Two Cents Too Much

Taking an example from the Chron's random-crank database

As starving artists' paintings are to Motel 6 rooms, "man-on-the-street" features are to newspapers — that is, their cliched way of punching up bleak tableaux.

Yet I've nonetheless loved these rows of random mug shots and useless opinions. Not from a reader's standpoint, mind you: Who really cares what local systems analysts think of Hamas? Rather, my fondness comes from first-newspaper-job memories of interviewing random cranks about stories they hadn't read.

"I had to do it because I was low man on the totem pole," says Mark Pynes, director of photography at the Harrisburg, Pa., Patriot News, and my 1990 man-on-the-street teammate at the Sacramento Union. "And that's why you had to do it, too."

That was because the seasoned Union journalists fancied it more worthwhile to find interesting, exclusive stories and write them well.

Newspaper higher-ups have long known better, however, and nowhere more so than at man-on-the-street industry leader the San Francisco Chronicle.That paper has created a random-crank computer database code-named "Two Cents," containing thousands of names, mug shots, phone numbers, and bits of personal information, allowing the paper to run man-on-the-street features without having to look for new subjects on the actual street.

This catalog allows the paper to automate boilerplate "humanized" statistics stories, in which new information about, say, house prices, is topped with an anecdote about a person with a house. By entering required characteristics into the database and retrieving a corresponding human being, a reporter can churn out twice as many of these gems per hour.

Now Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein has caused man-on-the-street technology to take a Great Leap Forward, as he nudges random cranks toward a possible newsroom takeover, according to a staff memo issued earlier this month.

A Two Cents regular named Carl Becker — who last week was featured in the column saying he believes felons should be able to vote — got the task of marking up the paper with critiques and advice to the staff, with the results posted along with Becker's photograph outside Bronstein's door.

"Staff members — an already demoralized lot — are joking about getting T-shirts made saying 'What Would Carl Do?'" an informant writes.

As close readers of U.S. journalism know, the Chronicle has nothing on SF Weekly. In this week's issue we employ our own random-crank database in hopes of making our publication even reader-friendlier than the man-on-the-street-run Chron.

Like our crosstown rival, we are convinced that the key to newspapers' survival is not to discard old news-business shibboleths such as man-on-the-street and humanized stat stories, but to computerize them. We subscribe to all the hype surrounding "citizen journalism" — the idea that men- and women-on-the-street are willing and able to stop what they're doing and create a great news product. We believe this even though that concept's national standard-bearer, Dan Gillmor, abandoned his failed citizen journalism project this summer. We believe The Onion's parodies of news-business cliches are unfunny and wrong, and that readers have an appetite for earnest versions thereof. We believe this because, well, that's what our bigger and older rivals at the Chron seem to believe.

"While I'm not a proponent of a reader-edited paper, I do believe strongly that we can learn much more from our readers (and potential readers) as we do our jobs every day," wrote Bronstein in a Nov. 6 newsroom memo. "One Two Cents volunteer, Carl Becker, recently offered to go through an entire week of Chronicles and critique every section, almost every page, including advertising. Carl is a reader with some interests typical of our overall readership and some not. But he did stop his subscription to the paper and then re-subscribed. He's a constituent, one who cares enough to provide this kind of detailed commentary."

Becker was extra qualified to critique the paper because he was a passionate reader, having cancelled then renewed his Chronicle subscription. He explains his criticism method thusly, according to Bronstein's memo:

"I wound up commenting not only on 'what works' for me and 'what doesn't work,' but also thoughts on layout, photographic/graphic choices, plus HOW I go about reading a newspaper, where the eye goes, what I read thoroughly, what I don't, and in what order."

According to Bronstein, Becker "hates 'feature' stories played on A-1, for instance, and wants 'hard news' of the kind most people are getting faster and more often these days from the Web. He doesn't like big photos much, though he likes our photographers; he thinks big headlines are 'sensationalism.'"

SF Weekly also has a random-crank database.

It consists of a folder of letters from our most passionate readers. Most of them are single-spaced, written by hand or on a typewriter. They tend to run for many pages, and to be decorated with pictures, arrows, and lots of emphatic underlining. Often this particular type of reader believes he is being persecuted as the result of a conspiracy. For some reason, papers like ours enjoy lots of correspondents like these.

Among the most dedicated is John Ratliff. During the past year he's faxed us 15 or so multi-page, single-spaced missives — composed on an old-fashioned typewriter — from an S.F. copy shop.

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