Chevron’s Local “News” Site in Bay Area Alarms Media Watchdogs

Despite transparency about the community "news" site's funding, residents are getting a corporate take on what's news and what isn't.

Chevron's Local "News" Site Alarms Media Watchdogs

Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. (Photo by Nick Fullerton/Flickr cc 2.0)

This post first appeared at DeSmog.

In the city of Richmond, California, Chevron Corp. not only processes up to 250,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the largest refinery on the West Coast — it also writes the news.

The Richmond Standard, an online paper focused on local news for the roughly 100,000 residents of this San Francisco Bay area city (neighboring Berkeley and Oakland), is produced entirely by Chevron’s public relations firm.

The Standard mostly prints local-interest stories: announcing library construction, highlighting missing persons and profiling area businesses.

Unlike other media outlets, The Standard consistently lacks mention of industrial accidents and problems at the refinery.

But unlike a traditional newspaper, The Standard also runs a dedicated section called “Chevron Speaks” — used to introduce friendly Chevron reps, attack investigative reporting projects and talk electoral politics. And unlike other media outlets, the Standard consistently lacks mention of industrial accidents and problems at the refinery

Since The Standard was first launched in 2013, the paper has grown dramatically in readership and its successes are now garnering attention from other fossil fuel companies — and alarm from media experts including Noam Chomsky, the prominent political observer, activist and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chevron, however, touts the traction The Standard has gained.

“It was widely panned when it was first started, it was called corporate journalism, The Guardian did a whole story on it, I mean, it was highly criticized,” Morgan Crinklaw, a Chevron representative, said at last month’s Red State Gathering. “But now it’s to the point it gets more traffic than the San Francisco Chronicle.” (The Standard later clarified to DeSmog that its site receives more Richmond-area traffic than the Chronicle).

All the PR That’s Fit to Print

Chevron’s experiment in mixing local news reporting into its public relations output comes at a time when traditional journalism — especially print journalism — continues to face extreme economic pressure. The number of newspaper journalists nationwide has plunged, with newsroom staffs cut by over 40 percent, falling from a 2007 workforce of 55,000 to just 32,900 in 2015.

The troubles faced by the newspaper industry are so bad that the decline of independent watchdog journalism at local newspapers was recently featured by John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight.

Like many cities, Richmond lost its long-running local newspapers decades ago.

“The city of Richmond, high crime, news organizations pretty much abandoned it,” Crinklaw, who is best known in the PR world for his work defending Chevron in its ongoing $9.5 billion legal battle over contamination of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, explained at the Red State Gathering.

There’s little question that The Standard operates in territory that journalists would find ethically questionable.

Chevron stepped in to fill that void. But there’s little question that The Standard operates in territory that journalists would find ethically questionable.

Unlike traditional newspapers, there’s no firewall between editors and owners at The Richmond Standard or commitment to editorial independence. In fact, The Standard’s entire newsroom consists of Mike Aldax — an account executive at Singer Associates, Chevron’s PR firm — who serves as both reporter and editor.

If you’re looking for criticism of Chevron you’re not going to find it in The Richmond Standard,” Aldax told The Guardian in 2014.

Chevron has defended the project, arguing that its funding is transparent and the site serves an important function in Richmond. “Since our launch, we’ve produced thousands of informative, hyper-local news stories that have attracted millions of page views,” Aldax told DeSmog. “We’re successful because we are delivering content that is local and focusing on issues that residents care about. In fact, more people in Richmond read the Standard than the San Francisco Chronicle (SF Gate).”

“We are also fully transparent with respect to Chevron’s sponsorship of the site,” he added. “And we believe the content speaks for itself and invite people to read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.”

Drawing the Eye of the Koch Brothers

At the Red State Gathering, Chevron’s Standard drew praise and admiration from another high-powered PR executive who represents one of the most politically influential conservative companies in the US, Koch Industries.

“I think there’s a balance, reacting to the right things but also telling our story more, and you just got to be more proactive,” said Steve Lombardo, chief communications and marketing officer for Koch Industries, who sat on the same panel as Chevron’s Crinklaw.

