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Dog Bites 

A Little Crazy

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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Last week, our favorite source at the Chronicle told us the Chron newsroom was abuzz with rumors that Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein had asked his staffers to indicate which positions they'd prefer when the sale of the Ex to the Fang family is completed, and the current staffs of the two daily papers merge into the Chron in November.

Dog Bites was all agog. "Bronstein isn't in any position -- believe me -- to make any of their wishes come true," said our source, who hails from Chronicle-land. "And to do it in a vacuum, without consultation with any department heads from this side or their side -- well, it's something we'll have to do all over again, anyway."

Of course, that was pretty intriguing. But then things really got interesting: One Ex reporter took Bronstein's request as an invitation to write a long memo expounding on all the reasons she should be given the "chief/senior" reporting job in her area -- over her opposite number at the Chron. Then she went on to detail her opinions of her colleagues at the Ex and her soon-to-be colleagues at the Chron: Examiner columnist Rob Morse is "not social enough" to replace Herb Caen, while Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia, she said, is "worthless and generally negative."

Had these opinions remained between the reporter in question and Bronstein -- well, but they didn't. Someone obtained a copy of the memo, that someone sent it to someone else, and pretty soon everyone in the two newsrooms had seen it. A parody version began to circulate, while the original document became a lightning rod for staffers' free-floating anxiety over the impending merger.

Julian Guthrie, the Examiner's education reporter and the author of the now-infamous memo, hasn't returned any of Dog Bites' numerous phone calls or replied to our e-mail; still, we want to congratulate her on having the, uh, courage -- that isn't quite the word we're looking for, but we're on deadline, so it'll have to do -- the courage to stick her head up, and get it blown off.

Bronstein told us he'd solicited feedback from his staff on assignment preferences because, under the terms of the sale agreement, he is the only person at the Ex officially allowed to speak to his counterparts at the Chron. "We'd had a lot of staff meetings, and I'd asked people to tell me their thoughts about what makes a great paper," he said. "I simply wanted the Examiner people to feel that they at least could be heard by the one person who is authorized to speak on their behalf."

Reporters and columnists at the two papers are quite naturally already jockeying for their preferred positions and beats. After all, how many, say, film critics does one newspaper really require? "There's been over a year of this stuff," one Chron source said, referring to the lengthy, court-battle-complicated process of selling the afternoon Examiner. Most of the Ex's current staffers will join the Chron, where they have been guaranteed jobs, when the widely disliked Fang family assumes control of the Ex. "The one-on-one competition for jobs is going to give rise to a lot of anxiety."

Anxiety, hell! Backstabbing is more like it. "First off, I'd like to say that I want to be the chief/senior education reporter at the Chronicle," read Guthrie's opening salvo. "I'm not interested in joint bylines. I'm not interested in collaborating on investigative pieces or longer-term projects. If a story is breaking, and I haven't heard about it, I'd jump in and share that story. However, any story that I come up with is mine. I am fiercely competitive ... I want to win a Pulitzer Prize."

Yikes! We're backing off! "I realize that I don't have the seniority of say, [Chronicle education reporter] Nanette Asimov, who's been trying to cover education for two decades," Guthrie continued. "I have been covering education since 1996. By most accounts, I have dominated the beat."

Dog Bites, who has been covering, well, Dog Bites, since 1997, and by most accounts is dominating the beat, is awestruck. In fact, it belatedly occurs to us that, if only we'd put the same level of effort into scheming for career advancement as we have put into, say, organizing our shoe wardrobe, we could be running this place -- John Mecklin who? -- by now. Of course, we'd have to be subtle about it, perhaps taking as our inspiration Guthrie's tactics: "I would propose that Asimov be named a columnist on education and I be the main reporter. (That way, she doesn't feel slighted ...)," Guthrie suggested.

Her other proposals included being sent to "learn about education in remote parts of Africa, Egypt, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Far East. This could be an incredible project. Actually, it's worthy of a Pulitzer Prize."

Then there's the small matter of seating preferences. Guthrie, a former girlfriend of Willie Brown who, while senior editor of Frisko magazine, was described by the Chron's Ruthe Stein as San Francisco's "It" girl, has a lot of them. Preferences, that is. "I don't want to sit next to another education reporter," she wrote. "I don't want to be anywhere near Ruthe Stein or (you knew this already) Cynthia. I'd love to stay near Jane ...."

Reached in the Chron newsroom, where she still has a desk -- for now! -- Asimov claimed to be nonplussed by Guthrie's attempted power-grab. "I really have no idea what goes on in her mind," said Asimov. "I think we at the Chronicle take a very different approach. I'm actually looking forward to working with all the reporters when the staffs merge in November."

