Switching sides

Local newspaper shake-ups are leading former journos to the dark side of media relations


Following the waves of layoffs that have occurred over the past year at several newspapers in the Bay Area, former top editors and reporters are reinventing themselves as media spokespeople, also known as "flacks," after the jackets that deflect incoming rounds of ammunition. At least a half-dozen prominent journalists have succumbed so far.

Their job now is to stamp out unsettling questions from their former colleagues or put a positive spin on bad press, like calling a slight dip in San Francisco's homicide rate last year a huge success for Mayor Gavin Newsom or characterizing his lurid affair with a subordinate as a chance for him to heal emotionally.

They're perhaps most famous for the phrase "no comment," but flacks the world over would likely prefer a more honorable description, like the one promoted by the Public Relations Society of America: "Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions."

Spoken like a true flack.

So who better to work as a media relations executive than a former reporter? Newspaper insiders know more than anyone else how to kill a story or at least blunt its impact by instilling doubt in the mind of the reporter. It's not uncommon for journos to hear "That's not a story" from the new flacks.

Another tactic, used by C.J. Cregg, the fictional flack in Aaron Sorkin's television series The West Wing, is to invite uncooperative reporters out for coffee and off-the-record chatter until they've been befriended. District Attorney Kamala Harris's press office is famous for coffee invites.

Among the newspaper expatriates:

Chris Lopez, an editor of the Contra Costa Times who was laid off by parent company MediaNews Group last year, took a job as a communications director for the Denver host committee of the Democratic Party's 2008 convention.

Paul Feist, formerly the Sacramento bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year to serve as a communications secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Tom Honig, who recently departed as the longtime editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, accepted a job with Armanasco Public Relations, an affiliate of Hill and Knowlton, which represents such illustrious clients as McDonald's, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and Starbucks. Hill and Knowlton helped McDonald's diminish fallout from the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempted to survive exclusively on the fast-food chain's food for 30 days, with disastrous results (his health condition plummeted).

Honig, however, promised Sentinel staffers Nov. 30 that he wasn't betraying the values of news reporting and proclaimed himself a martyr hoping to save the Sentinel from further staff cuts enacted by MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton.

"Just because you're in public relations does not mean you're a liar," the paper quoted Honig as saying. "What I do now is tell people's stories. This is just another way to tell people's stories."

He'll make a praiseworthy spinner indeed.

Lopez and Honig could not be reached by deadline. Nor could we get hold of a spokesperson for the spokespeople at the Public Relations Society of America. Feist wouldn't comment when we contacted him.

There are other defectors. A former Chronicle reporter from the paper's Sacramento bureau, Lynda Gledhill, is now a spokesperson for State Senate leader Don Perata, and a San Jose Mercury News capitol reporter, Kate Folmar, is working for the press office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

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