patton explains. “We’d be a lot more like Fresno and Bakersfield and San Bernardino and Los Angeles. The Bay Area is a place where more people have got together and made sure their communities did things that have been beneficial.”
As for restoring Golden Gate’s Crissy Field or the South Bay Salt Ponds or preserving bird and wildlife sanctuaries, forget about it.
“We’d be more like Houston. Prop. 90 says unless you can pay me for not developing this land, then one day I’m gonna be able to develop it,” Patton says.
Mary Ann O’Malley, a fiscal and policy analyst at the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, helped write the legislative analysis for Prop. 90 and as such is familiar with the measure’s far-reaching but more obscure provisions.
“Governments will be required to sell land back to its original owner if they stop using the land for the purpose stated when it took the property in the first place,” O’Malley explains. “And government won’t be able to condemn property to build on another property for the purpose of increasing local government’s tax revenues, but it could do so to build roads and schools.”
As for how the “regulatory takings” section of Prop. 90 affects government’s ability to protect the environment, O’Malley says local governments frequently impose case by case mitigation requirements to uphold the Endangered Species Act, telling a developer where it can build.
“If this is simply an enforcement procedure required by the Endangered Species Act, then it probably would not be viewed as a compensatory act, but if it’s an independent local project decision, it might fall within Prop. 90’s purview.”
Although Prop. 90 supporters say it won’t affect existing laws, Douglas says it’s simplistic to believe that current zoning won’t be superceded.
“Zoning plans aren’t exclusive. They may allow ancillary uses with government’s approval. For instance, you can build additional housing and wineries on ag land, but sometimes these uses are totally incompatible with the area. At which point local government steps in and says, ‘Oh no you don’t.’ But under Prop. 90 government is vulnerable to claims.
“Taxpayers are gonna be stuck with a multibillion-dollar bill. It should be called the ‘Destroy California Initiative.’” SFBG
Read about the Proposition 90 money trail and the truth behind the campaign’s stories at



TECHSPLOITATION About 18 people were gathered in the San Francisco offices of Urban Mapping, a company whose mild-mannered founder, Ian White, described their business model to me as “selling polygons.” Instantly, I felt at home. I was among the geowankers, a group of high-tech map enthusiasts whose areas of expertise range from making customizable Web maps (often built out of polygons) and geolocation software to map-based online storytelling and handheld devices that provide information about your environment as you walk through it. Imagine getting a tour of the Mission neighborhood via your smart phone, which pops up information about who painted the cool murals you’re looking at in Clarion Alley, as well as which cafés are in the immediate area. Now imagine using that same phone to upload pictures you’ve taken of the cappuccino at Ritual to your blog, complete with a map showing the exact GPS coordinates of this excellent cafe. If anyone is going to invent that device, it’s going to be a geowanker.
All of us had heard about this meeting via the geowanking e-mail list, founded by überdork Joshua Schachter, where map geeks of all stripes have been engaging in banter and mad science for more than three years. Tonight was the inaugural San Francisco geowankers meeting, and it was the first time many of us had had a chance to meet each other in person. The evening was to be an informal eat-and-chat, with presentations from Rich Gibson, coauthor of the astonishing Mapping Hacks, and Mike Liebhold, a brainiac from the Institute for the Future who said (only half-jokingly) that he wants to invent a “tricorder for planet earth.”
Gibson told us that he’s currently thinking about how to use technology to deal with the “probability characteristics of space.” In other words, how do you create an accurate high-tech map that reflects the fact that a given geographical location has a high probability of being referred to as “the Mission,” but at least 10 percent of the time might be referred to as “Noe Valley”?
This kind of question might sound silly if you look at neighborhoods purely as the creation of real estate companies that have rigid ideas about where the Mission ends and Noe Valley begins. But geowanking is all about making maps democratic and creating representations of space that reflect ordinary people’s lived experiences. The idea of letting a real estate agency call the shots on where your neighborhood’s boundaries are is absurd to a geowanker. Why not just build a digital map in layers so that you can see the real-estate-defined neighborhoods, then click into another layer that shows what ordinary people on the street think are the boundaries, then move to another layer to see where all the rivers run underneath the city?
Liebhold pointed out that as more and more people start creating their own maps and putting them online, we’re going to need to invent a system where we know which maps are “trusted” and which are just somebody rambling about how there are many paths to Blue Bottle Coffee from the Haight. Everybody began specuutf8g about a not-so-distant future when you’ll subscribe to somebody’s map data the way you might subscribe to an RSS feed (and in fact, thanks to smarty-pants Mikel Maron and pals, there is a geoRSS format). Some feeds would be trusted and some wouldn’t.
Then we got sidetracked by potential problems. What happens when the map democratization process goes nuts and so many people are tagging places on digital map services that the spatial data is a mess? And what about map spam, where people buy ads on (for example) Google Maps and suddenly your nice map of the Mission is covered with flags advertising Wells Fargo ATMs and places to buy Bud?
When the conversation wound down, we broke for wine and cookies. I got a chance to chat with Anselm Hook, the hacker who prototyped build-your-own-map service Platial is a mashup of Google Maps and allows you build and store customized maps that you share with friends (try it — it’s insanely addictive). Hook said his newest obsession is trying to create maps with “near-instantaneous information,” kind of like instant messaging and Google Maps rolled into one. “Imagine saying to somebody online, ‘I’m here, what should I do?’ and getting an instant reply with a map,” he enthused. “That’s what I want.”
At last it was time to go, and I headed out into the South of Market area, wishing I had Anselm’s device so I could find a local restaurant and wondering what the probability might be that somebody else would call this neighborhood Mission Bay. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who became a geowanker because she’s always getting lost.