“I applaud you for that idea in Richmond, because that’s what we need more of,” Lombardo added.

Watch the panel at Red State Gathering (the section on the Richmond Standard begins at roughly 24:00)

In 2013, the Koch brothers had considered purchasing eight newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, but backed away from considering the deal soon after. “Koch continues to have an interest in the media business, and we’re exploring a broad range of opportunities where we think we can add value,” the company said in a statement at the time.

The Koch brothers remain extremely active in politics and efforts to mold public opinion. Among the Koch’s recent initiatives is a $10 million-a-year campaign, Fueling US Forward, which plans to aggressively promote the “positives” of burning oil and gas.

Those Who Don’t Learn Their History …

While Chevron and its backers tout The Standard as novel and innovative, for others it might seem that history is repeating itself, with Chevron’s company-run press harkening back to the days of robber barons and the Industrial Revolution, when single corporations controlled most of the institutions in company towns and ran their own printing presses.

“The lessons are pretty clear,” Professor Noam Chomsky told DeSmog, when asked whether lessons from the days of company-run towns were worth revisiting now, given the Richmond Standard’s successes. “It had better be overcome if we hope to live in a free and democratic society, not as subordinates in a plutocracy.”

Chomsky is not the first to warn of the hazards posed by The Standard.

“To the casual observer who just happens upon this, it looks like a community news website, it says Richmond Standard community-driven news,” Rachele Kanigel, associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University told Media Matters for America, a press watchdog organization, in 2014. “For the uneducated media consumer, it looks like a news website that people might not realize where it’s coming from.”

For journalists, The Standard poses another potential threat. As traditional newsrooms have shrunk, some veteran reporters have found themselves running one-person shops, juggling reporting, editing, publishing, social media and all the associated administration that goes along with running a local paper. But while technology has allowed individual reporters to get more done in a day, communities not only lose the oversight of a fiercely independent editorial culture, they also lose the chance for new reporters to train alongside experienced reporters — and the capacity for the sorts of investigative reporting that holds the powerful accountable.

As for The Standard, these criticisms have thus far failed to deter the $254 billion oil giant Chevron from continuing to publish its mix of news reporting and public relations. Aldax, a former reporter for The San Francisco Examiner, produces Chevron’s site from a laptop in his car, working in coffee shops and even the local Target, wherever the wifi is good.

In many ways, the Standard seems to operate, like the news it reports, with a hyper-local focus, connected with many Bay Area institutions.

Aldax’s boss, Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates, lists not only national companies like Ford Motor Company, The Gap and others among his clients, but also the San Francisco Chronicle (against which The Standard compares its traffic). Singer, described as “one of the most powerful people in the San Francisco Bay Area,” in his company bio, got his start in the media industry in part by working as a newspaper reporter for The Richmond Independent — a Richmond, California-focused newspaper that folded in 1978.

But the implications for the media and PR industries reverberate far beyond Richmond and California. “This is a revolution still in its early stages,” Singer told The Richmond Confidential, speaking about how the internet has fundamentally altered communication, allowing for sites like The Standard to emerge. “The media, individuals and corporations have not even begun to realize its power and importance.”

A Company Town, A History of Accidents

It was 1901 when Standard Oil first arrived at the site of the Richmond refinery, with a company manager finding “the ideal site along a dusty country road that terminated near a tiny railroad settlement,” according to Chevron. As the refinery expanded to 2,900 acres and its workforce grew, so did Richmond, which officially incorporated in 1905. And Richmond rose to its current population of roughly 100,000 while Standard Oil morphed into Chevron, second only to ExxonMobil among America’s oil giants.

Today, Richmond’s residents are mostly people of color (roughly 40 percent Latino, 27 percent African-American and 14 percent Asian, as Colorlines, which investigated the refinery’s threats to the community, reported last month). Median incomes for some neighborhoods are less than half the average for the rest of the county. Roughly 17 percent of the city lives within a three mile radius of the refinery, many in housing projects.

It was Aug. 6, 2012 when Chevron’s Richmond refinery exploded into flames.

