Dog Bites

Fangxaminer Watch continues; dot-com failures and the economy

I Left My Heart in ... Uh, How Do You Spell That Again?

For a while there we thought it might be kindest to avoid mentioning the Fangxaminer at all. One prefers not to acquire a reputation for cruelty to the truly pathetic.

But that was before Wednesday's paper, which Dog Bites chanced to pick up on the way to the nail salon. Under the stupefying influence of acetone we sat reading the same sentence over and over until it gradually sank in that the paper had managed to misspell San Francisco in its masthead. "Keeping San Francsico a two newspaper town," read the F-Ex's motto; we were so stunned we practically dropped the entire eight-page news section into the little pedicure foot bath thingy. Then again, it isthe Fangxaminer, and to more or less paraphrase Dorothy Parker, if it slips into the foot bath -- well, it slips into the foot bath.

Polished, happy, and back at the office, we received e-mail from a person named Toby: "Hey Dog Bites, we were wondering: Why don't you apply for a position with Fang-Ex? Maybe you can get a big-wig position and help turn it into a coherent and legible paper."

Well, Toby, thanks for thinking of us, but if we went to work for the Fangxaminer we'd be terrified someone would push us down the stairs or poison our tea or ... oh, God. Of course, the Fangxaminer's staff box has been looking decidedly empty of late. With the departure of Editorial Page Editor Susan Herbert, the firing of Executive Editor Marty Steffens, and the apparent (see below) firing of Managing Editor Robert Porterfield, it had begun to seem that everyone was just kind of ... evaporating, with the notable exception of Warren Hinckle.

But on Thursday, Porterfield's name inexplicably returned to the staff box. Oddly enough, Dog Bites has a certain amount of trouble actually getting anyone at the F-Ex to speak with us; after hitting various dead ends in the voice-mail system -- which still insists that there is no David Burgin at the paper, even though he was quite publicly hired as the paper's top editor a couple of weeks ago -- we finally reached Operations Manager Chiron Alston, who, when asked about published evidence of Porterfield's return, replied with venomous sarcasm, "Jeez, you know, I have no idea about any of that."

Don't shoot -- we're only the messenger.

So by popular demand Dog Bites is reinstating Fangxaminer Watch, except this version of the Watch only extends through last Friday because we went away for a few days over Christmas to eat panforte and sunbathe, and someone who thinks he is an editor or something made us turn the column in early in consequence. (Damn Mecklin! Damn him!)

Monday, December 18

Paper misspells Secretary of State appointee Condoleezza Rice's name in front-page banner head: "A Day for Jerry and Condaleezza"

Sports section deck that surprised us: "Chiefs suprise Broncos, brighten playoff picture"

Lifestyle section head: "Italian Kennedys: Candidate's wife visible as he"

Tuesday, December 19

Front section head: "Wrestler uses braun to save truck driver." Gosh, you'd think the jaws of life would have worked better than an electric shaver.

Front section head: "Relgious agreement"

Wednesday, December 20

New high point: Paper spells San Francisco "San Francsico" in masthead.

Paper misspells Mario Lemieux's name in sports section head: "The "natural' talent of Lemiux will need training this time around"

Oddball front-page head: "Internet accused of art theft." Damn the Internet! Damn it!

Thursday, December 21

Cliffhanger arts section head: "Guitarist for 10,000 Maniacs dies from"

Mysterious reappearance of former Managing Editor Robert Porterfield's name in both staff boxes.

Front section head: "Court withdraws Perot's indictment" -- runs over story about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Dog Bites was unable to reach Ross Perot, though his executive assistant commented, "Oh my go-osh."

Friday, December 22

Front section head: "Berkeley convicts restuarant owner before trial"

Brand-new sports section columns: "College Asketball Eo Gacgb" and "Bortf Brapff." C'mon, kids, get out those pencils -- it's word jumble time!

The Post- Christmas Letdown

Waiting for a friend outside Infusion one night last week Dog Bites contemplated the gentle skies of midwinter San Francisco and the subdued bar scene of the SOMA block; only two or three months ago both our rendezvous point and the adjacent 21st Amendment were usually jammed and raucous. As a few patrons drifted outside to make cell phone calls and wait for cabs, one guy approached us to ask if our date were late. (N.B.: We've heard this one before, but by all means, go with it -- it's pleasantly low-key.)

Anyway, the conversation turned from dates to dot-coms, and our interlocutor nodded toward the lit windows of the restaurant. "There aren't many dot-commers left," he observed. "At least, not very many employed dot-commers."

In the past couple of weeks, of course, local companies including Organic Online, Bigstep.com, and Salon.com have laid off a total of about 600 workers; the pessimist in Dog Bites must wonder how the first quarter of 2001 is going to look.

