Let's be fair to PG&E, says the Chronicle, and applies its news principle to a study on the value of small business over chains in San Francisco

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By Bruce B. Brugmann

Last Thursday May 23, as I was preparing my introductory remarks for our third annual small business awards ceremony at Anchor Steam Brewery, I found a timely article buried in that day's business page of the San Francisco Chronicle that helped illustrate what I call the Chronicle's "Let's be fair to PG&E" news principle.

The article, I pointed out, reported on a major $l5,000 study that was specially commissioned by the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance and provided valuable ammunition to independents in their endless battle with the chain stores. The study was made available exclusively to the Chronicle in hopes that the paper would do a major story, play it up, and give the small business community a much needed boost to a large number of readers.
It was timed for Small Business Week San Francisco 2007 (May 5-12), but the Chronicle was more interested in putting out a special ad supplement with no mention of the study, stuffed with deadly proclamations and boilerplate. Significantly, there were virtually no ads from small business. The rates were too high and the format too boring.

Instead, I noted, the Chronicle, owned by the Hearst chain out of New York and a champion of big business and big development and big chains, gave the story its patented "Let's be fair to PG&E" approach or in this case "Let's be fair to the chains." The Chronicle buried the story in its prime burial plot at the bottom of the right hand page of the business section where it buries stories it doesn't like: for example, the Reilly story on his settlement with the Hearst and Singleton chains, which we called a Reilly victory because he forced the chains to compete (see Guardian coverage and other blogs.)

I held up the page and noted that AMD and the Gap and IBM all got the big heads above the fold.
And I noted that the small business story got the "Let's be fair to PG@E approach" with a much smaller drowsy head below the fold, "Local merchants reinvest in city, their study says." Then, right there in the subhead, was the clinker right out of the PG&E/big chain playbook that read, "Retail federation spokesman skeptical of survey's claims." It was buttressed further down in the story with some nice counter quotes, and a telling phrase that, gosh, golly, gee, those tricky merchants out there in the neighborhoods "acknowledged they see the study as a competitive weapon." Wow! Pow! Wow!

The "Let's be fair to PG&E" quote comes from Daniel Butler, vice president of the National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail federation. He said, surprise, surprise, that those tricky merchants "are going to look for metrics that bolster their argument against larger competition. It sounds like they are looking for ways to control zoning and keep other companies from coming into the market." Ah, yes, survival of the fittest and survival of the biggest, a formula for bringing the malls of Pleasanton to the neighborhoods of San Francisco.

The key to the "Let's be fair to PG&E" line is that, if there is a story critical of PG&E or the big guy, the paper works hard to be "fair to PG&E." Thus, in this small business case (a) the story didn't lay out the case that well for the study in the first place (and provided no clue to find the study), (b) the reporter went out of her way to find a big business spokesperson to counter the study's findings while small business spokespeople are rarely ever called for counter comment when the Chronicle runs a comparable story promoting PG&E or the big chain and (c) but, when there is a major study giving some major ammunition to the value of small business over the chains, then the Chronicle goes out of its way to undercut the study and provide counter quotes and lots of pointed skepticism. The result is that the study and its findings at its very unveiling have been undercut publicly and made vulnerable to attack Too bad.

I put the question to Harold Hoogasian, proprietor of Hoogisian Flowers and our Golden Survivor winner, and Clifford Waldeck of Waldeck's Office Supplies, our chain store alternative winner, who were sitting in the front row. Did you ever get a call from the Chronicle asking you, as a small business leader, to comment on the impact of big development or big chain activity. Hoogasian, surprised, said no and Waldeck, surprised, thought for a moment and said maybe he had a call or two.

Here's just a couple of points the Chronicle story omitted: "The independent merchants of San Francisco provide the community with a tremendous injection of economic activity. In this analysis, the study focused on the positive: increasing independent market share by l0% would yield nearly $200 million in economic activity and nearly l,300 new jobs. However, it must be remembered that the reverse is also true: shifting a further l0 per cent of sales to chain merchants would deprive the community of the same $200 million and put those l,300 employees out of work.

More: "There can be little doubt that chain merchants have been garnering increasing market share over the last two decades, in San Francisco as in the rest of the country. No complex analysis is required to recognize that a continuation of this trend would, over some period of time, cost the city millions in economic activity and hundreds of jobs." Good points, right?

There is much much more. It is a breakthrough study aimed at providing the evidence that independent merchants need to battle the chains that are knocking them out of the neighborhoods. It was done by a highly respected research firm, Civic Economics in Austin, Texas. I urge you to look at it at civiceconomicssf.com. There are lots of dynamite stuff and statistics and arguments that help make the small business case. You can see for yourself a good example of "Let's be fair to PG&E" journalism. And then check every Chronicle story about PG@E and note there is never any mention of the Raker Act Scandal or how PG&E blocks the federal mandate to bring our own cheap green Hetch Hetchy power to San Francisco to our own residents and businesses or any comments from public power leaders or even much mention of the public power fight or community choice aggregation, the current public power measure before the board that PG&e is fighting ferociously. And then, to dramatize the principle, the Chronicle runs PG&E greenwashing ads on its front page without the paid advertisement line.

And of course the Chronicle never mentions, as I told the small business leaders, how PG&E screws small business in more ways and with more force and finesse than any other entity in town. That would be a big story. But that would also be unfair to PG&E and to the big chains.

P.S. The story is by Ilana DeBare, who has the small business beat and normally writes excellent and useful columns on small business and is well regarded by small business leaders, including me. Was she a victim of the deadly "Let's be fair to PG&E" virus? I always hate to criticize individual reporters because I know that they are subject to the iron whims of Hearst news policy, but then their names or on the stories. For example, how can you blame reporters and editors for the ban that Hearst has placed for decades on honest reporting on the PG&E/Raker Act scandal? (See Guardian stories going back to l969 and the Bruce blog). I will have much more to say on this "Let's be fair to PG&E" reporting and this delicious only- in -San Francisco scandal. B3