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Unspun 

Wednesday, Jan 29 1997
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ANG Angst
Back in the 1950s, when computers were commonly referred to as "electronic brains," Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made a clever little comedy called Desk Set about automation run amok. She's the reference librarian for a large media firm. He's an electronic wiz hired by management to modernize the library. When the computer Tracy installs goes haywire (at one point spitting out pink slips to everyone in the company), Hepburn saves the day. Tracy and Hepburn fall in love, nobody gets fired, and everybody lives happily ever after.

In the real-life version, playing out now in the newsroom of the Oakland Tribune, three librarians lost their jobs by the end of last year to an electronic data retrieval system known as the Visitron. And while there's plenty of comic confusion as Trib reporters attempt to function with the Visitron's idiosyncrasies, it's hard to envision the happy ending for a paper that has come to symbolize a whole industry's struggle between quality journalism and the bottom line.

When the Alameda Newspaper Group purchased the Trib from a dying Bob Maynard in 1992 and added it to a string of four small dailies in the East Bay suburbs, that should have been a promising change. Theoretically, it gave the Trib the suburban advertising base it had always lacked. The ANG also wanted a modern library, and while hundreds of Trib staffers lost their jobs with the takeover, the librarians, headed by Steve Lavoie, were retained to automate and run it for the entire chain.

The ANG is owned by the Denver-based MediaNews Group, an outfit that charitably might be described as the Grim Reaper of the newspaper biz. The natural suspicion that would have attended any marriage between a suburban chain and an urban daily in a culturally diverse city like Oakland was only heightened by the series of ham-handed managerial moves that followed the ANG purchase. First came the gun ads in a newspaper that had once steadfastly refused to run them, then large-scale layoffs, then the steady firings or departures of minority reporters and columnists. Whether by insensitivity or design, the Trib's suburban-oriented managers seemed to be poking a thumb in Oakland's eye (see "Final Deadline," May 29, 1996).

As for modernizing the library, the signs were not auspicious. According to Lavoie, the contracts with commercial databases that had been providing the Trib on-line were canceled. The computer terminals that the ANG brought in lacked modems. In November of last year, Tim Graham, the Trib's editor, informed the newsroom staff that the library was being disbanded and replaced by the Visitron, a system that even he describes as "a work in progress."

Trib staffers note that there is but one Visitron terminal for a city staff of 12, plus 20 regional reporters. In its initial incarnation, the Visitron could not search for plurals or suffixes of words, nor could it retrieve stories by date. More disconcerting still, the crack team that had spent 18 months developing the system chose to index the front-page portions of stories separate from their continuations ("jumps," in newspaper jargon). That meant reporters using a rarely occurring key word to search for a particular story routinely ended up with only half of it. The technicians initially suggested that reporters could solve this problem by ensuring that the same key words appeared in both the top and the bottom of their stories, but they've since modified that indexing idiocy and corrected the glitches involving plurals and suffixes.

But the stories still don't show up in chronological order, still are not indexed by subject, and are running at least a month behind actual publication. Clipping stopped on Dec. 31, and, according to Graham, a news clerk will stay on to maintain the files that go back some 80 years.

UC's Haas of Cards
The Wall Street Journal launched its Wednesday California section last September. We welcomed it to the state, even though it stumbled badly when it initially tried to requisition the "California Journal" name that belongs to the small but respected Sacramento political monthly.

With a staff of six reporters and an editor/columnist, the Journal's "California" would have the luxury -- and challenge -- of being a second read: Plenty of space for the quirky and the unexpected, yet no easy rehashes of everyday events. It would also, we hoped, bring a fresh outsider's view of California.

Here in the Bay Area, the Journal made its first substantive delivery on those expectations in December with reporter Marc Lifsher's recent scoops about odd goings-on at UC's Haas School of Business. The dailies regularly devote yards of newsprint to whatever news UC wants to get out, but this time the Chron and the Ex were all but silent. Lifsher, and his editor, Rick Wartzman, were soon slammed by UC officialdom for doing their jobs.

"They're a pretty tough outfit to report on," Lifsher said from his office in Sacramento last week. "They're very used to getting their way with the media," he added.

And the story's not over yet.
On Dec. 11, Lifsher broke the news that Haas Dean William Hasler had been found to have violated the university's own rules by setting up an off-the-books bonus scheme for select members of the business faculty. Each of 35 teachers had averaged roughly $17,000 a year above their state salaries from the fall of '93 to the fall of '95. (Hasler did not benefit personally.)

The day after Lifsher's story ran, the Chron's higher-ed reporter, Pam Burdman, filed a perfunctory version of her own. Typical of the upbeat spin she put on it, she closed with a statement from Hasler to the effect that he "hopes to turn the incident into a case study for future ethics classes."

On Jan. 8, Lifsher waded in deeper. He reported that tenure revocation proceedings had been started against Wallace Smith, a 70-year-old Haas professor of real estate, who had warned administrators over the course of several letters dating back two years about Hasler's pay arrangement and other irregularities he claimed to have uncovered at Haas. No other local newspaper has chosen to follow.

Officials fought hard to keep Lifsher from writing the second story. "They chuckled a lot, as if the professor were some kind of a nut case," he recalled. But Lifsher concluded that he was "not a Professor Irwin Corey type. He's pretty together." And Lifsher "kept coming back to the fact that [Smith] wrote those letters that turned out to be true."

When it became apparent that Lifsher wasn't going to back off, UC spokesman Jesus Mena said the university would be "very seriously upset." Publishing the story would result in "strong measures."

"I asked him if he was threatening me," Lifsher recalled. Mena then took the unusual step of going to Lifsher's superior, Wartzman, demanding the story be killed. According to Lifsher, Mena suggested to Wartzman that "I was a hothead and wouldn't listen to reason."

Mena, an eight-year veteran of the university's administration, admitted last week that the Wartzman call was an extreme measure. "It's the first time I've done that," he said, but added, "I really thought it was an unfair story."

Last week, Smith declined to comment, on his lawyers' recommendation. He did say he had contacted reporters at the Chron and the West County Times before his attorney-advised clampdown. But no locally generated reports have appeared. The Ex ran a truncated version of Lifsher's story, leaving off his painstakingly balanced inclusion of Mena's and other officials' denials.

The Chron's Burdman said she was aware of Smith's situation before Lifsher's story appeared, but didn't feel that she had enough information to give it the treatment it deserved. She said no one from UC sought to discourage her from following it and that she intended to write something eventually. "A professor losing tenure is rare enough to merit looking into," she said.

In the best light, university administrators and the dean of one of the highest-profile schools on campus suffered a profound breakdown in communications. In the worst, ethical rules were broken, and a person who pointed out the misdeeds was punished unfairly.

Either way, it looks like it will be a long while before the local dailies sort it out.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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