Dizzy spell


Dear Andrea:
You’ve written occasionally about infatuation, but is it really such a bad thing? I mean, is it meaningless? When it wears off, what happens next?
I know it when I feel it. It has driven even logical, structure-loving me to be romantic and well, loopy. But isn’t it based on genuine attraction? Is it something to be wary of?
The object of my desire lives far away, and infrequent visits keep the natural relationship progression at bay. It’s always exciting to see each other, and many of the normal daily annoyances and issues of relationships don’t arise.
Here’s the rub though: while I’m convinced I’m in love and confident in his feelings as well, I fear that making huge decisions and life changes (he’s thinking about selling his house, for instance) may be rash and based on infatuation.
Cloud Head
Dear Head:
I have written about infatuation, yes, but never without mentioning the word’s etymology, which never fails to charm me, if not as deeply and enduringly as I am charmed by the source of bugger, which is a corruption of Bulgarian, or herpes, which shares a root with herpetology, the study of reptiles, or “things that creep.” Infatuation, of course, means “to make foolish,” and shares a root with fatuous. Aren’t you glad you asked? What? You didn’t ask?
I don’t know what definition your psych 101 teacher gave. I’ll assume that you’re thinking of infatuation as the dizzy, dopey first flush of attraction which has no time for those aspects of love which take time, by which I don’t mean marriage and baby carriage as much as putting the other person’s needs and comfort first, or at least on a level with one’s own, and being made happy by the other’s happiness plus trust, commitment, and mutual support. These latter qualities get something of a bad rap — they’re the nice, dull things you earn in compensation for the sexy, shiny part wearing off — but of course they are no such thing. You can have trust, commitment, and an investment in each other’s happiness and still want to see each other nekkid.
Neither of these is to be confused with limerence, a word that did not exist until the ’70s, when a psychologist, Dorothy Tennov, saw fit to coin it. Unlike infatuation and herpes, limerence shares a root with exactly nothing. It’s rather a lovely sound, though, and seems fitting for that transcendent sensation, that sense that since you and your limerent object met or connected, the world has been utterly transformed. Surely others can see it! If they can’t see it, it’s only because they’re not as sensitive as you are. They could never understand the exquisite torture that is your special, special love.
Limerence is not love, it’s “being in love” (without infatuation’s connotations of foolishness and brevity): the intrusive thoughts to the point of obsession, the feeling of walking on air, the mad longing, the way that every touch, every word, every glance from the beloved is imbued with meaning, and the palpable pain (heartache) of separation or lack of reciprocity. Without limerence all popular music would be either “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Kill You,” nothing in-between. The Rodgers and Hart song “This Can’t Be Love,” which is has been playing in my head since the XM radio in the kids’ room got stuck on the show tunes station, ought to have been called “This Can’t Be Limerence,” but it just doesn’t scan as well:
This can’t be love, because I feel so well,
No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs.
This can’t be love; I get no dizzy spells,
My head is not in the skies.
My heart does not stand still, just hear it beat.
This is too sweet to be love.
Limerence does not become love as much as it can leave you and the limerent object ideally positioned to find love together. You ask, is this really love or merely infatuation? I answer, it’s limerence, and better yet, requited limerence; enjoy it. You ask, “But is the attraction real?” and I say, of course it’s real. Limerence causes a certain type of temporary insanity but you still know what you feel. And finally, should the two of you throw all caution and real estate to the wind and throw in together, despite not really knowing each other that well? Um. This is pretty wishy-washy (limerence is never wishy-washy), but … sort of? How about you wait a year? How about traveling together a little first? Sharing a vacation house? Those situations are not real life but they do involve real stressors. I’d agree that this can’t be love but I won’t say it can’t get there. Let him see you without make-up. Find out what he’s like when you’re lost and hot and cranky on a road trip. Head in the clouds? Easy. How about shaving scum in the sink?
Andrea Nemerson has spent the last 14 years as a sex educator and an instructor of sex educators. In her previous life she was a prop designer. And she just gave birth to twins, so she’s one bad mother of a sex adviser. Visit to view her previous columns.

Back from Berlin…


By Mirissa Neff

In the midst of excursions to NYC, Reykjavik and Paris I spent last week in Berlin… here are some posts from the experience:

Generally Berlin reminds me a lot of SF/Oakland… the thrift-store aesthetic, the experimental vibe, people are very willing to go out on artistic limbs here. The city is quite sprawling and real estate is cheap… e.g., anyone with a creative idea can afford to set up a storefront. This doesn’t mean that they will be successful… things seems to be in constant renewal. If a project doesn’t work out people here seem fine with picking up and starting from scratch with something else. Perhaps that attitude has historical roots… the wall coming down, etc? Hmmmm….

Last night we went to an underground party where my host’s friend Manuel was spinning. The party was very literally under ground… once we paid our $4 admission to a burly Austrian who was listening to honky tonk music on a transistor, we descended into the party via a shakey ladder propped up in a hole in the cement. The subterranean scene was very cool… tunnels full of brick arches with stalagtites hanging down, projections, art installations, a dj and a makeshift bar only serving beer, vodka (no mixers) and water. We grabbed a couple of Berliner beers and sat down to hear Manuel’s super eclectic set… he played everything from German soccer anthems to the Aryan equivalent of Frank Zappa.

The King Kong Klub during a quiet moment…

Manuel was leaving to spin elsewhere and we followed. We ended up at the King Kong Klub… a bar saturated with red walls, hipsters and King Kong imagery. The scene had a full cast of characters…

Small pieces unjoined


TECHSPLOITATION I think ubiquitous digital surveillance and searchability have given me a weird new sense of entitlement. I feel like I should be able to find anybody on the Web, and if I can’t — well, why not hire somebody to search the databases I can’t access? I caught myself having this exact bizarro train of thought the other day, when I was trying to locate an old friend of mine from high school.
I did all the usual things that generally yield results and have helped me find out all kinds of useless things about lost childhood friends. (That hardcore rocker boy is now a real estate agent! No way!) First I searched on his name in Google, but all I discovered was that somebody with his exact (and fairly common name) died in the Twin Towers. There was a catch though — my old friend went by his Korean name in high school but adopted an American name in college. So I started searching on his Korean name, feeling very clever. Unfortunately his Korean name is actually more common than his American one. Then I narrowed my searches, looking for his names in connection with our hometown, his college, and the city where he lived the last time I saw him. I searched news groups, MySpace, LiveJournal, and Technorati.
At last I couldn’t think of anywhere else to search. That’s when I had the aberrant thought: why not just hire a private detective? Everybody’s doing it — even HP! And I’d get one that wasn’t too expensive. Admittedly my subconscious was spiked with reruns of Veronica Mars and memories of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary in which a guy hires private detectives to figure out who the members of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board are.
But I think I hit upon this rather extreme idea — hiring a detective to find my old friend — because I’ve become conditioned to think that all information should be accessible. Despite my belief in online privacy and anonymity, my unexamined, knee-jerk response to the situation was that somebody should be able to get this guy’s contact information for me. I mean, all I wanted was an e-mail. I wasn’t trying to get his home address or voting records.
Needless to say, I did not get a private detective, nor have I found my old friend yet. I’ve avoided becoming creepy but I’m left unsatisfied. The old promises of the Web, which David Weinberger famously characterized as “small pieces loosely joined,” have turned out to be quite different from what we all imagined. Many of us are connected, sometimes to a degree bordering on incestuousness, but many of us are not. The threads do not attach to each other. Names are lost in a sea of names. People fill blogs with entry after entry that never get read, never get linked, never receive comments. Certainly there are spirited local debates that bring us together online and amateur writing that’s as findable as a New York Times headline, but these things are rare and getting rarer. The Web is beginning to feel just like a city street: you can see all the houses, but you have no idea what’s in them. Unless you’re a thief.
I feel cheated by the walls that have gone up on the Web — not the walls that protect my personal information, but the ones that prevent me from finding friends (real friends — not friendsters). They aren’t the same walls, by the way. Walls that protect personal information should prevent people from getting access to whatever crap ChoicePoint and Visa have on you. The walls that stand between me and my old friend are the cacophony of filtered data that the Web has become. I’m sure his e-mail is out there somewhere floating around, but because he hasn’t been writing a popular blog or posting obsessively on the Linux kernel list, it’s got no juice on the search engines. Because he’s not socially findable, he’s not technically findable either. And no, it’s not because he has no e-mail. The guy is an engineer. So much for the Web breaking down barriers.
I’m going to try one last time to find him — but this time, I’ll go at it from the other direction. I’ll call his name and see if he hears me. Let’s see if there are any holes in those walls. If you know a guy who goes by Lawrence Kim or Chong Kim and who once lived in Orange County, let me know. Especially if you are him.
Let’s see if my experiment works. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who can find rare, out-of-print books online but can’t find Chong.

