A Great City Forced to Read Flackery

Is the San Francisco Chronicle a news organization or a publicity service?

The number-two story on the front page of SFGate.com Tuesday night, and evidently given prominent play in Wednesday’s print version of the San Francisco Chronicle, is not a news story at all, but an unbylined “report.” It is, in fact, just a rewritten press release from Hearst management.

Not one word makes it into the paper from Chronicle unions, whose contracts Hearst CEO Frank Bennack wants to “quickly” rewrite with “significant” concessions under threat of closing the newspaper.

Not one word from others with an interest in whether the Chronicle dies after 144 years—say, interviews with the mayor, city supervisors, major advertisers, political scientists, or perhaps just a few scattered longtime readers.

Not one word from, say, an authoritative voice on Bay Area journalism like Alan D. Mutter, or from the Chronicle’s most severe critic, Bruce B. Brugmann, owner of the Bay Guardian.

And not one word about the changes in ownership of the Bay Area’s twenty-one newspapers, Hearst’s role in financing ownership changes in places like San Jose and the East Bay, and their meaning in the context of the demands for job cuts and, no doubt, reductions in wages and benefits and relaxation of work rules.

Presenting management publicity as news destroys respect among readers and diminishes the value of the brand. The issue is not that Hearst may need to rewrite its deals with the Newspaper Guild and the Teamsters, but that editor Ward Bushee Jr. let flackery pose as news without even a passing mention that there was more than one side to this story.

You have to go to Alan D. Mutter’s Newsosaur to discover that Hearst wants to eliminate half of the remaining staff of 1,500. That would leave a total of 750 workers for news, advertising, management, printing and distribution. Just seven years ago, the newsroom alone contained almost 600 people.

Can it be that, in Bennack and Bushee’s opinions, the closing of the Chronicle is not news—and therefore need not be the subject of actual reporting in which facts are checked and cross checked and sources with multiple perspectives are interviewed? Perhaps Bennack and his publisher, Frank Vega, are so removed from the concept of news that they have confused it with the lucrative material they publish in Cosmopolitan, or broadcast via the Lifetime and A&E channels.

There is a way for the Chronicle to serve up real news about its fate and correct this egregious error in judgment. Bushee should assign one or more of his reporters to get out there and talk to the unions, the advertisers, the experts, and even some readers to find out what they think, and what a smaller or even a dead Chronicle would mean.

Sending reporters to question Vega and at least call Bennack on the phone would be real journalism, too. And if they decline to talk? Well, then you just report that.

And if Vega or his bosses block such a story, there would also be a way for Bushee to establish that he just made a one-time error in judgment, and has not left news to become a publicity agent: resign.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.