By: M.L. Stein
San Francisco Examiner uses reader tips to develop stories sp.
THE SAN FRANCISCO Examiner has opened up the news business to readers as a vehicle to right wrongs.
By introducing two new enterprise series, Fat City and First Person, the evening daily has generated dozens of news tips, several of which have led to major, front-page stories.
“This is a neat opportunity for us to get readers involved in the newspaper and learn the concerns, interests and knowledge they have,” said editor Phil Bronstein.
Fat City can be likened to an in-paper whistle-blower program and First Person allows the public to interact with city officials through the newspaper, Examiner spokeswoman Cynthia Myers said.
Fat City, she recalled, began three months ago with one mother’s complaint about the lack of city services for families with children.
Since her story appeared, hundreds of citizens have called or written to tell the Examiner about problems that make them want to leave San Francisco and also what they love about the city.
The paper logged 170 calls on the subject in one week. Out of them grew one front-page story revealing that San Francisco spends an estimated $4 million a year on aides to top fire department officials who drive their bosses to every drill inspection and meeting, help them fill out paperwork, and set up training certifications.
Other tips led to pieces about alleged abuse of sick leave at City Hall and a hidden memo about “goldbricking” in the public transportation system.
The First Person feature produced another front-page story whose lead was: “Prostitutes are overrunning a large portion of downtown San Francisco, terrorizing residents and destroying city property values, while city government looks on helplessly, an Examiner investigation shows.”
The story had two full-page jumps with sidebars. A next-day follow examined the problems cops have in dealing with hookers because of tough legal requirements for an arrest.
The paper’s probe began with a letter by a neighborhood activist, who wrote, “Prostitution has reached the point where no amount of community commitment will change the streets of San Francisco short of its citizenry marching on City Hall with a broom, intent on cleaning house.”
Both Fat City and First Person carry distinctive logos.
“Readers are encouraged to contact the paper with Fat City ideas via a box that begins, ‘Too many employees who don’t work hard enough? Too much waste? Misuse of public property? Tell us. We’ll expose it . . .’ “
Phone and fax numbers are provided along with the Examiner’s address.
First Person provides similar information.
Commented Bronstein, “It’s one thing to invite readers to an editorial board meeting but it’s another thing to get story ideas regularly. I think this is what newspapers are supposed to do ? to interact with readers and help them get things done.”
He pointed out that following a revelation that San Francisco’s 911 emergency call system had “critical” personnel problems that crippled its ability to respond to calls for help, “the city is scrambling to improve the service.”
First Person also can be literal. Under his own byline, a reader described his experiences with crime and driver discourtesy aboard MUNI buses.
Bronstein said the paper often brings readers’ complaints to the mayor, police chief or other city officials.
According to Myers, the high level of public response to the two features indicates that “readers are looking to us as their representatives who can demand accountability from the men and women who run the city. In that way, we are fulfilling our role as the public’s watchdog.”