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Dog Bites 

Fangxaminer editorial staff; City Hall press room office space

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
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Three Words: Deck Chairs. Titanic.

Things are looking a little weird at the Fangxaminer -- and we're not just referring to the paper's amateurish layout. Monday, Executive Editor Marty Steffens was canned after the paper had been publishing for just three weeks. She didn't return Dog Bites' call, so we couldn't get her side of the story, but her replacement is, uh, legendarily temperamental editor Dave Burgin -- who spent seven months as editor of the Hearst-owned Examiner back in 1985-86.

Even more interesting than Burgin's newsroom reputation may be his close association with Dean Singleton, president and CEO of MediaNews Group, which owns the Oakland Tribune (Burgin was editor there until 1996), the Tri-Valley Herald, the San Mateo County Times, and the Marin Independent-Journal, among other regional California papers, and a number of papers across the country.

Burgin and Singleton have been friends for decades. Burgin became editor of the Dallas Times Herald when Singleton bought that paper; a short while later, Singleton bought the Houston Post and made Burgin editor there.

So Dog Bites, who wakes at 3 a.m. to obsess about exactly this kind of thing, wonders whether Burgin's move might be a precursor to a possible MediaNews buyout of ExIn Inc., publisher of the Fangxaminer; after all, in this business it's all about those regional ad rates.

Meanwhile, the Fangxaminer is also losing longtime Fang loyalist and Editorial Page Editor Susan Herbert. "It just wasn't a good fit," says Herbert, who had worked at the Independent.

We'd heard from other sources that Herbert decided to leave after clashing with Ted Fang over an article that ran on the editorial pages last Monday; Herbert vigorously denies this. "Huh-uh," she says. "That's not true at all."

Herbert says she isn't sure exactly when her official last day will be, but that she is looking forward to a break. "I'm going to take some time off and visit with my granddaughter," she says. "Then I'm going to come back, probably in some other capacity."

Of course, by then the paper may be a somewhat different place.

All I Want for Christmas

Braving the San Francisco Shopping Center and Union Square one evening last week, Dog Bites found ourselves being swept into the spirit of the season. It was hard not to be; the constant piped-in carols, the giant Christmas tree, the lights, the window displays, even the sign on the side of the building at 901 Mission styling the paper "The San New Francisco Chronicle" seemed to speak to an optimism that we may all be united -- if not by crippling consumer debt, then at least by the hollow promise of a fresh start in the new year.

However, after reading Lillian Ross' Phil Bronstein ride-along in The New Yorker last week, several disgruntled Chron reporters e-mailed us to complain they hadn't been offered the "free full-hour body massages" the magazine mentioned. The phrase as written became confused, and everyone seemed to think they had missed out on full-body massages, not the standard neck-and-shoulders variety that was on offer. Still, a free massage is a free massage, right? "And it wasn't because it was Thanksgiving," said Bronstein, when we called for clarification on this crucial issue. "It was because everybody had been going through hell for 18 months."

Come to think of it, Dog Bites could use a massage, too. We've been going through hell -- hell! -- just thinking about the way space in the City Hall press room ought to be allocated. The logistics are daunting; one of the personalities is even more so.

For those members of the -- well, we want to say hoi polloi, but we're afraid of starting another months-long grammar controversy marked with e-mails quoting Benjamin Disraeli -- so anyway, the common herd, who haven't had the opportunity to breathe its heady air, the press room is just that: a large room on the second floor of City Hall containing a conference table, some filing cabinets, several workstations, and a remarkably unstylish leather sofa. On Mondays, when the Board of Supervisors meets, the place is usually full of reporters; most of the rest of the time, you could probably nap away the afternoon on the sofa.

So we were kind of shocked to get a fax from PJ Johnston, the mayor's press secretary, which hinted that this quiet haven is disputed territory now that two new papers are appearing in San Francisco newsracks. "There is plenty of space in the press room to accommodate more reporters," Johnston wrote. "Even in the highly charged atmosphere of this new era for San Francisco newspapers, I trust the local media will be able to reach mutually acceptable arrangements for members of the working City Hall press."

Good Lord! we gasped. Highly charged? The press room? Well, actually, it's not the press room per se that's the battleground -- it's the six small, windowless, private offices that open off it. Hey, trust us, it's not like reporters usually get to impress people with their cars. Having your own office at City Hall, with the name of your news outlet stenciled on the door, means you're big time.