Chron news columnist Ken Garcia, whom Dog Bites admits to having mocked on more than one occasion -- though we were only trying to get attention, and we never called him "worthless" -- was far less conciliatory. "While I don't really feel worthy to reply, I must say that Ms. Guthrie has a rather unique way of embracing her new colleagues, since she got her job at the Examiner by crossing the picket line while the rest of us undeserving editorial slobs at the Chronicle and the Ex were on strike in 1994," he e-mailed us. "Still, assuming that we can find an appropriate place for her to sit at the new Chronicle, I'm sure we will welcome her with open arms and will look forward to having her share some of the tips that have helped make her such a (self-)acknowledged journalistic prize."

Guthrie's superiors at the Ex didn't seem too happy with her either. Sources at the Chron were quick to e-mail Dog Bites with the news that a note to Guthrie signed by Examiner Metro Editor Dick Rogers had been posted on the Newspaper Guild bulletin board. "Your memo had the subtlety of a sledgehammer," wrote Rogers. "If you can't share bylines and can't sit next to anyone but your chosen seatmates, then you will probably not find the new Chronicle an ideal environment. My gut feeling is that you owe an apology to Nanette Asimov and Ken Garcia."

Guthrie did in fact later apologize to Asimov and to Garcia; her note to Asimov was soon in circulation as well, and, according to two Chron reporters who'd seen it, read in part, "I went a little crazy."

While it was unclear exactly how Guthrie's original memo came to be made public, several insiders speculated it had been retrieved from the newsroom computer system, which allows anyone access to virtually any file. "Somebody [at the Ex] went into her basket and took it," one source at the Chron theorized.

Bronstein said he was displeased that someone might have been "trawling" through the system. "That's not good and that's not smart and that's not respectful of one's colleagues," he said. "It obviously was not meant to be a public thing."

He said he hadn't yet read the final version of Guthrie's memo, and believed the draft she sent to him could be somewhat different from the one that was circulating. "There're 200 people on staff here. Obviously not all of them responded [to the request for feedback], but I haven't had a chance to read all the responses yet. I certainly wasn't interested in getting the recommendations of anyone on what their colleagues at the Chron should be doing. While Julian has First Amendment rights like everyone else, that certainly wasn't what I was looking for."

Insiders at the Chron and Ex think that when the staffs are combined, it's likely Bronstein will move upward into a management position at the Hearst Corp., leaving the leadership of the paper to Jerry Roberts, currently the Chron's managing editor.

Of course, this is only speculation -- and that's the problem. Staffers at both papers say the protracted uncertainty over who will manage the Hearst-owned Chronicle is becoming increasingly stressful, especially as the date on which the Fangs will assume control of the Ex draws ever nearer. But the Fang/Examiner fiasco -- particularly, the allegations that suspended Examiner Editor and Publisher Tim White offered to "horse trade" editorial favors to Mayor Willie Brown, if Brown would stop opposing Hearst's effort to buy the Chronicle -- has so far made it impossible to finalize anything. "They need to wrap up the Tim White investigation and appoint a publisher," said a source at the Chron. "Until they do that, nothing can start to be resolved, and there's going to be this kind of persistent anxiety."

At least the Guthrie memo has occasioned merriment on both sides of the building at Fifth and Mission. Chronicle science writer Carl Hall's parody was distributed through both newsrooms. "First off, I'd like to say that I want to be the chief science writer at the Chronicle. I'm not interested in joint bylines," wrote Hall. "Any story I come up with is mine. ... I want to be given several months to travel the world to write dispatches about science. I am especially intrigued about science stuff breaking every day in Paris, Greece, and the American Virgin Islands. Also Maui. ... I don't want to sit next to another science reporter. I don't want to be anywhere near Lynn Ludlow or John Carman. I want to sit by Julian Guthrie."

"I felt a little humor might defuse things," Hall, who's also president of the local Guild chapter, explained later. "It's a competitive situation that's now expected to become collegial. You can't expect the transition to be easy."

So maybe it's a good sign that some of the memo's themes have been taken up in the Chron newsroom. "Everyone's going around saying, "I don't want to sit by you,' and "I don't want to sit by so-and-so,'" said a source. "It's already a running joke."

"Well, if people are getting a laugh out of it, at least that's something," commented a somewhat grim-sounding Bronstein.

For now, it will have to do. However, and more promising, at least to our tiny mind: Word is out that a lavish getting-to-know-you picnic for Examiner and Chronicle employees is in the works. This strikes us as Dog Bites' chance to show we care -- by making a big batch of chocolate-covered peanut butter Rice Krispy squares, thus pouring groundnut-derived emollients, as it were, on the troubled waters of the staff merger. Details of the planned festivities were scarce at press time, but one Chron source told us there is speculation that Guthrie and Asimov will team up to enter the three-legged race.

About The Author

Laurel Wellman

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