Mall of the metaverse


Suzanne Vega is waddling across the screen. Well, not the real Suzanne Vega but the quiet folk singer’s digital avatar on On Aug. 3, she — or it — claimed the proud position of being the first digital representation of a major-label pop star to give a concert in cyberspace. After an interview with public radio host John Hockenberry, she sings an a cappella version of her ’80s hit “Tom’s Diner,” then awkwardly straps on a guitar and plays a set for attending Second Lifers, members of the popular online virtual world.
Whoever’s controlling the Vega avatar hasn’t quite got a handle on her yet — unless the ungainly swaying is supposed to indicate that she’s had one too many. And the audience of online gamers, whose avatars you can see bobbing their virtual heads in the bleachers, barely reaches a total of 100. Some of them are also bald and unaccessorized: the avatar-attendees were instructed to remove all extraneous attachments — including hair — to reduce server lag time. But it’s a lovely sounding, intimate event all the same and fitting for Vega. Kids these days might not know her music, but the Grammy winner is renowned as the “mother of the MP3” — “Tom’s Diner” was used by a German engineer to invent the MP3 format.
The Vega concert is just the first in a series that Second Life is launching. Duran Duran, the first artists to use location shooting and Macromedia Flash in a music video, have just announced they’ve purchased an island resort in Second Life and will be the first band to perform live online through their avatars. Just think: the right code could take their hairstyles higher than Aquanet ever did. For more contemporary music fans, rapper Talib Kweli is also slated to make an online appearance. Along with violence, sex, and role playing, live concerts are finally being translated into moving pixels.
Online virtual worlds are nothing new. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been around since the early ’90s and are rooted in games that have been around since the ’70s (yeah, like the one with the 20-sided die). So when San Francisco–based company Linden Lab created Second Life, a virtual 3-D world (or “multiverse,” coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi smash novel Snow Crash) now inhabited by some 550,000 residents, it had a firm jumping-off point. But while other MMORPGs concentrate on hunting and killing or solving elaborate puzzles, Second Life tries to replicate everyday experiences: shopping, hanging out, scoring a dream job, meeting new people. It’s a Sims-like experience in real time.
And it involves real money. The most staggering aspect of Second Life is its economy. Users are dropping actual ducats in exchange for clothing, real estate, cocktails, and even skateboards for their virtual representations. The currency of Second Life is called a Linden dollar — L$300 equals roughly US$1. During June alone, over US$5.3 million were spent on goods and services within Second Life. The SL digital continent is the size of metropolitan Boston — that’s a lot of virtual strip malls. At the current growth rate, Second Life projects 3.6 million users by the end of next year. Big-name businesses are starting to take note.
American Apparel was among the first “meat space,” or real-life, businesses to set up shop in the virtual world. Its SL flagship store sells clothing for avatars — at around L$300 a pop for T-shirts. And of course, no AA outlet would be complete without virtual billboards of half-naked avatars. The Adidas group just announced that it will begin selling footwear for avatars. W Hotels is opening Aloft, a virtual hotel. “As the population increases, I could see direct revenue, so long as we constructed experiences that mimicked the world that is Second Life, such as a browsable record store, not just banner ads,” says Ethan Kaplan Sr., director of technology at Warner Bros. Records.
And because a captive virtual audience offers a wonderland of name-brand recognition opportunities, celebrities are starting to take note as well. “Every celebrity who presently has a MySpace profile will eventually have an avatar on Second Life. A MySpace profile is an avatar,” says Reuben Steiger of Millions of Us, whose company snagged a contract with Toyota to offer a virtual edition of the Scion xB to SL residents. (A dealership is in the works.) Imagine a world where you can walk up to Paris Hilton in a bar and buy her drinks until she starts dancing on the tables. OK, so maybe that isn’t so hard to imagine, but in Second Life you can get a job as a bouncer and throw her drunk ass out. The future is now.
In an unsurprising development for an interactive game, some users are starting to chafe at the überconsumerist direction Second Life’s taking. Recently, a faction of residents calling themselves the Second Life Liberation Army entered the American Apparel store, pixel guns ablazin’, to prevent other residents from buying goods. The “terrorist attack” wasn’t intended to scare first-world business away though; rather, the SLLA wanted the citizens of Second Life to have a vote in Linden Lab’s business operations. But maybe some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll rebellion has been beamed up along with the live concerts. SFBG

Discovering the formula


San Francisco has a thing for local businesses. From Chinatown to Hayes Valley, the dozens of distinctive neighborhoods that constitute this city have for the most part maintained their individuality with one-of-a-kind, locally owned places to shop, snack, and seek services.
While many cities and small towns across the country have succumbed to the sprawl and homogeneity of chain stores, some have resisted, even in the face of lawsuits and wily campaigning from megaretailers. Big corporations including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target are combating restrictive municipal legislation with their money, pouring millions into local political races and flying in paid signature gatherers for ballot referenda.
“They’re spending $100 per vote in some cases,” Stacy Mitchell told the Guardian. Mitchell is the author of Big-Box Swindle and a senior researcher for the New Rules Project, a subsidiary of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, which tracks legislation against formula retail.
“They’re getting mixed results,” she said, which means sometimes the big boys lose, like in the multiyear battle with Inglewood that sent Wal-Mart walking. But more often than not, the formula retailers win.
Take Chicago as a recent example: Mayor Richard Daley overrode city councilors and issued his first veto in 17 years, against legislation that would have required large retailers to pay a living wage to employees. Councilors hoped to trump the mayor with another vote, but at the last minute three councilors switched positions to side with Daley.
“I still don’t understand how it happened,” said SF supervisor Tom Ammiano, who flew into Chicago to speak in favor of the legislation. He told us the city was behind it, though opponents were arguing that low-income people needed the option to work and shop at Wal-Mart and it was discriminatory to not allow the store to move into the city. “They played the race card. It was obvious they were people on [Wal-Mart’s] payroll.”
