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California and the West

Whimsical Moniker, Serious Mission for New Paper

Journalism: A publication focused on local issues in Berkeley is launched--but can it leap tall stories in a single bound?


BERKELEY — Enough already with the Superman jokes. It's a bird, it's a plane, great Caesar's ghost--the staff of the Berkeley Daily Planet has heard it all since the free tabloid made its debut last month.

It's a whimsical name for the newest entry in the San Francisco Bay Area's fiercely competitive newspaper market--but fitting. This is Berkeley after all, where the City Council recently passed a resolution defending Tinky Winky's right to carry a purse.

"You know the city's nickname, don't you?" said the Daily Planet's publisher, Ron Mix. "Berserkley. So we fit in. I guess we asked for it when we decided on the name."

The paper's founders also asked for a fight in a region where four metropolitan newspapers, numerous suburban dailies and a handful of alternative weeklies do battle for readers' attention. Other than the student-run Daily Californian at UC Berkeley, the city hasn't been able to sustain a daily paper since the Berkeley Gazette folded 15 years ago. Maybe a tie to the Man of Steel isn't such a bad idea.

"It's a tough business, no question," said Mix, former publisher of the tiny Turlock Journal. "But there's a need for this newspaper. We believe we can be successful by filling that need."

Mix and four partners--three Stanford MBAs and an editor--joined several investors to start the Daily Planet. Among the partners is Dave Danforth, who is credited by industry watchers with inventing the so-called micro daily, an intensely local approach to newspapers that relies on high-tech, low-cost desktop publishing techniques to flourish. Danforth's previous efforts, the 20-year-old Aspen Daily News in Colorado and the 5-year-old Stanford Daily News in Palo Alto, are proof of the formula's potential.

"We're taking a different approach here," Mix said. "We're not running any wire [stories], not running any national or international news--we're just a community newspaper. We cover City Council, schools, local sports, local events and local people. There's a void to be filled, and I think we're already doing it successfully."

They're also doing it with a tiny staff. Mix's title of publisher seems largely ceremonial. A recent workday found him in the newsroom until 1 a.m., answering telephones and waiting to edit the City Council story. He also oversees circulation, distribution and public relations--and, when he has a free moment, sells display ads.

The Daily Planet's editor, 25-year-old Rob Cunningham, writes two to three stories each day and edits the work of the newspaper's one staff writer and several freelancers.

"We focus on the day-in and day-out coverage of what's happening in Berkeley," said Cunningham, former managing editor of the Turlock Journal.

The Daily Planet has certainly chosen fertile ground. Berkeley's City Council, never shy about weighing in on matters far outside municipal government, last month became the first U.S. city to ban ATM fees imposed by banks on users who are not their customers.

Over the years the city has officially opposed the Vietnam War, launched one of the nation's first recycling projects, flown the Tibetan flag, supported same-sex marriages, banned nonbiodegradable plastic foam cups, imposed a tax on gun stores even though the city has none, and boycotted so many oil companies that a councilwoman joked that the city would soon have to do its own offshore drilling.

Residents have done their share to keep news hounds happy. Two performance artists arrested in 1996 for baring their breasts in public tried to get public nudity legalized as free speech. Two years later, police arrested a couple who appeared naked during a save the trees demonstration.

April was a tame news month, but the Daily Planet is already drawing a solid readership. The initial press run of 5,000 copies proved inadequate. The paper now puts 7,000 copies Monday through Saturday in 200 news racks citywide.

The debut issue featured stories about the city's architectural review process, the arrest of a murder suspect, a photo package about a local farmers market and a piece headlined "Dream Weavers," about the Daily Planet itself.

The newspaper also inadvertently made headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle when it "borrowed" classified advertising for its first issue on April 7 from another local paper without asking permission. Staffers said that they meant to get approval but that in the deadline rush the task went undone. The newspaper has since apologized for the mistake.

Residents appear open to the idea of a new daily in town.

"I consider anything that brings an independent voice into being a good thing," said Anita Monga, associate editor of a venerable Berkeley institution, the Bark, a literary magazine devoted to dogs. But she doesn't claim to speak for her fellow Berserklians.

"People here have a tendency to embrace a lot of different voices and diversity, and then to turn around and tear all of those voices apart. That's part of the wonder of the place."

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