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The Fly

Collector's Edition

You know something's wrong when a newspaper switches publishers, as the Mercury News did this year—twice in 11 months. The paper lost 3.2 percent of its daily circulation in the six months ending in September. Lest our venerable daily begin the journey that will lead into its sunset, Merc managers are preparing to take bold action to "staunch the circulation and readership decline of the Mercury News," according to memorandum prepared by Executive Editor Susan Goldberg that was helpfully leaked to Fly. And in the interest of preparing the reading public for the shocking changes that may lie ahead, we are happy to share the contents of this highly confidential internal document, even though Ms. Goldberg frantically called us this week to assure us it was merely "brainstorming." According to a Dec. 7 email, the Merc plans to cease publication of its local news section, "Valley," and smash it together in a single local-national-international news package. To support our busy valley lifestyles, the Mercury News will also begin printing "The 5-minute Merc"—we promise we didn't make this up—"a cool new tab, full of quick information, utility and attitude" that will be "delivered free to coffee shops, etc., possibly forever, or at least until people are hooked on it." (That long, really?) As for the Monday paper, Goldberg waxes pyrotechnic: "Our plan is to blow it up," she wrote, even though she tells Fly it isn't actually a plan. "Except for Tech Monday, which largely works, Monday is currently the weakest paper from a content point of view—warmed-over gruel of Sunday, waiting around for whatever (usually lame) news happens. Ugh. It's a paper in search of a plan," Goldberg types. Tuesday's Home & Garden section will be cleverly renamed "How-to." (No we didn't make this up either, scout's honor.) In the course of reducing the number of news sections and introducing "A new quick-read product," the Merc would "increase the number of Guides from five to 10." Goldberg adds: The emphasis on utility will be very high. Example: the morphing of Home & Garden into How-to, which will focus on home remodeling, a Valley pastime, and practical advice about gardening." The valley's gardeners may have to keep their thumbs on their weed wacker clutches a bit longer, however, before getting the definitive guide to gardening secrets, because Goldberg told The Fly "We are a long way away from doing anything," and says, "I still need to talk with George." She is of course referring to George Riggs, the newly named Merc publisher who formerly headed up the Knight Ridder-owned Contra Costa Times.

Heir Transplant

The valley's crimefighters are abuzz this week with the report that District Attorney George Kennedy has shifted his support from deputy DA Ben Field to assistant DA Karen Sinunu. Although Kennedy hasn't ruled out running for a fifth term in 2006, he tells Fly, "I have encouraged Karen to run for District Attorney." It's not an endorsement, he cagily explains, but "there's some conclusions to be drawn from [the fact that] I asked her to run for DA." Field was overheard grousing to friends that he felt as if he was knifed in the back after telling people he'd secured Kennedy's support. Kennedy says he never endorsed Field. "I told Ben I thought he would be a good DA," he clarifies. Before Field, smart money bet that Kennedy would support another prosecutor, Mark Buller. One wag thinks that the politically-savvy Kennedy is floating another name to see if Sinunu is electable; her popularity ratings in the office and at some valley police stations could pose some obstacles. On the other hand, Kennedy pulled Sinunu off the investigation of the police shooting death of vegetable peeler wielder Bich Cau Thi Tran after Sinunu made some comments that were interpreted as pro-police. ''Her statements evidenced some premature judgment of the facts,'' Kennedy was quoted as saying at the time. The DA also thinks there are other smart people in his office who might be able to step up to the job. In addition to Field and Buller, he mentions former San Jose councilman David Pandori and Chuck Gillingham, son of the former sheriff. Other names that pop up in conversations around town include Judge RON Del Pozzo, who never misses a party, affable prosecutor's union boss Jim Shore and crusading consumer's attorney Dick Alexander. Of course, all this speculation is moot if Kennedy changes course again and decides he wants to be a 20-year DA. "I haven't ruled that out," he acknowledges. "I am moving closer to not running. A big part of it is who's going to be in the race. If Karen is in the race, it is a lot less likely that I will run."

Sacrificial Lamb

As censure proceedings begin in connection with Terry Gregory's indiscretions, pundits are watching two councilmembers for signs labor might be wavering in support of the San Jose District 7 councilman. Most council watchers expect at least seven of the 11-member council to vote for censure. But the council needs eight votes for the reprimand to pass. Where will the other vote come from? Not from Gregory, who somehow is able to vote on his own censure, or District 2's Forrest Williams, who has been outspoken against disciplining Gregory. That leaves laborites Cindy Chavez and Nora Campos, who might be willing to toss labor-friendly Gregory overboard if they get the green light from Chicago. Why would they do that? Because labor added Nancy Pyle in last month's election, meaning Gregory could be expendable, given his rash of legal problems and impaired ability to win future elections. Pyle might not be as reliable a vote as Gregory, though. So there might be some wavering. A sign Chavez and Campos might still be in Gregory's camp is if they insist, as they have in the past, that Gregory wasn't given ample opportunity to defend himself.

Death by Journalism

Conspiracy mongers have been flooding the Sacramento County Medical Examiner's Office and the Sacramento News & Review with calls, looking for clues who might have killed Gary Webb, the former Mercury News investigative reporter who broke one of the largest stories of the 1990s, the CIA's tacit complicity in trafficking cocaine from Latin America to Los Angeles. Initial indications, however, point to Webb shooting himself in the head in his Carmichael home Dec. 13: Webb left a suicide note and had taken a two-week leave of absence from the News & Review to take care of personal business. "He was troubled to an extent," says Editor Tom Walsh. "Family stuff." Even so, the alternative weekly has received a number of calls from independent researchers asking if the paper planned to investigate the conspiratorial aspects of Webb's death. Walsh says no. "We don't write too much about suicides," he says. Similarly, the medical examiner's office has received calls from across California, even from people disguised as reporters, searching for clues the CIA murdered Webb. "It's been crazy around here," spokeswoman Kerri Aiello says. Webb's 1996 investigation into CIA ties to the drug trade as part of its attempts to fund a covert war in Nicaragua was discredited by three of the nation's leading dailies, forcing former Merc Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos to cave to pressure: "We fell short at every step of our process—in the writing, editing and production of our work." But the Washington Post, New York Times and L.A. Times were unable to refute Webb's reporting. By 1998, CIA officials had admitted to turning a blind eye to Central America drug trafficking and magazines like Esquire began pointing out that Webb was right after all. "The attacks were without merit but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its [editor]," columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote in a Dec. 13 column. "It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism." So dark, in fact, Webb never recovered. In an interview with Esquire, he compared leaving the Mercury News in 1997 to a death sentence. "That was the beginning of the end for him," his ex-wife, Sue Bell, tells Fly. "He never recovered from that."

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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