In the week since the veto, Wal-Mart has already swooped in with several site proposals for the first 20-acre megamart in Chicago. It’s stated an eventual goal of building 20 stores in the Windy City. Could Wal-Mart spite San Francisco just like it did Chicago?
Since 2004, San Francisco has operated with the Formula Retail Ordinance, designed to preserve “the city’s goal of a diverse retail base.” This isn’t an outright ban, but it makes the application and review process more arduous for formula retail. The ordinance defines formula retail as any chain with 11 or more outlets that offer standardized services or mimic one another in decor, architecture, and practices (like Starbucks, the Gap, and Wal-Mart, to name an infamous few).
The relevant legislation, Section 703.3 of the Planning Code, reads like it was penned by a Norman Rockwell acolyte and cites such businesses as generally undesirable, granting neighborhoods the right to be notified of potential chain store proposals. While the legislation allows neighborhoods to create their own stricter legislation, it also grants them the right to accept a chain into the fold, which is a pretty big loophole.
So far, most neighborhoods haven’t been welcoming. A battle in North Beach over Home Depot resulted in an outright ban of all formula retail in the neighborhood. Hayes Valley followed suit. Conditional use permits in western SoMa, Cole Valley, and Divisadero from Haight to Turk add an extra layer of scrutiny to the planning process when a Starbucks or Target want to set up shop. Potrero Hill–Showplace Square is the next in the trend, with a 12-month interim conditional-use period and a more permanent restriction on the way. That restriction was introduced by Sup. Sophie Maxwell, approved by the Land Use and Economic Development Committee, and headed to the full Board of Supervisors for initial approval Sept. 19 after Guardian press time.
Maxwell’s legislation could become moot this November if voters approve Proposition G, the Small Business Protection Act, which would extend conditional-use permitting to the entire city, making any proposal from a chain store subject to public hearings and an arduous Environmental Impact Review at the expense of the applicant, not the city.
Dozens of counties and municipalities have enacted similar ordinances around the country in response to the track records of megaretailers. Public criticism is mounting against corporations such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot for drawing the shopping masses by reducing prices to quash smaller competitors and for pulling profits out of communities instead of keeping them local, as small businesses tend to do.
But the chain stores aren’t just rolling over.
“It’s happening in enough places that it’s reached a point where they’re feeling nervous about how it’s affecting their growth,” Mitchell said about the retail giants. Her organization has been assisting communities for several years in drafting legislation against formula retail and is seeing some of that legislation undercut by voracious chain stores. Wal-Mart, the most notorious foe, dumps thousands of dollars into local election races. The tactic is especially evident in California.
“Wal-Mart spends more in California than anywhere,” said Nu Wexler, spokesperson for Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington-based organization with hawk eyes on the company. “They have active lobbying in all 50 states, but California is a particularly important market for them.”
He attributes that to the state’s status as the sixth-largest economy in the world. In 2002, Wal-Mart promised to open 40 supercenters in the state within four to six years. As of October 2005, only six had been opened. “They’re fighting expansion battles all over the country, but they’re having an especially difficult time in California,” Wexler said. Inglewood, Turlock, and Hercules have all recently dodged Wal-Mart.
But several other cities have not, despite protective measures, and in the last year 12 more supercenters have opened in California, bringing the grand total to 19.
Contra Costa County, apropos of no immediate threat, passed a 2003 ordinance prohibiting “big box” stores over 90,000 square feet. In response, Wal-Mart dumped more than $1.5 million campaigning for a measure overriding the ordinance on the next available ballot. In 2004, the ordinance was overturned by 54 percent of voters.
Four years of fighting in Rosemead resulted in two city council shake-ups, with a recall election of two council members set to be decided this week; a possible Brown Act violation when city officials approved a permit for Wal-Mart during a meeting when it wasn’t on the agenda; and multiple lawsuits from both sides. Wal-Mart spent $200,000 campaigning and dropped another $100,000 in local charities to spread some good cheer. It worked: doors opened at a new supercenter Sept. 18.
Last August, a Wal-Mart opened just across the bay in Oakland even though the city already had a ban on big-box retail larger than 2.5 acres. Spurning the city’s provincial laws, Wal-Mart found real estate regulated by the Port of Oakland — which, similar to San Francisco’s port, is outside the city’s jurisdiction and not subject to local ordinances.
“It was passed in a backroom deal with the port before the city could have any public hearings,” said Adam Gold, a spokesperson from Just Cause Oakland, a local group that opposed the store. “It made it difficult to resist it. It had already been approved.”
At the state level, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently vetoed Senate Bill 1414, introduced by San Francisco’s state senator Carol Migden, which would have required employers with more than 10,000 workers to put 8 percent of total wages toward health care. Not a surprise: Wal-Mart’s Walton family dropped more than half a million dollars into electing the governor, with a most timely donation of $250,000 last year on the very day he vetoed legislation aimed at Wal-Mart that would have required businesses to disclose when employees use public health care services.
Two other bills, SB1523, requiring environmental impact reports and public hearings for the construction of stores larger than 100,000 square feet, and SB1818, allowing cities to recover legal fees when sued by big-box retailers, sailed through the legislature but are currently festering on the governor’s desk.
Is it all enough to protect San Francisco? Can the city keep mom and pop on the corners and resist the commercialism that has made a city like Emeryville the mall that it is today?
Maxwell, who pushed the recent legislation for Showplace Square and Potrero Hill, hopes so. “I’d rather have the position of them on the offense than the defense,” she said of potential retail applicants. When asked if the city codes are strict enough, she said, “If not, I’d be willing to put forth the legislation that is.”
As for the idea of Wal-Mart coming to town, the District 10 supervisor was nothing if not firm: “No, no way. Not in San Francisco.” SFBG

