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Wednesday, Jul 9 1997
Chron to East Bay: Take John King, Please
Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle has fired its answering volley in the war over the East Bay suburbs. It comes four months after the Chron's leading rival there, Miami-based Knight-Ridder Inc., launched an aggressive remake and consolidation of the Sunday edition of the Contra Costa Newspapers, the five-paper chain it bought two years ago for $360 million.

From what's been revealed so far, the Chron's offensive looks pretty thin and ill-conceived.

The Chron's response to Knight-Ridder is to keep doing what it has been doing -- adding small bureaus around the bay. But the next bureau, to be located in Walnut Creek, the upscale suburb in Contra Costa County, will be a bit larger than other Chronicle operations and will print zoned editions for Alameda and Contra Costa counties. There's no word on circulation or where the new editions will be distributed as yet; the Chronicle's publisher and executive editor did not return phone calls last week.

The idea of zoning a metro newspaper is hardly new. In this case, the Chronicle apparently will try to customize the San Francisco-centric paper for suburban readers by adding a section of East Bay stories that will be distributed only to a particular East Bay "zone."

But zoned editions are by no means a sure success. The Chron tried and abandoned them a decade or so ago. So did its suburban rival to the south (also owned by Knight-Ridder), the San Jose Mercury News.

To provide enough local (in this case, East Bay) coverage to draw readers and advertisers to a zoned edition, a parent newspaper must make a substantial investment in staff. On the editorial side, at least, the Chron's investment in the East Bay seems a bit light; the paper is adding a mere eight reporters there, even though the Contra Costa papers have roughly 40 scribes chasing news alone.

In a further sign of tentativeness, the Chron's new writing positions pay below union scale, and they aren't permanent. Contracts run for two or three years and the paper is under no obligation to renew them. It doesn't sound like a formula for attracting journalism's best and brightest.

Making it still harder to take this enterprise seriously is the Chron's choice of John King, currently a City Hall reporter, as its name columnist for the Walnut Creek bureau. At City Hall, King has played stenographer to Mayor Willie Brown, and is -- in a City Hall press corps noted for docility -- an exemplar of tameness and lack of enterprise.

The Chron's selection of King is an inauspicious start to an attack on the suburbs and a well-funded foe like Knight-Ridder.

The Fish Tale That Ate Its Own Tail
As with most fish tales, the San Francisco Examiner's June 13 business section profile of the new sushi restaurant Blowfish started simply enough. Blowfish's proprietors have an irresistible story line: They hope their Potrero Hill establishment will be the first in the United States (outside a handful in New York) to serve the notorious tiger fugu, the Japanese blowfish delicacy that can be lethal if prepared improperly.

But first they have to secure numerous permissions from the governments of two countries (the U.S. and Japan) -- a process that could take at least a year. In the meantime, they are dishing up raw portions of the fugu's much less poisonous relative, the northern pufferfish. (Both species of fish carry poisons in certain parts of their bodies. If the flesh that's served is contaminated, by, say, an unwashed knife blade that came in contact with the poison, a person can be harmed.)

Seems simple enough. But within the space of 15 or so column inches, Examiner staff writer Vicki Haddock (the name is no joke) mangled the fugu/pufferfish distinction. Her story suggested simultaneously that Blowfish was serving the lethal fugu and trying to pawn off puffer as the real thing.

The restaurant, she wrote, "is giving The City its first taste of blowfish -- hoping to hook customers who crave death-defying dining." If that were correct, the restaurant would be shut down at once. Serving blowfish in California, even importing it into the state, is against the law.

"But in this fish story, there are a few critical catches," Haddock writes, sounding like the skeptical reporter about to tip the reader to a scam. "This blowfish is not from Japan," she writes, "it's from North Carolina."

But it's no secret the restaurant is serving pufferfish rather than fugu. Blowfish's owners take considerable pains to make that point on their menu and in their promotional materials. (Strangely, the photo caption running next to that passage correctly refers to pufferfish, but wrongly claims a serving sells for $35; on the menu, it's listed at $28.95.)

In a final insult, Haddock says Blowfish exaggerates the dangers of eating pufferfish. Her sources are experts whose names and phone numbers were supplied to her by Blowfish co-owner Peter Garin himself.

"The northern puffer has never been known to give anyone as much as a tummy ache," a caption reads. But Garin can cite the same experts as saying the northern puffer is not to be eaten lightly.

Garin is no innocent in the not always pleasant ways of restaurant reviews and business profiles; his resume includes Maxwell Plum, Neiman-Marcus, DV8, TownsEnd, and Cafe Du Nord. But the Examiner's treatment of his restaurant moved him to send a two-page, single-spaced letter to Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the Ex, in mid-June. (Garin claims that the story came about after Bronstein visited Blowfish and tasted the northern puffer there; attempts to contact Bronstein and Haddock for comment last week were unsuccessful.)

As of last week, Garin said, he hadn't heard a reply.
But Garin didn't write expecting an answer: "Maybe Bronstein puts it up on the newsroom wall and says, 'Don't ever do this again.'

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick


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