Two months after that blowup and counting, the coverage is now all but exclusively focused on image. Stories are pegged to staged events, and given prominent play despite their extremely thin, if not nonexistent, news value:

* The Ex devotes a sizable chunk of front-page space to report on a press conference in which the city's labor groups say they endorse the stadium bond. The 49ers promised the unions all the construction jobs for the project. It would have been news if the unions hadn't endorsed the stadium.

* Both the Chron and the Ex gave prominent play to a 49ers press conference announcing the team's "decision" to offer domestic-partner benefits to employees. City law requires it to. Only if the 49ers had balked would news have occurred.

* And John King managed to make the front page of the Bay Area section with a press-release story about the 49ers' promotional junket to a mall in Ontario, Calif., that's supposedly the model for what the 49ers intend to build at Candlestick, in conjunction with the stadium.

That set off a real scramble, according to 49ers flack Colbruno.
"They've [the media] been so competitive," he said last Friday, with considerable satisfaction.

It's understandable that Colbruno sounded pleased. He'd just scored a rare one-two punch. Flattering Page One stories about the Ontario mall ran in successive editions of the Ex and the Chron. And that was the day before the junket. The papers were in such a competitive rush, he reported, they flew their reporters down early.

The Chron's version, which ran Friday morning, had the truly over-the-top headline, "The Disneyland of Malls." Both stories gave the shopping center a lavishly illustrated spread -- oh, the multiplex movie theaters, the "designer clothes" outlets, the food courts, the parking, the advertisers who will fill the pages of the papers. (OK, they didn't go quite that far.)

And all this front-page "news" space for a mall that might be something like a mall that might be built here -- if taxpayers pony up $100 million.

"Everybody wanted to beat everyone else to the story," Colbruno said. "If one of them knows the other one's doing something, they want to get it first."

The old journalistic cliche is thus turned into a weapon for civic boosters: Get the story first, and with the right PR.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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