Unspun

Merc Stages Shootout in Gulch
A little more than a year ago, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the San Francisco Examiner was about to fold. The Ex is still alive, though barely, with a weekday circulation of roughly 60,000 in the city. Last week, the Merc launched an invasion of that city stronghold. The Merc is "Now in the Gulch."

That's the tag line of new Mercury News ads that appeared on a smattering of strategic billboards in SOMA last week. The billboard campaign is the most visible part of the Merc's first foray into San Francisco proper. Starting this week, Publisher Jay Harris promises, there will be more Merc newsboxes on the street and a stepped-up subscription drive for office delivery to workers in Multimedia Gulch and the Financial District. (Harris has no plans for home delivery.)

Hawkers wearing Merc T-shirts worked the morning rush at South Park, the popular Gulch caffeine/water hole on Monday, handing out free copies of the paper. The T-shirt slogan counseled passers-by to "upgrade" their reading materials by reading the Merc.

"Find out when your mailroom guy is about to go public," reads the message on the Merc billboard at Second and Folsom streets, in a somewhat dated reference to the once-hot initial stock offering market for Internet-related firms. In the corner of the sign is a rolled-up copy of a Merc above the logo "The Mercury News," stripped of its usual San Jose reference.

The timing of the campaign is exquisite, if coincidental. Examiner columnist Rob Morse laid into the Knight-Ridder-owned daily just last week with his own petulant observation of the one-year anniversary of the Merc story about the Ex's folding.

Morse apparently hadn't noticed the Folsom Street billboard, which is about a half-dozen blocks from the Ex's offices. Which is too bad, because even without the billboard's taunting, the Merc sent Morse into paroxysms of denunciation, a welcome departure from his habitual, tired monotone.

The Merc has a reputation, Morse wrote, for "printing made-up crap." The editors there are "sanctimonious, gutless goody-two-shoes, and they seem to prefer disguising hit pieces as news stories."

Harris claimed ignorance when asked about the Morse attack last week. The timing of the Multimedia Gulch effort was pure coincidence, he says.

Harris says he hears "significant" numbers of complaints from readers who work in San Francisco, but who don't live on the Peninsula or in the South Bay and therefore can't easily read the Merc's extensive technology and business writing. Harris declined to say specifically how many new readers he hoped to pick up through the expansion effort downtown and South of Market. "We don't have a big presence there now, and frankly I'm not looking for growth in the thousands," he said. The Merc's weekday circulation is 280,000.

The Merc smothers the high-tech beat and routinely whips the Chronicle and the Examiner there, in both print and electronic versions. Each day, the Merc reports on technology from a personal point of view and from the business side. The Good Morning Silicon Valley feature, which runs in the paper and on the Website, starts its electronic day at 1 a.m. in a section called "first light."

One recent example: Last week, Good Morning Silicon Valley carried a report on a bitter falling out between the founders of Whole Earth Networks, home to the Well, Whole Earth Catalog guru Stewart Brand's Sausalito on-line service-cum-discussion group, which has an avid following among the more intellectually pretentious Websters. GMSV also revealed significant layoffs at Howard Rheingold's Electric Minds, the highly touted company that Rheingold -- of Virtual Community fame -- hopes will spawn a network of bona fide communities out of human interactions in cyberspace.

As of Tuesday, there was scant mention of either development in the S.F. dailies, with the Chron running a brief story on the Whole Earth dust-up that day.

The Merc won't be adding any S.F. coverage, Harris says. And it won't be producing any S.F.-specific editions. The paper will just beef up its presence in the Financial District and SOMA, small but demographically desirable slices of the city.

The move comes as the Merc's sister operation in the East Bay, Contra Costa Newspapers Inc., has also launched a strike against the Chron/Ex combine. Contra Costa has redesigned and repositioned five daily papers (circulation 194,000), combining them into one paper on Sundays in an aggressive bid to dominate the East Bay growth market, even as the Chron's circulation beyond the bay stagnates, and the Ex -- and Morse -- grow increasingly irrelevant.

 
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