Live bait


Sneak a peak at the California Cereals factory — a gray, boxy concrete sprawl looming over an otherwise peaceful West Oakland neighborhood lined with wood frame houses and a sugary spray of Victorians — and you immediately expect that mulchy aroma of processed wheat products to assault the senses. So why do you detect … barbecuing oysters? But that’s the overriding scent du jour — and the improvisatory, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-fun nature of the Cereal Factory, one of many unpermitted party outposts where the city’s rock, improv, noise, and punk scenes have survived and even thrived in the Bay Area despite fin de siècle real estate insanity, party-killing neighbors, and ticket-threatening cops.
Scruffy, T-shirted kids lounge on the front steps of Jason Smith’s two-story home, dubbed the Cereal Factory for the genuine, sugar-coated article churning out Fruity Pebbles and generic raisin bran across the street. Down a side path, in the small backyard, music scenesters, fans, punks, indie rockers, and cool dudes mingle on the grass and down the canned beer and grillables they’ve brought as CF housemate Daniel Martins of Battleship throws more oysters on the barbie. Double back, and in the basement you find a dark, humid, tiki-embellished crash pad, not uncomfortably crammed with bodies shaking to Italian punk-noise band Dada Swing. Or you catch Bananas, Mika Miko, or Chow Nasty killing the rest of the early evening for gas money.
“My whole thing is to make it free, make it so that people can go to it,” the extremely good-natured Smith says much later. “If there’s a touring band, I always run around with a hat and kind of strong-arm people into coughing up some change or a couple bucks to give them some gas, but otherwise the bands all play here for free. I just provide the coals, and I buy two cases of beer for the bands.” As for the oysters, he adds, “shit like that happens! People are just, like, ‘I caught this huge fish — let’s smoke it.’”
Smith is one of the proud, brave, and reckless few who have turned their homes into unofficial party headquarters, underground live music venues. San Francisco and Oakland are riddled with such weekly, biweekly, and even more sporadic venues — some named and some known by nothing more than an address. But oh, what names: Pubis Noir, 5lowershop, an Undisclosed Location, Club Hot, Noodle Factory, Ptomaine Temple, and the Hazmat House. Some, like the Cereal Factory, are only active during the summer barbecue season; others, like LoBot Gallery, host shows and art exhibits year-round. Why go through the headache of opening your home up to a bunch of hard-partying strangers, music lovers, and the occasional psycho who trashes your bathroom? Some, such as Oakland’s French Fry Factory, have bitten the dust after being busted for allegedly selling beer at shows. Others, such as 40th Street Warehouse and Grandma’s House, have bowed to pressures external (neighbors, landlords) and internal (warehousemates), respectively. Why do we care?
The Clit Stop can take credit for being one of the first venues in San Francisco to dream up the now-familiar cocktail of noise, indie rock, jazz, and improv. Ex-Crack: We Are Rock and Big Techno Werewolves mastermind Eric Bauer and Bran Pos brain Jake Rodriguez began booking shows in 1998 in Bauer’s 58 Tehama space, once dubbed Gallery Oh Boy. Shows began on time at 8 or 9 p.m. so that East Bay listeners could BART back before midnight, and as a result Bauer and Rodriguez would often open, under assorted monikers. A May 2000 lineup at the Clit Stop (named after Bauer’s band Planet Size: Clit by Caroliner’s Grux) combined scree-kabukists Rubber O Cement with improv rockers Gang Wizard, indies Minmae, and Bauer’s dada-noise Aerobics King; another bill matched the angsty indie-electronica of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone with the noise-guitar-funk of Open City and the jazz sax of Tony Bevan. The common thread? The fact that Bauer and Rodriguez both liked them. “It was kind of hard sometimes,” Bauer says today. “We got requests from tons of shitty bands, and it was, like, ‘No, no, we don’t like you guys.’”
A year after Clit Stop began, Kimo’s started showcasing the same combination of rock and noise characterized by such varied Clit Stop players as Cock ESP, No Neck Blues Band, and Nautical Almanac — a mix that has filtered to the Hemlock Tavern and 21 Grand and into the sounds emerging from Bay Area bands like Deerhoof, Total Shutdown, and the pre–Yellow Swans group Boxleitner, all of whom played the Clit. “The weirder and more fucked up, the better,” Bauer continues. “We wanted to push boundaries — we wanted to annoy people.” Bauer moved out in 2000, leaving Rodriguez to continue to book shows at the venue under, Bauer says, the name Hot Rodney’s Bar and Grill. Bauer went on to put on the first noise-pancake shows with ex–Church Police member and Bauer’s Godwaffle Noise Pancakes co-overlord Bruce Gauld at Pubis Noir, a former sweatshop at 16th Street and Mission. Gauld is expected to put out a DVD of Clit Stop performances this year.
“The cheapness factor is a huge part,” says Cansafis Foote, sax player for the No Doctors. “In Oakland right now, you have a lot of kids who are trying to make a go at being an artist or being a musician or whatever, and almost all of them are broke. But they’re all really excited about people making stuff, so they’ll go to Art Murmurs on the first Friday of the month or they’ll go to warehouse shows, and maybe at the end of the day they won’t have any money in their pocket — and we’re still going to let ’em in to see the show. That, or they’re underage.”
An improv seminar leader at Northwestern University and onetime music teacher in Chicago, Foote was accustomed to instigating music- and merrymaking when he took the lease in February 2005 at Grandma’s House in Oakland. “Everything was kind of funneling out of that experience and just having the background with Freedom From [the label the No Doctors ran with Matthew St. Germain] and free exploratory music.” Grandma’s House had already been putting on shows in the massive warehouse it shared with Limnal Gallery (and at one time the Spazz collective), and Foote threw his energy into doing two to three shows a month — including performances by Sightings, Burmese, Hustler White, Saccharine Trust, and Warhammer 48K — until March, when, he says, an especially loud show by USA Is a Monster brought the police on a noise complaint. Foote, a.k.a. Grandpa, was already bummed because housemates who had initially said they’d help with shows “totally weren’t coming through on that. So I was sitting in my car and watching the gate while everyone was watching the show and I was, like, ‘What’s the point of doing this? I don’t even get to see the show.’ So I took a ladder and put it outside the window. I thought it was fun too, because it was like a clubhouse and people could come up the ladder and through the window into Grandma’s House, and then the cops came, and one told me they’d unlock the seventh door to hell if I did it again.
“I was actually kind of excited — should I allow him to unlock the seventh door to hell for me? Is there going to be a special fire-breathing dragon there for me? It was amazing. It’s, like, ‘Dude, there’s some 16-year-old kid who’s going to shoot some other 16-year-old kid down the street — go deal with him.’”
The next show was the deal breaker: police returned twice to open that door as a brouhaha broke out at a Grey Daturas show between audience members and various warehousemates. Warehouse denizens put pressure on Foote to halt the shows, and now he’s moving out: “It was the only reason I was living there. It’s not real glamorous to be living in a warehouse with little mice and weird bugs in the summer.”
House-party spaces have come and gone, but one of the saddest passings had to be 40th Street Warehouse in Oakland, which put on rock, folk, and hip-hop shows, queer cabaret, and art events from 1996 until the collective shuttered last winter with a last loud musical blowout (This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb headlined) and a commemorative zine. From Monument to Masses guitarist Matthew Solberg lived there for three years and recalls that the onetime auto mechanic shop’s shows were initially started by members of the experimental Noisegate.
By 2003, Solberg says the Temescal space was putting on shows, plays, or benefits every weekend, with an emphasis on rock and metal: Parts and Labor, Tyondai Braxton, High on Fire, Ludicra, Merzbow, Masonna, Melt Banana, a Minor Forest, Lesser, Curtains, Neon Hunk, Hair Police, Deep Dickollective, Thrones, X27, Soophie Nun Squad, Toychestra, 25 Suaves, Monitor Bats, the Intima, Lowdown, the Coachwhips, Hammers of Misfortune, the Vanishing, Mirah, Gravy Train!!!!, Eskapo, and Microphones (last on the Microphones bill, beneath Loch Nest Dumpster, is Devendra Banhart, described as “acoustic ardor from San Francisco’s shyist [sic]”), with bands like Numbers getting a running start with multiple performances there.
The schedule, however, took its toll. “People would move into the warehouse and be really stoked to have that autonomous space, but they didn’t really know what they were getting into. They usually lasted six months, and then they’d be, like, ‘I can’t stand this anymore!’” Solberg says. “But certain people adapted because they were passionate about being able to create that sort of space and making it work: a DIY show space where 100 percent of proceeds went to the bands — and obviously, we’d cover some expenses, like electrical and providing food for the bands. But apart from that, the house didn’t take any money. It was all done out of, I dunno, community service.”
The collective itself got a reputation as a straight-edged vegan cabal that forbade hard drugs and meat in the fridge that sat on the outskirts of the barnlike communal show space. “We didn’t want to succumb to the crash pad–flophouse thing,” Solberg explains. “We just wanted to preserve sanity.”
All that came to an end when in 2004 the Oakland City Council passed the Nuisance Eviction Ordinance, which took aim at crack houses but covered “noise” as a reason for eviction. “The people at 40th Street all believed that was the reason we got so much police attention the last year we were there,” Solberg says. After joining his fellow tenants in a winning fight against their landlord, who had given them a month’s eviction notice in order to convert the space to condos, Solberg moved to Ptomaine Temple, which continues to stage experimental noise shows.
And despite the rewards, good times, and appreciative bands that get play and earn gas money to their next show, shutdowns are still a threat, casting a shadow even over spots like the Smith-owned Cereal Factory. After a neighbor began objecting last year to the soused kids milling in the street and lined up out the Factory’s front door to go to the bathroom, the Mothballs drummer slowed the shows, built a discreet bathroom in the basement, and then carefully began the music once more. Why bother? The chuckle-prone Smith, who works in the live-music department at KALX, bought the house with the intention of having shows. “At the risk of sounding like a stupid hippie, I think it’s important to contribute things,” he says before the last show of summer 2006 on Sept. 16, with Them There Skies, Sandycoates, and Dreamdate.
This last show likely went off smoothly: the model property owner checked in with his neighbors that evening during his walk home. “I said, ‘Donny, we’re having a barbecue show this Saturday.’ And he said, ‘OK, OK, baby, you’re cool. You’re cool.’ I’m hoping to have everything done by 9 o’clock, and that’s pretty tame on a Saturday night,” Smith explains. It’s guaranteed there won’t be any problem on at least one side of his summer house party — “there’s this Argentinean woman named Pepper and she’s fucking awesome. She’ll be, ‘Aw, yeah, it better be fucking loud because that’s how I know you’re having a good time. You gotta live life!’ SFBG

The silent scandal


Editor’s note: This story has been altered to correct an error. The original version stated that an Examiner editor had admitted in court testimony to providing positive coverage to politicians in exchange for help with a business deal. The person who testified to that was not an editor, but Publisher Tim White, and he was talking about editorial, not news, coverage.