Animation of Chevron Richmond refinery fire. Source: US Chemical Safety Board

Workers at the refinery had noticed a leak dripping from an 8-inch insulated pipe carrying light gas oil from a distillation tower, but managers decided to attempt repairs without first shutting down and stopping the flow of the 640-degree Fahrenheit diesel-like fluid.

The US Chemical Safety Board later concluded that damage to a section of the pipe during the repair attempt allowed a massive cloud of flammable vapor to seep out and ignite, sparking a massive blaze from which 19 workers and firefighters narrowly escaped with their lives.

That fire and its toxic fumes ultimately sent 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment for respiratory and other ailments. Financial struggles pushed Richmond’s public hospital to close last year, leaving locals facing a 20-mile drive to the nearest large public emergency room if, say, another massive refinery fire strikes.

“It’s interesting to live in a place that’s so beautiful, with the best climate, and to have it so close to a death trap. It’s definitely crazy,” area resident Sherman Dean told Earth Island Journal. “It’s like having a big, I want to say, a bully, standing over you all the time. The refinery is up in the hills, over us.”

There’s another deadly threat from the refinery, one that is far less visible — the slow and steady seeping of air pollution from the site. Children in Richmond are hospitalized for asthma at double the rate of the rest of California, and breast cancer rates for the area are among the highest in the region.

The air emissions also have climate-changing implications.

“As a facility, it’s the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in California,” Andreas Soto, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, told Vice in 2014.

But if you read The Standard, it can seem there’s little to worry about.

“Unlike a half-century ago, when emissions of toxic pollutants were unmonitored, Richmond now has multiple state-of-the-art air monitoring stations around the city assessing air quality 24 hours daily,” Aldax wrote in June 2015.

“The clouds that could be seen above Chevron Richmond refinery Wednesday morning were actually harmless steam clouds,” Aldax reported in a February 2015 article. (DeSmog was unable to locate other media coverage of that incident, but two months later, dark clouds over the refinery, attributed by Chevron to “normal refinery operations” caused county health officials to issue a public health advisory).

“A Deceptive Atmosphere”

This type of coverage worries journalism experts. “[W]e don’t know what interests Chevron might have that dictate what gets covered and what doesn’t,” Edward Wasserman, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.

“To Wasserman, The Standard’s diet of noncontroversial community news creates a deceptive atmosphere of community goodwill — ‘and they can draw on that goodwill when something hits the fan,'” the Times added.

To be sure, the First Amendment protects Chevron’s right to express its opinions (especially in the wake of Citizens United, a controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling).

The best cure for bad speech, legal scholars often argue, is a vigorous debate. As the Supreme Court Justice Loius Brandeis wrote in Whitney v. California, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Fortunately for Richmond, there’s been a mini-revival in local news coverage. The Richmond Pulse, launched in 2011, describes itself as “youth-led, community news”; La Voz is Richmond’s bilingual e-magazine; and the University of California’s Berkeley School of Journalism publishes a student-staffed paper, the Richmond Confidential, which has run investigations into Chevron’s influence over local politics.

But as Brandeis noted, the danger to the public discourse arises from a lack of time, when people don’t spend the time necessary to pay close attention to what they’re reading and who is writing it. And compared to citizens in other large democracies, most Americans might find that time is especially scarce. Americans work the longest hours per week (out of the 10 largest economies per capita), and take the least vacation time, with roughly 40 percent of workers saying they put in at least 50 hours a week on the job, according to a Gallup poll released last year.

Taken all together, that means The Standard’s media coverage is at best a double-edged sword — but one that cuts unequally, providing small public services while simultaneously helping to entrench large powerful interests and keep hazards out of the public eye.

“They’ve covered some things I haven’t seen people cover here before,” Tom Butt, then a member of Richmond City Council, now mayor, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014. “On the other hand, they know who they work for, and they’re not getting involved in anything controversial. They’re certainly not doing anything that’s adverse to Chevron’s interests.”

Sharon Kelly

Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware. Follow her on Twitter: @SharonKellyEsq.