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Finger Typing

Pun-loving headline writers last week had a field day with the revelation that a human body part had found its way into a chili bowl just down First Street from Metro's headquarters, at the very Wendy's where we've enjoyed a Frosty or microwaved potato now and then. Rarely does a story come along that offers headline writers a chance to strut their craft this prominently. Thanks to the globalization of bad humor, we were able to groan to the works of twittering editors from India to Australia, and, of course, the U.K., where tasteless humor is a national export. "Wendy's Introduces Low-Carb Cannibalism," spoofed one Brit parody site, only a shade more purple than more august publications, such as Toronto's Globe and Mail, which riffed on KFC's "finger-lickin' good" slogan, as did the Salt Lake Tribune, which stuffed a second attempt at humor with the phrase "chili con digit," a variation on the "finger con carne" wordsmithed by DeHavilland Information Services. "Anyone for hot chili fingers?" asked Reuters news service. "There's a finger in my chili," a Singapore newspaper shrieked. Almost telepathically, "Waiter! There's in a finger in my chilli," misspelled South Africa's Independent News. Even more boldly, the website of Arizona's largest daily headlined "Patron eating chili at Wendy's gets a finger," though they quickly replaced it with the less provocative "Wendy's patron bites into human finger." Dominating the charts, however, was the obvious alliteration, which made its way into at least 100 news sites thanks to an Associated Press dispatch that led with the observation that the unfortunate and macabre incident had "brought a whole new meaning to the term 'finger food.'" About the only media professional who thought the incident was not funny was Wendy's spokesman Joe Desmond. Still in denial, Desmond figured the best thing was to try to dampen the credibility of the report by referring to the affair as an "unsubstantiated claim," and then, wagging a metaphorical finger, admonished that "it's important not to jump to conclusions." His comment, of course, backfired when the coroner's office concluded that the object that appeared to be a well-manicured cooked finger was indeed a cooked finger. Maybe the $6 billion corporation should have sprung for one of those PR damage control specialists but they preferred to screw up their crisis unassisted. In an impressive feat of corporate contortionism, the No. 3 hamburger chain managed to simultaneously appear unsympathetic to the cookie-tossing victim as well as oblivious to the source of the severed body part, not to mention ungracious for making Michael Jackson-esque victim-blaming insinuations that Wendy's might itself be the unfortunate target of some evil money-grubbing prank. Worse, they proffered no empathy or apologies to their customers. No moratorium on serving the chili until its food security could be confirmed. No assurances they were doing everything possible to ensure that the only dead mammal flesh they would serve henceforth would be exclusively of the non­Homo sapien variety. Only further evasions of responsibility by saying they had checked with their suppliers (whom they refused to name) and none of them volunteered anything to shed light on the mystery. And so the press coverage continued its pummeling into the second, third and fourth days. "Police look for owner of finger found in chili," Massachusetts' Berkshire Eagle informed while the Philadelphia Daily News asked, "Can database nail down finger in chili?" The Chicago Sun-Times double-entendre'd "Diner puts a finger on what's wrong with the chili." Traditional media's attempts to be as entertaining as the blogosphere failed of course. What newspaper writer could match the wit of the Yahoo! message board poster who mused "I always wondered what happened to Dave" under the subject line "You ate Dave!" Guitar god Ted Nugent's web board, however, wins Fly's award for publishing the most tasteless comment. There, blogger "ebstein" posted, "At least it wasn't a penis."

Merc Goes Tabloid

Last week, The New York Times reported that media conglomerate Knight Ridder is planning to switch three papers from the traditional broadsheet format to tabloid size, or the difference between conventional newspapers like the Merc and the unconventional, like Metro. One of the newspapers the Times identified was The Jersey Journal of Jersey City, N.J., which makes sense because tabloids are more transit-friendly than broadsheets, and Jersey City has more public-transit commuters per capita than, say, San Jose. Knight Ridder execs declined to identify the other two newspapers, giving media observers the opportunity to speculate whether the Merc will be among the chosen ones. The paper's executive editor, Susan Goldberg, issued a terse "no response" when we came calling. But Goldberg's been known to equivocate in the past; not long ago, she dismissed the idea that the paper was planning to produce a "five-minute Merc"—a daily truncated form of the paper. Then Goldberg herself announced to business leaders that her paper will indeed soon produce a five-minute Merc. Surprise! Not! Even so, it's doubtful the Merc will soon go tabloid. Knight Ridder owns 31 newspapers, including two in Philadelphia and one in St. Paul, both of which are more commuter-friendly than San Jose. Word around the local printing community is that no mock-ups have been printed, which would be a necessity before a changeover. That said, appealing to commuters is not likely foremost on CEO Tony Ridder's mind. What is? The bottom line. Typically, the dozen or so newspapers that have swapped to a tabloid format in the last few years, mostly newspapers based in England, have done so without changing their ad rates. Advertisers pay the same amount for a smaller ad because, according to some researchers, a full-page ad in a tabloid has more financial impact than a full-page broadsheet ad. Meanwhile, Knight Ridder will save millions on printing costs. In a way, talk about the Merc going tabloid is irrelevant since the tabloidization of the paper has been occurring for years. Tabloids are typically associated with sensationalized, visual events like crime and, more to the extreme, alien sightings (think National Enquirer). For 15 years, as the number of newspaper readers has declined even as valley residents have increased, the Merc has relied more on photos, graphics and quasi news events to entice readers away from television news. Michael Jackson's scary face! Laci Peterson's scary boat ride! Mark McGwire's scary biceps! "If you compared the Mercury News today to the way it looked in 1985, you will see it looks a lot more like a magazine cover," says John McManus of the media-watchdog agency Grade the News. The Merc scored highly in a Grade the News annual survey of local media quality. But McManus says the grade was deceptive. The paper received only a C+ in the newsworthiness category, down from years ago when the Merc was prepared to tackle stories more fundamental to democracy.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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