Strange rumblings in local news media

SFist bought by right-wing billionaire. Examiner editor goes to work for Breed. What's it all mean?

Strange rumblings in the local news media. First SFist is bought by a right-wing outfit that is already changing the flagship Gothamist in New York City. The owner of the company, DNAinfo, is a billionaire whose family gave $1 million to elect Donald Trump and whose son has been tapped for a job in the Trump Administration.

Already, Gothamist has deleted some not-so-flattering posts about Ricketts

Ex Editor Michael Howerton will be an aide to London Breed
Ex Editor Michael Howerton will be an aide to London Breed

And then we learn that the editor of the Examiner, Michael Howerton, who presided over a scrappy newsroom with a generally progressive approach, has left to take a job as chief of staff to Sup. London Breed.

The news so far has made little mention of SFist, which has been an interesting and fairly reliable aggregator of local news whose writers have a typically edgy and sometimes snarky twist.

I’ve always had minor issues with SFist, mostly around the failure of its writers to look beyond the surface in political stories. But it’s been a part of the local media landscape, and we need all the voices we can get, and I always read it. Sometimes, not too often, the blog even deigns to link to 48hills stories, and I appreciate that.

Ricketts, for the moment, seems focused on New York and Chicago. In New York, Gothamist, once an independent voice, will become “the official blog of DNAinfo,” which covers neighborhood-level news.

There’s no DNAinfo operation in San Francisco, so for now, it appears that SFist won’t change. Politico notes that Ricketts is so focused on national politics that his influence on neighborhood blogs is pretty minimal.

I emailed Jay Barmann, the editor of SFist, to ask about any possible changes, and he didn’t get back to me. (It’s always a bad sign when a journalist doesn’t answer questions.) Maybe that’s company policy now. I haven’t seen anything in SFist about the change in ownership, but I miss things.

Gothamist reported the news with great excitement, saying that while the founders of the operation disagree with Ricketts on politics (and baseball), “We all believe that unbiased reporting is important for our democracy, especially in these times.”

Also:

What this means for DCist, LAist and SFist: DNAinfo has been interested in expanding more cities, and these sites are the perfect way to help launch that next phase.

So maybe the Trump supporter will move into San Francisco, and offer “unbiased” neighborhood coverage in a city where there is no such thing as unbiased reporting on neighborhood issues, particularly in the Trump Era.

Good luck, Jay. I fear this may not turn out well.

 

Then we go to the Examiner, where Howerton is leaving one of the best jobs in San Francisco journalism to become a City Hall aide. Yes, “chief of staff” sounds glamorous, but there are only three people on a supe’s staff, so for all practical purposes, he will be Breed’s policy aide.

And he will take a pay cut to do it.

I had a long conversation with Howerton about his move. I told him he was doing a good job at the Ex, that he was helping set the direction for competitive news coverage, and that it all seemed a bit odd to me.

I met Howerton when he was a Bay Guardian intern 20 years ago, and I was happy when he got the Ex gig. He’s a real journalist, someone who believes in the independence of a newsroom. He’s the one who stood up to the corporate overseers and refused to allow them to order a positive cover story on an advertiser. He was, at an outfit where the ownership side wants to push to make editorial do more with less and suck up to the money, the firewall his reporters could count on.

Now all of us in the local press and local politics are wondering: What happened?

Howerton told me that he had no intention of leaving the Examiner, that all was going well (or as well as it could be in a world of limited revenue, questionable business models, and constant financial pressure.) “This is nothing I was looking for,” he said. “But the longer I’ve been a journalist, the more interested I’ve become in public policy. I feel like I just don’t know enough, and this seems like a wonderful opportunity for education. I’m excited for that.”

He said the election of Trump made him want to “take more direct action, and I hope I can make a difference” at City Hall.

Howerton is close with Conor Johnston, who is leaving the position that Howerton will take over, and “he suggested it,” Howerton said.

It’s an interesting choice for Breed: Howerton freely admits that he has no background in public policy — but he’s got a lot of background in news media. And if Breed is contemplating a run for mayor in 2019, that would be helpful to her (perhaps more so than a serious policy-wonk aide). She’s ambitious, and if it’s not the mayor’s race it will be something else — I don’t see Breed settling comfortably into a low-profile job when she’s termed out.

For the record, the Ex endorsed Breed for supervisor over progressive challenger Dean Preston this fall.

Reporters, sad to say, are leaving jobs in the newsroom all the time these days to become press secretaries and spokespeople for politicians and city agencies, and in some cases are moving into lobbying the political consulting world. It’s sad not because there’s anything wrong with being a press secretary or lobbyist but because there used to be long-term careers in journalism, with decent pay and pensions, and that’s slipping away. So people do what they have to do, and I totally understand.

I also understand journalists wanting to get into public policy. I have been doing that for 30 years, but I’m lucky: I’ve been working for publications that have no problem with reporters delving into, proposing, pushing, and taking a stand on policy issues.

But this makes me nervous on a lot of levels. I get that Howerton wants to learn about policy. I get that he’s friendly with Johnston, who wrote for him. I hope this is not a sign that he realizes his job at the Ex wasn’t a long-term prospect, either for financial or political reasons.

And Howerton, who is used to the role of a journalist who is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, is moving to the role of supporting someone who is very much a part of the local power structure. Breed has empowered the conservative members of the board with her endorsements and her committee assignments, and is known to be caustic with reporters who criticize her. (See: me.)

