A Tale of Two Papers

P-I offers reporting, San Francisco Chronicle offers flackery

The starkly different ways in which two Hearst properties—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle—have been informing readers of their financial woes tells a behind-the-scenes story of the Hearst family’s differing financial interests.

As reported here last month, under editor Ward Bushee the Chronicle has provided little actual news reporting about its prospects for dissolution unless its unions agree to drastic job cuts and givebacks for those who remain on the payroll.* Mostly, Bushee gave Chronicle readers unsigned “staff reports”—actually rewritten Hearst press releases.

There have been three such “staff reports.” A March 9 piece of flackery posing as news was buried on page C-4, suggesting the Chronicle does not think its own possible demise is of much interest to readers. On its Web site, the Chronicle did front a report about its effors to lobby for political favors, but it came from Washington. At least the careful reader found out that Phil Bronstein, the journalist who is now editor-at-large, has abandoned that role to become an unregistered lobbyist seeking political favors for his employers. But not a word here from the unions or the workers, or from the competing news organizations mentioned by the story.

In contrast, the P-I has run AP reports on its own situation, which seems a neutral way to cover the issues. The P-I also printed some honest and thoughtful staff reports on the broader issues, such as reporter Dan Richman’s Feb. 27 look at the civic value of newspapers, including the P-I.

The discrepancy in the quality of coverage probably has to do with Hearst’s efforts to do something in San Francisco that was not an issue in Seattle—break the Pressman’s and Teamsters’ unions, or at least force them into accepting a nearly 50 percent pay cut and what the unions regard as onerous work rules.

At issue is a $200 million printing plant nearing completion in Fremont, fifty miles from San Francisco. It reportedly could print all of the newspapers in the Bay Area, and perhaps some from nearby Central Valley cities like Fresno and Stockton. In January the Chronicle ran a series of pieces, including a front section wraparound, on the new printing plant, even though it is not in operation yet. So it seems intent on continuing the printed version. The Canadian firm that is building the plant, TransContintental Printing, plans to use non-union pressmen.

Keep in mind that Dean Singleton’s MediaNews got $300 million of financing from Hearst when it bought the San Jose Mercury, Contra Costa Times, and two other Bay Area papers from McClatchy after the demise of Knight-Ridder, as reported in the Mercury on March 14. Why Hearst would help finance competing newspapers is a mystery as yet unexamined in the Bay Area daily press, but that printing plant may signal that the Bay Area is heading towards nineteen area newspapers with a single entity owning them, be it Hearst, Singleton or some combined ownership.

The Teamsters are not going to buckle under the way the Guild did March 14, when members voted 333 to 33 to accept management’s demands for fewer workers, more hours, and other takebacks. And unlike the Guild, the Teamsters can stop distribution of the dead tree edition. Rome Aloise, the secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 853, told the SF Weekly on Jan. 22 that if the printing plant opens as a nonunion shop then the Teamsters will start “an advertisers’ boycott—and that will stop the swirl of the Chronicle down the bowl and it will go all the way down.”

“It would be a death-wish to open that plant non-union,” Aloise said.

That looks like a game of chicken between the Teamsters and the Hearsts.

David M. Cole, publisher of NewsInc., a weekly newsletter about the American newspaper industry, noted that, a month later, the Chronicle said it may close unless unions grant huge concessions, without any mention of the printing plant. (Cole was an editor at the San Francisco Examiner when Hearst owned it.)

So, an alternative newspaper prints Aloise’s boycott threat, and a month later Hearst threatens to close the Chronicle. “Coincidence? I think not,” Cole said.

Cole has an explanation for why the Chronicle is not running AP reports as news, but, rather, letting Hearst flackery pose as news:

Hearst’s goal isn’t to just eliminate the pressmen and the mailers — which there’s not much the Teamsters can do to stop; their gripe is officially going to be with Transcontinental — but with the drivers as well. I believe that Hearst is seeking to eliminate most of the driver-covered positions as well.

The articles in the Chronicle are unbylined, because Hearst does not (cannot) afford to have one iota of the message slip — and you know how unreliable those reporters are.

Is the Chronicle in jeopardy? Of course it is, but who is the real threat here: Hearst or the Teamsters? The two sides are playing a game of chicken, with Hearst betting that they can maneuver the Teamsters into taking the fall for any closure of the paper and thereby counting on labor-related politicians (and this is the Bay Area—all politicians are labor-related) to stop the Teamsters from driving the paper off that particular cliff.

Just wait until it gets on the 11 o’clock news, where they have to boil it all down to 90 seconds of TV: big, bad Teamsters want to shut down Chronicle, a known money-loser, which Hearst has courageously kept alive for nine years. Transcontinental will be spinning those non-union presses in no time and there will be fewer unionized drivers as well.

Chronicle readers deserve to know these facts, including how Hearst is trying to use the House Speaker’s powers as leverage in negotiations against union members.

Perhaps Bay Area and Washington journalists not under the fact-denying thumbs of Bushee and Chronicle publisher Frank Vega will get out there and tell the people about how, to save its investment, the Hearsts and Bushee have sold their journalistic souls in a crude attempt at manipulation through flackery.

Correction: This article originally identified the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle as Ward Bushee Jr. He is only Ward Bushee, no “Jr.” involved. CJR regrets the error Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

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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.