After William Randolph Hearst flunked out of Harvard in the 1880s, he pursued a new career path, asking his wealthy father for only one thing: the San Francisco Examiner.
Young William didn’t stop with the Examiner — over his lifetime, he accumulated dozens of newspapers nationwide. Eventually, one in five Americans regularly read a Hearst paper.
That seems like a lot of power and influence, and it was. But it’s nothing compared to what the heirs to Hearst’s media mogul mantle are doing today.
In fact, the Hearst Corp. is working with another acquisitive newspaper magnate, William Dean Singleton, to lock up the entire Bay Area daily newspaper market. If the project succeeds, one of the most sophisticated, politically active regions in the nation may have exactly one daily news voice.
That worries Clint Reilly.
The political consultant turned real estate investor has sued the Hearst Corp., owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, for the second time in a decade to stop a partnership he fears will eliminate the variety of voices among newspapers in the Bay Area.
It’s an amazing story, full of politics, big money, secretive arrangements, and juicy executive bonuses. What’s at stake? Control over one of the most lucrative businesses in Northern California.
But for the most part, you aren’t reading about it in the daily papers — which means you aren’t seeing it on TV or hearing about it on the radio.
In fact, the blackout of the inside details of the Singleton deal and Reilly’s effort to stop it is one of the greatest local censored stories of the year — and the way the press has failed to cover it demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with monopoly ownership of the major news media.
The story began in the spring when one of the nation’s more respected newspaper chains, Knight Ridder, was forced to put itself up for sale after Bruce Sherman, a prominent shareholder, decided that the company’s relatively healthy profit margins (and dozens of Pulitzers) were simply not enough.
It’s the nature of publicly traded companies to be vulnerable to shareholder insurrections, unless they have multiple classes of stock. Knight Ridder didn’t, and although its former chief executive, P. Anthony Ridder, later said he regretted the sale, Knight Ridder went on the block.
The Sacramento-based McClatchy chain bought the much bigger Knight Ridder but needed to sell some of the papers to make the deal work.
In the Bay Area, Knight Ridder’s two prime properties, the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times, were bought by MediaNews Group, the Denver-based conglomerate run by Singleton. That was a problem from the start: Singleton already owned the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the San Mateo County Times, and a series of smaller local papers on both sides of the bay. The two former Knight Ridder papers would give him a near-monopoly on daily newspaper ownership in the region; in fact, there was only one daily in the area that would be in a position to compete with Singleton. That was the San Francisco Chronicle.
But in one of the strangest deals in newspaper history, Hearst — the erstwhile competitor — joined in the action, buying two of the McClatchy papers (the Monterey Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Dispatch) and then immediately turning them over to Singleton, in exchange for some stock in MediaNews operations outside of California.
When news of the transactions first broke, MediaNews publications and the Hearst’s Chron covered it extensively, more than once putting the billion-dollar partnership on the front pages. (The transactions also involve a company formed by MediaNews and two of its other competitors, the Stephens Group and Gannett Co., called the California Newspapers Partnership.)
Since then, however, coverage has been overshadowed by JonBenet Ramsey and local crime news. The real story of what happened between Hearst and Singleton and how it would devastate local media competition never made the papers.
If this had been a deal involving any other local big business that had a huge impact on the local economy and details as fishy as this, a competitive paper would have been all over it. And yet, even the Chron was largely silent.
In fact, when Attorney General Bill Lockyer decided not to take any action to block the deal, the Chron relegated the news to a five-paragraph Reuters wire story out of New York, buried in the briefs in the business section. The original Reuters story was cut; the news of Reilly’s suit and his allegations didn’t make it into the Chron version.
At times, the new Singleton papers have treated the story with upbeat glee: in early August, the Merc proclaimed in a headline that the area’s “New media king is having fun.”
The story noted: “MediaNews is privately held, a step removed from the Wall Street pressure that forced the Mercury News’ previous owner, Knight Ridder, to put itself up for sale…. Singleton is its leader, and by all accounts, a man who lives, breathes and loves newspapers.”
Longtime media critic and former UC Berkeley journalism school dean Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, told the Guardian that most of the coverage so far has focused on the business side of the transactions.
“The coverage I’ve seen has simply described the devices they used to divide the McClatchy chain and did not describe how cleverly it was designed to avoid an antitrust action,” Bagdikian said.
Here’s some of what the daily papers have ignored:
The Hearst deal was certainly good for MediaNews, because on the same day the agreement was signed, top executives at the company were awarded $1.88 million in bonuses. MediaNews president Joseph Lodovic earned the chief bonus of $1 million, while the president of MediaNews Group Interactive, Eric Grilly, received over $100,000 in bonuses on top of a $1.25 million severance package for retirement. The figures were disclosed in the company’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
Hearst has insisted repeatedly that its investment in MediaNews involves only tracking stock, meaning its up-and-down value rests solely on the performance of MediaNews businesses outside of California. Such a structure may help the two companies comply with antitrust rules — for now.
But in a little-noticed footnote included in a July memo filed by Hearst in response to Reilly’s lawsuit, the company revealed that its tracking stock could still be converted to MediaNews common stock in the future — meaning it would then have a stake in the entire company, including its Bay Area holdings. “The tracking stock will be convertible into ordinary MNG common stock, but that will require a separate, future transaction and its own Hart-Scott-Rodino review,” the July 25 document states.
In other words, public records — information freely available to the 17-odd business reporters at the Chronicle — show that Hearst’s fundamental presentation of the deal is inaccurate. Hearst is not just a peripheral player in this deal; the company is a direct partner with Singleton and thus has no economic incentive whatsoever to compete with the Denver billionaire.
And that means there will be no real news competition either.Reilly has been in politics most of his adult life, and he knows what happens when one entity controls the news media: perspectives and candidates that aren’t in favor with the daily papers don’t get fair coverage.
Newspapers, he told us recently, are charged with checking the tyranny of government; without competition they will fail to check the tyranny of themselves.
“The combination intended to be formed by these defendants constitutes nothing less than the formation of a newspaper trust covering the Greater San Francisco Bay Area,” Reilly’s suit states, “implemented through anticompetitive acquisitions of competing newspapers, horizontal divisions of markets and customers, and agreements not to compete, whether expressed or implied.”
A federal judge recently tossed Reilly’s request for a temporary restraining order against the Hearst transaction. But Reilly’s overall lawsuit, designed to stop Hearst’s $300 million investment in MediaNews, will still wind its way through the courts, and Judge Susan Illston signaled in her last order that she would “seriously consider” forcing MediaNews to give up some of its assets if the court finds the company’s transactions to be anticompetitive.
There are clear grounds to do that. In fact, as Reilly’s attorney, Joe Alioto, points out in his legal filings, the monopolists have made the argument themselves. When Reilly sued to block the Examiner-Chronicle deal in 2000, Hearst, which wanted to buy the Chron and shutter the Examiner, argued that closing the Examiner would have no competitive impact — since all the other competing Bay Area papers provided the reader and advertiser with a choice. Now the lawyers are arguing just the opposite — that the Chron and the outlying papers never competed in the first place.
Hearst will more than likely argue in court that since its newspapers face unprecedented competition from online content, there’s technically no such thing as a one-newspaper town. The world is globally connected now, this thinking goes, and the Chron and MediaNews both face competition from popular blogs such as Daily Kos and Valleywag on the West Coast and Gawker and Wonkette on the East Coast.
But that ignores a media reality: for all the power and influence of bloggers and online outlets, daily newspapers still have the ability to set the news agenda for a region. Among other things, local TV news and radio stations regularly take their cues from the daily papers — meaning that a story the dailies ignore or mangle never gets a real chance.
MediaNews argues in its most recent memo to Judge Illston that “any potential anticompetitive effect of the transactions against which the Complaint is directed is greatly offset and outweighed by the efficiencies that will result from those transactions.”
“Efficiencies” isn’t actually defined, but if the past is any indication, jobs could be the first place MediaNews looks to “efficiently” save money for its investors — at the cost of performing the traditional role of a newspaper to monitor government.
Reporting — real reporting — is expensive. It requires experienced journalists, and a good paper should give them the time and resources not only to watch day-to-day events but also to dig deep, below the headlines.
That’s not the monopoly media style.
Speaking in general terms, Jon Marshall, who runs the blog Newsgems and teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, wrote us in an e-mail that newspapers have to be willing to invest in innovation now, while there’s still time.
“If newspapers really want to win back readers, they’ll need to start offering more outstanding feature stories that really dig deep and have a big impact on their communities,” Marshall wrote. “Readers need a reason to turn to newspapers rather than all the other content that’s now available through the Web. Newspapers will have a hard time creating these outstanding stories on a consistent basis if they keep paying their current skimpy entry-level salaries.”
The pattern Singleton is known to follow isn’t unique. A recent survey conducted by journalism students at Arizona State University revealed that the nation’s largest newspapers are giving reduced resources to investigative and enterprise reporting as media companies trim budgets to maintain or increase profits. More than 60 percent of the papers surveyed, the report stated, don’t have investigative or projects teams.
Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, told us that while teams of reporters dedicated exclusively to investigations may be disappearing, many papers are willing to pull staffers away from their regularly assigned beats to make sure that big stories are thoroughly covered. But, he said, Wall Street’s haste to make money could backfire if readers head elsewhere in search of more exclusive content.
“I think everything is in flux right now,” Houston said. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what the next newsroom looks like.”
Luther Jackson, an executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, which represents staffers at the Merc, said it’s too early to determine the impact of MediaNews on the paper. The union just recently began new contract negotiations with the company, while the previous agreement, which expired in June, remains in place. Jackson said he didn’t believe the Merc’s Silicon Valley readers would tolerate any dramatic dip in quality coverage.
“We have a problem with the idea that you can cut your way to excellence,” Jackson said.
Just six years ago, after Reilly sued Hearst the first time to stop its purchase of the Chronicle and subsequent attempt to shut down the Examiner, trial testimony revealed that the Examiner had, in fact, abused its editorial power to advance its business interests. Examiner Publisher Tim White admitted in open court that he had traded favorable editorial coverage to then-mayor Willie Brown in exchange for his support of the Chronicle purchase.
Reilly lost that one — but for now this case is moving forward. The suit could be the last legal stand for people who still think it’s wrong for one person to dominate the news that an entire region of the country depends on — and at the very least will force the story of what really happened out into the open. SFBG
PS At press time, Judge Illston ordered the trial be put on the fast track and set a trial date for Feb. 26, 2007. See the Bruce blog at for more info.