Gregory Andersen, the current managing editor, will take Howerton’s job. I wish him luck. I worry this may not turn out well.

 

 

 

 

  • SF Sunset Guy

    While I appreciated sfist.com while I was allowed the courtesy of posting there, Jay Barmann can take a hike back to the east coast, and re-create a safe space there, away from irreverent opinions that he and his hidebound staff cannot tolerate.

    It is a good aggregator of local and area news, but their insular and myopic Jonestown narrow-mindedness only serves to reinforce the echo chamber effect of SF’s worst instincts, politically and intellectually.

    • SnapsMcKenzie

      It’s that human douche Caleb Pershan who destroyed SFist’s comment section by banning the best commenters after he was criticized for an article he wrote. Millennials cannot tolerate criticism, they’re used to constantly being praised. And it’s sad since even Eve noted how much she enjoyed SFist’s comment section before it was decimated.

      • 4th Gen SF

        Don’t kid yourself. Eve is also a snowflake who banned people.

      • BRCitizen (Greg)

        Don’t feel bad. It wasn’t just you conservatives that they banned. They banned me after I mentioned how Kamala Harris got her start in politics. It’s all part of the same phenomenon, of course. Any thought that deviates from the establishment liberal Democrat PC line, be it criticism from the right or the left, is intolerable to their sensitive psyches.

        • SnapsMcKenzie

          The thing is – I’m not a conservative. I realize they basically banned everyone, which made it so self-defeating. That comment section was one of the few where I felt I actually learned something.

        • pch1013

          They banned me two years ago because I told a white supremacist to fuck off.

          I guess I shouldn’t have been so uncivil.

  • Earl D.

    Then we go to the Examiner, where Howerton is
    leaving one of the best the only jobs in San Francisco journalism …

    Ultimately, the state of SF journalism is horrible. I’m always shocked reading articles from ten and fifteen years ago (talking mid-early 2000s, not pre-Internet, yo) and seeing how dramatically better the stories were. These are the Examiner, SF Gate, and San Francisco Magazine caliber publications, saying nothing of sad demise of the Chronicle and the publications that are no longer around. sfist is an absolute horrible news source. I feel embarrassed for myself even reading it. (There was a time when I wouldn’t read crap like that out of principle) Yet, Tim’s exactly right. In this day and age we have to be happy they exist. If they were to go down or even worse become Breitbartized they’d take a noticeable amount of SF reporting down with them. So, depressing.

    • It seemed to me from the outset that SFist existed to make Gothamist look better.

    • Do Something Nice

      The Chronicle was never a great newspaper. But it was entertaining.

    • 4th Gen SF

      SF Magazine is now “Modern Luxury” yet a bunch of snowflakes run it. You may like it in spite of it’s name.

    • BRCitizen (Greg)

      I miss the old SFBG, before BBB cashed out.

  • Y.

    I used to live in LA years ago. I never imagined then that I would be envious of the LA Times as a good paper, at least compared to the Chron.
    I haven’t figured out why it’s been so hard to have a decent press in SF. I imagine one reason is that it serves such a small population, since the city is so culturally isolated from the rest of the Bay Area, whereas the LA press serves 15 million people. Small town newspapers don’t have the resources to be adventurous.
    Another reason, I imagine, is that we’ve had 20+ years of the same political dynasty running the city. There is no risk in publishing fluff when political battles are considered predetermined.

    • dfgb

      Lol…SF isnt a small town, and the chronicle is not a small time newspaper. The SF chronicle has a little less than half the daily circulation of the LA times, and is distributed throughout the Bay Area (population 7.5 million) and NorCal (pop. 15 million). It’s not limited to SF city limits in coverage, or circulation. But yeah, it sucks.

  • Y.

    “Gregory Andersen, the current managing editor, will take Howerton’s job. I wish him luck. I worry this may not turn out well.” Very diplomatic. This is not much of a ringing recommendation.

  • Foginacan

    The core writers there don’t have a firm hold on San Francisco yet. It’s painful to read, and the last 2 months especially have been signaling the staff were busy looking for jobs elsewhere.

  • Rosh HoshHosh

    Speaking of the current state of journalism…

    I noticed this piece is categorized as opinion, and that this is the first article individually written by Tim for 48hills to be categorized as such. It would seem this is a response to the comments from the “Sheriff evicts 100-year old” article.

    I also noticed above Tim refers to SFist as a blog. Sana told me directly in the comments of the eviction article that 48hills was an independent news media – not a blog. Sana also stated in the comments of that article, “This is an opinion piece …,” but the article was not labeled as such.

    And there’s a reason this is important. As the article states newspapers have seriously deteriorated. But what it doesn’t state is how blogs and independent news medias have sprung from the ashes, and this has given rise to a new dimension on how the public obtains information.

    So it begs the question – what is the difference between blogs and independent news medias when the formats are so similar?

    The difference is you shouldn’t write a journalistic piece, throw in a little op-ed, and then say you are an independent news media reporting the issues. This is one of the ways misinformation in the current media environment is able to spread so quickly. If it’s a blog, it is allowed and there needs be no real adherence to journalistic ethics and standards.

    Whatd’ya say Tim, am I right? I’m just trying to figure it all out…

    http://48hills.org/2017/02/10/sheriff-evicts-100-year-old/
    https://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/

  • sebra leaves

    Any word on where Conor is going?