Seven Days

More Anthrax, Less Oakland; Fewer Candidates, Tougher Competition; Less Politics, More Drinking

Bay Area in brief:

There’s a newspaper industry truism that the single most important thing about the paper is to get it on people’s doorsteps by 6:30 in the morning. The San Francisco Chronicle recently took that advice to heart when it sacrificed its zoned local news for the sake of timely early morning delivery. Now, instead of receiving one of five local sections geared toward specific circulation areas, everyone gets the same section called “Bay Area and California.”

For East Bay residents, it might as well be called “Bay Area in Brief” because that’s the only kind of appearance this side of the bay tends to make in the pages these days. The paper has lost a local local news section in favor of statewide news and often-incongruous dispatches about goose farming in Monterey and laptops in Palo Alto. San Francisco coverage dominates, of course, including pieces of such little East Bay relevance as the state of Turk Street. Okay, so there was coverage of the Berkeley boycott and the gargantuan flag on the side of an Emeryville office building. But beyond the war at home, pickings these days are decidedly slim.

The sections disappeared after September 11, when the Chron used pages usually reserved for local news to provide expanded coverage on the terrorist attacks. But Executive Editor Phil Bronstein says the war has nothing to do with the loss of local coverage. Instead, changing the plates on the presses to print the different sections — a challenge managed by major dailies all across the nation — proved inefficient and hindered delivery, he says. The paper already was discussing consolidating its local news before September 11; the attacks, he says, just moved up the timeline for the change.

Besides, Bronstein says, the role of the Chron is not to record every town council meeting, but to provide regional news. “In fact, it was always more of a Bay Area section,” he says. “While it was called different things — Peninsula, North Bay, East Bay, Contra Costa — the sections really didn’t provide materials from that particular zone. Sometimes you’d get an East Bay section that would have, as a centerpiece, a San Francisco story and a Marin story in the upper right-hand column.”

In other words, dear reader, you never had a local news section, just regional news disguised as local stuff. Hmm, could have fooled us. And Oakland Tribune editor Mario Dianda says his staff noticed the change, too. “We think it helps us because our niche is really local and it allows us to continue showing the news that we can do,” he says. “The Chronicle has done a good job and I understand they’re being more selective in the stories they’re choosing.”

The Chron started zoning its local news in 1997. Bronstein says he doesn’t know why; but one staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, says the paper was trying to compete with Knight Ridder, which owns the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, and its thriving west county edition, the West County Times. “It was a defensive strategy, to keep the franchise going and protect it from Knight Ridder in the suburbs,” the staffer says. Indeed, the Chron has much to protect. Roughly eighty percent of its circulation (515,000) lies outside of San Francisco.

Bronstein emphasizes that the bureaus remain intact. And the hyper-local Friday community sections continue to be localized since they are printed in advance. But with the same number of reporters and fewer total pages, columnists such as Chip Johnson appear less often. However, reporters don’t need to worry about layoffs or stepping on each other’s toes, Bronstein says.

Of course, layoffs aren’t allowed anyway, due to the agreement that led to the Chron‘s absorption of the staff of the old San Francisco Examiner. “The way it was phrased, no one would lose their job as a result of the merger,” says Carl Hall, a Chronicle science reporter, and president of the newspaper guild. “There’s been a lot of nervousness about what that really means. If they laid off anybody now, it would, in my view, be a result of the merger.”

And given the industry-wide plunge in ad revenues, that doesn’t leave the Chron many ways to save money. But Bronstein is adamant that the changes are all about quality. “The idea that we’re abandoning local coverage is certainly not the case at all,” he says. “If anything, we’re going to have more regional coverage.”

Charles in charge:

With Jane Brunner gerrymandered out of the 14th Assembly District race, new chick on the block Loni Hancock is now the campaign’s insta-frontrunner, right? Well, political handicappers don’t seem so sure. Underdog candidate Charles Ramsey has been campaigning since long before Hancock rediscovered her dedication to public service, which she shelved while globetrotting across Europe with hubby Tom Bates this summer. Thus far, Ramsey boasts a $155,000 war chest. At first blush, that amount might not seem so boast-worthy considering Hancock reported depositing $105,660 into her account after only a couple of days of dialing for dollars. But Hancock padded her financial résumé by loaning herself $67,000; Ramsey, a West Contra Costa County school board member, notes that all his dough has come from other folks. Most impressive, Ramsey’s got the backing of organized labor including the SEIU locals and the Contra Costa Central Labor Council. “He can win it,” predicts Labor Council chief John Dalrymple. “We’re going to put considerable resources into his campaign.”

A real wild card in this race will be, well, race. Hancock is white. Ramsey is black. The recent redrawing of the district would seem to hurt Ramsey on paper. The percentage of African Americans in the 14th district dropped 8.25 percent after lawmakers put away their Crayolas (down to a total of 14 percent of the overall district). But the number of African Americans in the Legislature has dwindled to five and the depleted Legislative Black Caucus desperately needs viable candidates. Historically, the Black Caucus hasn’t been afraid to back one of its own in Democratic primaries where the demographics don’t bode well on paper. Two years ago, black lawmakers and their PACs gave nearly $70,000 to San Jose Assembly wannabe Tony West in his failed bid against Manny Diaz — even though less than five percent of San Jose’s population is African American. But this election cycle features a couple of complicating factors. One is Prop. 34, the campaign finance law that will limit the ability of black legislative leaders to write big checks to Ramsey. The other is Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), the caucus secretary whom insiders consider the frontrunner to become next Speaker of the Assembly. Though the caucus has endorsed Ramsey, Wesson personally has remained, technically speaking, neutral. Why? Because he doesn’t want to piss off people in his own party on his way to the Speaker’s throne by taking sides between two well-regarded Dems. For now, Ramsey’s consultant, Phil Giarizzo, says he’s not counting on the caucus to fatten his client’s bankroll.

Happy Halloween, ASUC!

The UC Berkeley student senate was treated to a special show last Wednesday, when ASUC Senator Noah Kagan arrived drunk and angry. According to Senator Han Hong, the Senate was voting on a minor expenditure when Kagan started shouting obscenities and banging the table. It soon became clear that Kagan was soused to the gills and ready to party! “Yes, he was drunk,” Hong says. “He was a belligerent drunk, rather hostile. He’s usually very vocal on the floor in the first place, and the alcohol made it worse. The chair had to threaten to throw him out several times. Fortunately, it was Halloween, and we didn’t have a lot of students in the chambers.”

According to a report in the Daily Californian, Kagan got unhinged when the Senate allocated $895 for an upcoming conference — and started shouting, “This is bullshit. You are all bullshit!” When chair Justin Christensen gaveled for silence, Kagan did his best Nikita Krushchev impersonation, pounding the table with his fists and shouting, “Hit the fucking gavel!” Christensen had to threaten to boot Kagan back to wherever he got his drink on. Kagan first acknowledged to a Daily Cal reporter that he was loaded, but claimed the next day that he was perfectly sober after all. Maybe he just doesn’t remember.

Can you jump after being pushed?

Ever since Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash announced that her tenure at the head of the radio network was at an end, KPFA staff and volunteers have been wondering: Did she jump or was she pushed? Now a report in last week’s Washington Post tells the whole story: She jumped, but only because new Pacifica chair Robert Farrell threatened to heave her off the roof.

“Wash … said yesterday that she quit her job last week after being asked to step down by … Farrell,” Post reporter Lisa Allen-Agostini wrote. “Wash said she was not fired because she’d already submitted her resignation from the independent, left-leaning network in late September, effective at year’s end. ‘I’m tired,’ said Wash.”

Aren’t we all.

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