I was out of town when Sue Bierman died Aug. 6, her car crashing into a Dumpster near her Haight Ashbury home, in the neighborhood she loved. I was out of cell phone range and had no real Internet access, and the papers in Upstate New York didn’t carry the story. So I didn’t learn until I got home that San Francisco had lost one of its most vibrant, funny, warm, and passionate political voices.
Bierman, a native of Fremont, Neb., arrived in San Francisco in 1950. She was part of the first generation of urban environmentalists and was there at the birth of a movement that would change American cities forever.
The city that Sue Bierman adopted as her home was still largely a human-scale metropolis, a town coming out of World War II with a mix of blue-collar industry, a thriving waterfront, and a diverse population.
Her tenure as an activist tracked almost perfectly with the postwar assault on San Francisco by greedy real estate developers, speculators, and politicians who carried their water. She was part of the infamous freeway revolt, the successful effort by Haight residents to block a new elevated freeway that would have soared over part of Golden Gate Park. She was an early member of the anti–high rise crew that realized how intensive downtown development was going to turn San Francisco into another Manhattan. And when the late mayor George Moscone appointed her to the Planning Commission, she was a lonely voice for sanity through 16 years of development madness.
I first met her in 1983 when I was a young reporter covering planning and she was the only member of the commission who would ever come out against any major high-rise project. Over and over, she lost 6–1 votes.
When she was elected supervisor in 1990, she was not only a staunch environmentalist and neighborhood advocate but one of the few on the board at the time who really understood public power: as she would constantly remind her colleagues, she came from a state where electricity could never be sold by private entities for private profit.
And through year after year of brutal defeats, she kept not only her spirit but her sense of humor — and her personal warmth. She had none of the bitter anger that a lot of us took from that era. In fact, even when I criticized her both in private and in print for her loyalty to Willie Brown, she remained a friend. She never once had a harsh word to say to me.
A part of San Francisco passed when she died.
In other news: Supervisor Bevan Dufty insists he hates negative politics and won’t attack other candidates. And yet, the following appeared in Matier and Ross on Aug. 20:
“The campaign is barely under way, and already the mud balls are being lobbed. In this case, it’s a 1995 news clip from the Chicago Tribune describing how [Dufty opponent Alix] Rosenthal, then a 22-year-old senior at Northwestern University, abruptly resigned as student body president rather than face an impeachment hearing over a campaign finance scandal.
“Her sin: Exceeding the campaign spending limit by $26.06.”
Well, somebody dredged that up and leaked it to the press. Anyone you know, Bevan? SFBG
A memorial service for Bierman is set for Sept. 3 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Delancey Street Foundation, 600 Embarcadero, San Francisco.

