Lash Them With the On-Line!

The San Francisco Chronicle and its bastard JOA cousin, the Examiner, are dumping their daily contents in a joint site on the World Wide Web called the "The Gate" (http://www.sfgate.com), a venture that reflects the JOA's fear that newspapers have become so irrelevant that a violent media putsch in which interactive streams of electrons boiling out of our walls will soon incinerate all that is ink and pulp.

I have no doubt that the Fahrenheit 451 day will come. But until then -- and until the under-construction World Wide Web has flung its gossamer to the four winds, until the wired-by-its-COM-ports hive of humanity finally emits its cosmic buzz, until this technology elevates every proletarian to an Aristotle -- I have a few questions. Such as: Why do on-line users -- even the smart ones -- leave messages on the Net that are as moronic as anything you might overhear on a CB radio?

The smart on-line user I am referring to is Chronicle Executive Editor Matthew F. Wilson, who has filed more than a score of dorky messages to a variety of Gate "conferences," those call 'n' response on-line discussion groups. The Gate boasts a slew of conferences in which somebody starts a topic, say, "The Best Films I Ever Saw," posts a list, and then the many other somebodies with too much time on their hands reply with their lists.

The on-line world's great appeal is supposed to be its facility to sate the human instinct to communicate, although you'd think that editing a 500,000-circulation daily would provide the daily minimum communications requirements for a man like Wilson. You'd also think it would deter him from entering conference topics like "Things I simply cannot abide!" to comment that he can't stand "second-hand smoke" and "ANY loud licking by dogs between midnight and 7 a.m."

But there's more: Wilson's tips in the "San Francisco Restaurants" topic on how to get a seat at Vertigo and Postrio: "Saturday nights can be tough getting seated at a time you want, so be sure to reserve as far ahead as possible at a 'name' restaurant." Well, duh, Matt!

Then there's Wilson's contributions in other conferences. On Joe Montana: "Montana really was special. There was a simple grace with which he played the game. Never a motion wasted, just the elegant joy of a well-thrown spiral"; on the five discs currently in his CD player: "Stan Getz, Hildegard von Bingen, Dave Brubeck, Fred Astaire and Anonymous 4"; on his dozens and dozens of favorite movies (don't ask); on touristic things worth doing in San Francisco: "Visiting Golden Gate Park. ... Visiting Alcatraz. ... Riding a cable car. ..." More food wisdom: "Cilantro, I believe, also goes by the name 'coriander' ('cilantro' is Spanish) and 'Chinese parsley.' " I half expected to discover Wilson lurking in the "Dentistry" conference, advising all to floss after brushing.

Meanwhile, Wilson's Examiner counterpart, Mr. Balls a' Clanging Phil Bronstein, appears only intermittently on the Gate to claim credit for Examiner coverage of the Chronicle Publishing Co.'s boardroom squabbles. Yet the famed foreign correspondent (why don't we retroactively award him a Pulitzer -- the prize, not Roxanne -- and have done with it?) is no Wimpy Wilson when it comes to expressing forcefully his state of mind in cyberspace. Last year, after jawing at a bar with a spiritually lubricated Chronicle city editor Michael Yamamoto, Bronstein returned to the office to file Yamamoto's most personal confessions in his Examiner computer. Learning that you can't trust anybody, least of all your employees, Bronstein was humbled when his Yamamoto reflections were pilfered from the system and distributed inside and outside the paper. The now-infamous memo posed the question of what was sadder: Yamamoto's despair or Bronstein's compulsion to report it in his "diary."

Yet the reckless candor of A Man Like Bronstein can be salutary, as the great man demonstrated in a memo last week (May 30) and distributed (deliberately this time) to his troops. His topic was the Chronicle Page One series on the assessor's office, with Bronstein bellowing that his paper should have -- could have -- gotten the story but didn't.

"We found out about the Chronicle's look at the Assessor's office some weeks ago (and the signs and information that something might be wrong there had been evident for a long time before that)," Bronstein writes. "Appropriately, there was interest in seeing if we could bite off a piece of it, in that tradition.

"Apparently some people thought that was somehow beneath us. Somehow there was sentiment that we shouldn't be 'chasing' a Chronicle story, although the intent would have been to run something first.

"I want to be on record that such thinking does not belong at a metropolitan newspaper in a major market, and certainly not at a newspaper in one of the few remaining competitive markets in the country.

"There should be a passion for competing here, and trying to get the story before the competition. ...

"But I have to say I feel very strongly that people who aren't interested, as a matter of principle, in trying to get the story first -- even if we're starting from a ways behind -- should consider working at a place where there is the luxury of no competition.

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