Received wisdom -- as featured in the pages of the still-moderately-bullish Fast Company, et al. -- has it that the laid-off dot-com workers will be snatched up by other, more successful companies, that what appears to the non-tech-savvy to be the beginnings of a full-on sector collapse is merely economic Darwinism at work, culling the weak and sickly. The big fish eat the little fish. Don't panic, ignorant laypeople; it's just the marketplace asserting that consumers only need one site at which to buy Science Diet online -- but that site will be so monstrously successful that it will employ everyone anyway.

Yeah, talk to the sock puppet. The sock puppet cares.

Looking for a little more anecdotal evidence, we asked John Doffing, president of StartUpAgent.com -- which specializes in recruiting tech industry workers -- exactly how bad things are. "Last week we received over 1,000 unsolicited résumés from really, really talented people who worked for companies that don't exist anymore," he answered.

Still, in Doffing's view, most of those companies should never have existed in the first place. "It was almost like a reality distortion field mixed in with a big Ponzi scheme," he said. "There just was so much money out there that a bunch of really dumb companies got funded -- the Gazoontites of the world. I mean, selling hypoallergenic pillows online and raising $30 million [in venture capital]?"

In fact, he believes the shakeup will be good for San Francisco's soul. "I've sat at dinner parties where everyone's a millionaire and complaining about how expensive it is here," he said. "All of the making the dot-coms into the enemy -- there was some truth to that. Definitely there was this get-rich-quick culture that was disconcerting."

Doffing did note, though, that not all the laid-off workers will be reabsorbed by other companies. "There's a lot of people out there who will have trouble finding the same kinds of positions as they had before," he said.

Helmar Sowick, president of Oakland-based Mac People, said much the same thing. "I just feel bad for a lot of young people who made a lot of money and got a false impression of what the job market is long term," he told us. "It's going to be tough for them because it's going to be a lifestyle change."

Sowick predicts some recent Bay Area arrivals may soon be packing their U-Hauls. "There are some people -- the lower half are going to have to look elsewhere," he said. "People are going to have to be more rational. There was a lot of inappropriate arrogance. [Former dot-com employees are] going to find a little humility is going to be necessary, a little perspective."

Often, of course, when an industry is in trouble, it looks to local government for breaks of various kinds -- but Dog Bites suspects many high-tech firms have already burned through nearly as much political capital as they have venture capital. After all, just two weeks ago San Francisco voters elected an almost entirely new Board of Supervisors; many of its members-elect ran on platforms that couldn't exactly be called dot-com development friendly.

"We made some poor policy decisions with regard to planning," said Sophie Maxwell, District 10's new supervisor. Like several of the other new board members, she believes citywide planning policy is due for review, and that the city shouldn't have a different set of rules for dot-coms. "If somebody turns a live-work loft into an office there ought to be a procedure for them to pay the fees they ought to pay," she said.

District-next-door Supervisor-elect Chris Daly noted, "Over at 17th and Bryant, you had that executive who was bragging about avoiding development fees. That kind of thing is not OK just because we might be going into a recession."

And on election night, District 11 Supervisor-elect Gerardo Sandoval made a similar point when we dropped by his victory party. "We need to take a look at all the land-use decisions that have been made," he said. "There're a lot of different forms of corporate welfare."

Meanwhile, the new boss is the same as the old boss over at the Planning Commission, which has just approved the Mission District's largest-ever office -- oops, we mean live-work -- development, to be built at the corner of 16th and Alabama. But we have to wonder whether, now that commercial rents are falling and high-tech start-ups are failing, we might be treated to the novel spectacle of people actually living in live-work lofts.

"I would say that from what I know of the people of the new board, they have very articulate positions on smart growth and slow growth," said Board President Tom Ammiano. "I think it would be safe to say that under the new board, the chances of office space becoming a priority the way it was under the previous board -- no, that ain't going to happen."

Besides, the New Economy doesn't look nearly as invincible as it did a few months ago. "The idea seemed to be that we were moving toward this high-tech or dot-com economy as the sole source for economic development," said Daly. "But you talk to someone in investing, and they'll tell you you need diversification."

"Generically I think the development issue is what this is all about," said Ammiano. "The [dot-com] industry as a whole took advantage of the administration's willingness to be so effusive. I don't think the new board is going to be so willing to say, "Here, take the whole store.'"

Hi Mom

Finally, Mecklin (Damn him!) wants us to make this special announcement: Dog Bites will be appearing on NBC's Today show this week, probably either Wednesday or Thursday, in a segment (turns out that's TV lingo for "item"!) about the, um, troubled Fangxaminer. This will be our first-ever television appearance, so try not to judge too harshly. And if we don't see you before then, happy New Year.

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