Discs, man


› a& SEPT. 5 Criss Angel, Criss Angel: Mindfreak (Koch) Tell us this recording by TV’s erect-nippled goth heat-throb and full-tilt-boogie cheesenheimer is only an illusion. Audioslave, Revelations (Epic) Their politics check out, though an unboring album will be a revelation. Beyoncé, B’Day (Music World Music/Sony Urban Music/Columbia) The result of a two-week break for artistic freedom, but a Clive Davis overseer might have helped — she sounds like a stressed-out laser on the leadoff single. Grizzly Bear, Yellow House (Warp) Inspired sounds with bite by Brooklyn DIYer Edward Droste, whose queerific perspective brings a burly new hue to his moniker. Iron Maiden, A Matter of Life and Death (Columbia) Count on the barbed Bruce Dickinson to come with confrontation on this wartime studio outing. The Rapture, Pieces of the People We Love (Strummer/Universal UK) Danger Mouse coproduces the new piece from dance punk ex–San Franciskies. Tony Joe White, Uncovered (Swamp/Sanctuary) The original blue-eyed soulster gives it another poke, accompanied by Eric Clapton and Michael “Yah Mo B There” McDonald. SEPT. 12 Basement Jaxx, Crazy Itch Radio (XL) Still all they’re jacked up to be? Black Keys, Magic Potion (Nonesuch) The rock duo ain’t dead. Merle Haggard, Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard (Capitol/EMI) Go back to the origins of the Bakersfield sound and travel through “Okie from Muskogee” all the way up to the anti–Iraq War present. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye (Domino) Whether you compare them to old New Order or current Booka Shade, their follow-up to 2004’s Last Exit is already garnering raves. Jordan Knight, Love Songs (Trans Continental/Element 1/EMI) Love Handles might be a better title, though at least Brigitte Nielsen isn’t a guest vocalist. Deborah Gibson does have a cameo. Mars Volta, Amputechture (Universal) Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez may bring it live, but can they pull off another concept album? Pigeon John, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party (Quannum Projects) He claims to be dating your sister. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive) He and Timbaland use Beastie Boys– or Mark E. Smith–like crackly megaphone vocal effects on the first single; the album title seems both very ’90s and very OutKast wannabe. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope) David Bowie and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino bake it up for the increasingly dance-pop Brooklynites. Xiu Xiu, The Air Force (5RC) An army of three hones a pop attack, with backup from producer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador) Fighting words and lengthy psych jams from the indie softniks. SEPT. 19 Clay Aiken, A Thousand Different Ways (RCA) The long wait for the Claymates is over. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Koch) They were twisting tongues long before Twista. Who’s your favorite: Layzie or Bizzy or Wish or Flesh or Krayzie? Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Then the Letting Go (Drag City) Does this title refer to shaving — or inhibitions? Chingy, Hoodstar (Slot-A-Lot/Capitol) I once saw a bunch of people at 16th and Mission dancing around a boom box blaring “Holiday Inn.” DJ Shadow, The Outsider (Universal) The North Bay’s Josh Davis comes out of the shadows, hepped to the hyph of guests Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk. But ditch that Urb stylist. Fergie, The Dutchess (Will.I.Am/A&M/Interscope) And you thought pop music couldn’t be more heinous than the Black Eyed Peas? The microwaved hollabacks of the atrocious “London Bridge” are here to prove you wrong. Hidden Cameras, Awoo (Arts & Crafts) Peekaboo, I see you. Kasabian, Empire (RCA) The band named after Linda Kasabian testify on their own behalf with a new album. Jesse McCartney, Right Where You Want Me (Hollywood) Past his TRL sell-by date? We shall see. Mos Def, Tru3 Magic (Geffen) Somewhere between his first solo album and his second, Mos Def started to act like he knew he was cute. Here’s hoping he thinks of music as his true love rather than a step on the road to Hollywood. Pere Ubu, Why I Hate Women (Smog Veil) But at least a few women still love Ubu. Misogyny evidently rules for the post-punk belligerents. Bobby Valentino, Special Occasion (Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam) Ludacris’s R&B man speeds up enough to record a sophomore album. Zutons, Tired of Hanging Around (Deltasonic) The Liverpool antsy-rockin’ roots trendoids try their luck on this side of the puddle. SEPT. 22 Thermals, The Body, the Blood, the Machine (Sub Pop) PPP (post-pop-punk) protesting a purely protestant panorama. SEPT. 26 Emily Haines, Knives Don’t Have Your Back (Last Gang) Unsheathe ’em? A Metric cutie ventures out alone. Janet Jackson, 20 Y.O. (Virgin) And acting it. Sean Lennon, Friendly Fire (Capitol) Son of John returns with help from Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda. Ludacris, Release Therapy (Disturbing Tha Peace) If the first single, “Money Maker,” is anything to go by, Luda better watch out, because he’s skating dangerously close to Hammer-like lame flossin’. Scissor Sisters, Ta-Dah (Universal) Good news: guest appearance by Bryan Ferry. Bad news: cameo by Elton John. Either way, there’s no justice when they are more popular than the Ark. Sparklehorse, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (Astralwerks) Get a stomachful of Tom Waits alongside sound-alike Mark Linkous. Mario Vazquez, Mario Vazquez (Arista) Question: What is better than a beauty-school dropout? Answer: An American Idol dropout — especially one who has been spotted at la Escuelita. He gets bonus points for having the cutest messed-up teeth. Wolf Eyes, Human Animal (Sub Pop) Bagging some inhuman noise. OCT. 3 Beck, The Information (Interscope) Nigel Godrich does the knob twist and fader jive on this new dispatch from “Loser” man. Tim Buckley, The Best of Tim Buckley (Rhino/Elektra) Further proof that “Song to the Siren” is eternal. Decemberists, The Crane Wife (Capitol) Colin Meloy is still finding inspiration in the most unexpected crannies: here, in a Japanese folk tale. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) Someone can’t help waving a flag. Jet, Shine On (Atlantic) Substitute “Music” for “Money” in the title of the first single, “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.” The Killers, Sam’s Town (Island) Bet they don’t bargain-shop at Sam’s Club. Gladys Knight, Before Me (Verve) Still sounding great while some of her contemporaries rasp and squawk, she covers legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone. Lady Sovereign, Public Warning (Def Jam) After “9 to 5” (not a Dolly Parton cover), she drops her debut. Will she hit it big or wind up MIA? Monica, The Makings of Me (J) Add a little bit of Twista, some T.I. for extra heat, a touch of Missy, and Dem Franchize Boys, and you’ve got the makings of a Monica album. Robin Thicke, The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Star Trak/Interscope) Move over, Jon B, and make way for the son of Alan Thicke. OCT. 10 Blood Brothers, Young Machetes (V2) Fugazi player Guy Picciotto and Sleater-Kinney producer John Goodmanson get Bloody. Melvins, A Senile Animal (Ipecac) We didn’t use the s-word first. Robert Pollard, Normal Happiness (Merge) Is there happiness after a decade-plus beer haze? Young Jeezy, The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102 (Def Jam) The Snowman has recorded 62 tracks for this opus. OCT. 17 Badly Drawn Boy, Born in the UK (XL/Astralwerks) Could BDB have a Broooce fixation? Diddy, Press Play (Bad Boy/Warner) If Danity Kane are anything to go by, it’s officially past time to press eject when it comes to Mr. Combs. Jeremy Enigk, World Waits (Lewis Hollow/Reincarnate/Sony BMG) One wonders how God figures in the latest by the Sunny Day Real Estate and Fire Theft chief. Fantasia, TBA (J) Following in the footsteps of greats such as Patty Duke and Joan Rivers, she recently starred in a TV movie about her own life. Fat Joe, Me Myself and I (Terror Squad) He’s big enough to refer to himself at least three different ways. Frankie J, Priceless (Columbia) Having even survived a cover of Extreme’s “More than Words,” the li’l guy returns to sing more sweet-verging-on-extremely-saccharine nothings. JoJo, The High Road (Blackground/Universal) The li’l pop dynamo and Xtina-to-be with Lindsay Lohan–like looks has sung for our current president, which seems more like visiting an inferno than taking the titular route. Nina Simone, Remixed and Reimagined (RCA/Legacy) More modern folks start fussing with Dr. Nina. Snoop Dogg, Blue Carpet Treatment (Doggystyle/Geffen) Stevie Wonder, the Game, and R. Kelly hop a soul plane. Squarepusher, Hello Everything (Warp) More spastic jazz-dappled emanations from Tom Jenkinson. OCT. 24 Brooke Hogan, Undiscovered (SoBe Entertainment/SMC) The daughter of Hulk Hogan puts all those dark-haired and dark-skinned girls in their place in her first video — after all, no one is more soulful than a putf8um blond. A surefire sign of the apocalypse or just another day in Bush-era pop culture? The Jam, Direction Reaction Creation (Polydor UK) Paul Weller and pals get the big box-set treatment they deserve. John Legend, Once Again (C) Ever heard “My Cherie Amour”? Apparently the billion people who bought the clumsy and far-more-prosaic “Ordinary People” haven’t. The Who, Endless Wire (Polydor) And then there were two. The first studio album since 1982 includes Greg Lake, partially filling in for the deceased John Entwistle, and Ringo spawn Zak Starkey, cospotting the late Keith Moon. OCT. 31 The Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (J) Famlay and friends return, but what will it be like now that the producer who hit it big with them — a certain Pharrell — is so over-overexposed? Barry Manilow, The Greatest Songs of the Sixties (Arista) Will he cover “Gimme Shelter”? The mind boggles. Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose (Virgin) Breathe easy — the legal tussle between the Loaf and Jim Steinman over the title phrase is through. Paul Wall, Get Money, Stay True (Atlantic) The Houston metal mouth gabs again. NOV. 7 The Game, The Doctor’s Advocate (Geffen) Not that Dre needs one, even if everyone and their moms wonder what the hell happened to the long-awaited and eventually cancelled Rehab. Lucinda Williams, The Knowing (Lost Highway) Bill Frisell and Dylan sidekick Tony Garnier guest on the latest disc by the proud princess of rasp. NOV. 14 Marques Houston, Veteran (T.U.G./Universal) No longer “Naked,” he returns for 106th and Park duty wearing his stripes. Maroon 5, TBA (Octone/J) You have been warned. Joanne Newsom, Ys (Drag City) The sprite of the harp, produced by pigfucker Steve Albini. DEC. 19 Akon, Konvicted (SRC/Universal) Will we want to shoot up or shoot ourselves when Eminem appears on Senegalese ex-“kon” Aliaune Thiam’s “Smack That”? SFBG