Not so coincidentally, after an extremely brief conversation with a representative of the Bank of America about an auto loan, Dog Bites called Johnston to ask who was demanding what, and whether they were going to get it.

Johnston said that part wasn't really up to him. "Traditionally the press room reporters work it out for themselves," he explained. "They don't have the Mayor's Office or City Hall stepping in."

At the moment, three of the offices are used by Chronicle reporters, one is occupied by KCBS's Barbara Taylor -- the semiofficial real estate allocator of the press room -- and two are vacant. "There have been other papers expressing interest, most notably the Mercury News, which is having a push for a stronger presence," said Johnston. "But they don't seem to have someone working here full time."

Well, not yet, anyway. "We definitely are trying to get in there," said Merc San Francisco Bureau Chief Robin Evans, adding that it will be interesting to see how amicably the space dispute can be settled. "This'll be a test to see how well we can get along," she said. "It seems like it's always been a war of words at the top, but on the ground the journalists are all friends and all know each other."

Meanwhile, the Fangxaminer has also been hoping to be assigned a private office, and according to Matt Isaacs, assistant metro editor of the F-Ex, someone from his paper could be arriving with a cardboard box full of office supplies any day now. "We've been offered [an office] by Barbara Taylor," he said.

So everyone should be -- well, if not happy, then more or less on the way to happiness, right?

Um, wrong.

"I think it's baloney," announced civic landmark and Bay Guardian Editor and Publisher Bruce Brugmann. "You've got Barbara Taylor and her friends at the JOA deciding for everyone. Everyone in there -- they're all part of the same inside City Hall institutional machine."

Brugmann is particularly annoyed at the moment because, with the absorption of the old Examiner's staff by the Hearst-owned Chronicle, the Chron has "commandeered" what he thinks is more than its fair share of space. "The Chronicle has three luxurious offices," he complained.

Could Brugmann be sensing a possible real estate vacuum now that the Ex and Chron staffs have merged -- and trying to move to fill it? "I think that's basically it," said Johnston, noting that the Guardian jefe seemed to be laboring under the delusion that office space is assigned "according to how blustery Brugmann could get with folks on the phone."

Even though the Guardian has been publishing a San Francisco-based newspaper longer than the Merc or the F-Ex, it's a weekly, and historically the press room's private offices have been reserved for reporters who file stories directly from City Hall every day. "It's not a status thing," said a somewhat-frustrated-sounding Johnston. "[The daily reporters'] computers are hooked up here. They work here every day. [The Guardian]'s reporter seems to be in here less than once a week."

As it happens, Brugmann's beefs with the press room go back years. "Bruce Brugmann made us put in a pay phone in the other press room," reminisced Chron City Hall reporter Rachel Gordon. "No one ever used it, except once he came in and used it."

"The pay phone may have come up," conceded Brugmann. "But our main point was that if you have a press room the allocation of space should be handled fairly."

Who gets to decide how fair is fair is something Brugmann would rather see thrown open to public discussion; other members of the press think this is unnecessary. "It never seems to occur to people in San Francisco that if instead of fighting they came in here and talked nicely to Barbara this could all be worked out," said Chron City Hall reporter Ed Epstein, who works out of one of the coveted private offices. "It's always, "It's a fight, it's a conspiracy, it's the end of the world, dig in your heels.'"

Brugmann, though, doesn't want to talk nicely to Barbara. "She refuses to hold a meeting," he claimed. "It's not just an issue of who gets what rooms -- it's a larger issue of a more friendly press room. As far as I'm concerned the press room is as unfriendly as it's ever been."

Honesty compelled us to observe that as far as we're concerned, everyone at the press room is extremely pleasant and welcoming.

"Well, that's because you're a nice-looking young lady and you prance around," said Brugmann.

Uhhh ....

Anyway, Dog Bites -- or, since it's almost Christmas, you can call us Prancer -- has decided to interrupt our busy schedule of obtaining personal validation by calling rival publishers and walking past construction sites in order to lobby for a private office of our very own. After all, the fact that we don't file stories from City Hall now is no reason to assume we wouldn't, if we could.

"I'd come over there to see you," promised the ever-gallant Brugmann.

Actually, wait. On second thought, we're fine right where we are.

About The Author

Laurel Wellman

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