Beat the Press

Missing Details at Fifth & Mish
The San Francisco Chronicle is not one of the nation's more respected metropolitan newspapers. Two recent prominent stories in a single issue of the paper demonstrate why.

One of the things that separates a good newspaper from a bad one is the quality of its editing. Good writers as well as good readers lose when no one at a paper is there to prevent a writer from looking bad. Take the Matier and Ross front-page column Jan. 21 about a Bloomingdale's department store moving into the old Emporium digs on Market Street. The breathless account's first sentence referred to the project as a "Bloomingdale's flagship store." Well. In our dictionary, "flagship" is defined as "the finest, largest, or most important" of a group. The Chronicle loves a good flagship store: Its pages buzz with mentions of Gap, Levi's, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Macy's, and Eddie Bauer flagship stores in downtown. At the Chron, "flagship" sometimes means "larger than normal," or sometimes just "large." Even under these relaxed conditions, however, the word smelled wrong in this context. Bloomingdale's New York HQ provided some information. The proposed S.F. store will be about 300,000 square feet, roughly the size of other outlying Bloomie's in cities like Hackensack, N.J., and Newport Beach. But it remains a fraction of the size of the company's fabled true flagship store, the near-million-square-foot behemoth at 59th and Lexington in New York City. Call it the flagship of the flagships.

It gets worse: Later in the story, the pair discussed what incentive the city was offering Federated Department Stores, the large umbrella company that owns Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and other upscale department chains. The two quoted a source referring to a probable "tax increment financing" plan. They defined this term as an arrangement "in which profits from a project are used to help pay off construction bonds."

Well, no.
Bloomingdale's would get that sort of loan from a bank. Mayor Brown's plan will probably involve the city's sale of redevelopment revenue bonds, which would be retired from new taxes the improved Bloomingdale's site is supposed to generate. (It's called "tax increment" financing because there's a distinction made between the taxes the site produced before it was remade and the increased levies that are supposed to come from the newly developed one. For those with an expansive interest in the subject, see David Pasztor's feature this week, "The Redevelopment Sinkhole," on Page 13.)

Such arrangements, which a competent news editor should be familiar with, boil down to the city's targeting tax money to spur development.

This may or may not be good public policy, depending on whether one considers it vital to attract a large department store to Market Street. But the financing deal should be presented accurately by the local newspaper so residents can make up their own minds about it. At the very least, a newspaper shouldn't obscure the fact that public money may be going to aid a private company.

Phil Matier and Andrew Ross perform well in one of journalism's most demanding jobs: providing a news-filled daily newspaper column. Last Tuesday, their editors allowed them to look suspiciously like they were making things sound nice for an out-of-town business interest -- one that will inevitably generate a great deal of advertising for the Chronicle.

That recent Tuesday wasn't a good day for the Chron. The lead story announced a plan by Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel to use a "new technology" to increase Internet speeds by up to a factor of 30. Our interest was piqued by the story; we use the Internet a lot, and suffer as others do from limited modem speeds. We follow technology news casually, and were under the vague impression that things weren't going to get appreciably faster until, one way or another, a newer, higher-capacity system was set up, probably via cable modems.

So what was this miraculous new technology? The story didn't say. In the second graf, we were told that the new system "makes it possible to turn standard phone lines into superfast digital lines." This sounded alchemical, but was not elaborated upon. Later on, we were told that "the technology wasn't new," a contradiction of the lead -- but even then just what the now-venerable technology was wasn't vouchsafed.

The New York Times -- and the San Jose Mercury News, which published an embellished version of the Times article -- tried to make sense of the technology. The Times wrote that the key to the story was advances in electrical engineering. While current modem speed is limited to roughly 56,000 bits per second, the future holds phone-line data transmission at up to 8 million bits per second. That's an amazing fact, and one confirmed by the engineers we spoke with. The Mercury News added this bit of info: "[The technology] multiplies the capacity of copper phone wires by using frequencies higher than those used to carry conversations." This is true but confusing. A better way to have put it is that analog phone conversations use copper lines inefficiently. (They use but 4 kilohertz of bandwidth on a line capable of carrying 1 megahertz -- i.e., 250 times more.) The DSL (for "digital subscriber line") technology essentially splits the line into three, allowing for normal voice operation but also a massive "downstream" channel (to allow power downloading of video and such) and a smaller "upstream" one. It's a complex story, true. But the Times and the Merc made an effort to give people a sense of what's happening in the world; the attitude at the Chron seemed to be that we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads with details. Cynical readers will be forgiven for suspecting that the editors at the paper weren't worrying theirs, either.

Bill Wyman can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Beat the Press, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; or via e-mail at bwyman@sfweekly.com.

 
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