Refining in Richmond: UC Berkeley J-School Reporters Surpass Chevron “News” Site

By Stacy Finz

Bill Moyers and Rachel Maddow have called.

They want the story of how 20 UC Berkeley journalism students took on big oil accused of trying to buy an election—and control the news—in Richmond.

Chevron spent $3.1 million dollars to advance three Richmond candidates: Nat Bates for mayor, and Donna Powers and Charles Ramsey for city council. The stakes were high for the second largest oil company in America. For nine years it has been trying to upgrade its 2,900-acre petroleum refinery in this East Bay city while fending off community resistance from residents angered by its refinery’s fires and safety record. This summer, the Richmond City Council approved the $1 billion modernization project. But because the project is not a fait accompli—the company must clear other legal steps before starting construction—Chevron recognized the value of having a friendly mayor and city council and the importance of defeating candidates critical of the company. As part of that strategy, the company, through its public relations firm, Singer Associates, Inc. started its own news website.

That site, the Richmond Standard, has been publishing community news on a daily basis—except, that is, negative stories about Chevron.

But the oil giant’s $3.1 million seems not to have been well-spent. When the ballots were tabulated, every Chevron-backed candidate went down to defeat.

For that, many are crediting a news website run by UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Since school started in fall, the student reporters of the Richmond Confidential have been relentlessly covering the election and were the first to expose Chevron’s big-dollar contributions. They also set the record straight on some of the attack campaigns against anti-Chevron candidates, and reported on the Richmond Standard’s affiliation with Chevron.

“Richmond Confidential is a great program that’s done a lot for Richmond,” says Mayor Elect Tom Butt, currently a Richmond city councilmember. “More than any other news organization they helped to set the record straight on the election. They broke down all of Chevron’s campaign expenditures. Even though it was public record, they were the only news organization to do it. I’m not saying everything they did was quality, but I saw some of the best in their work during the election, especially the investigative stuff.  The traditional media doesn’t have time or the resources to do it anymore.”

Richmond Confidential was founded in 2009 out of Berkeley’s journalism school with a partial $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Today Robert Rogers, who began as a student journalist working on the site, is co-editor of the website, a lecturer for the university, and a reporter for the Contra Costa Times. The other co-editor is David Thigpen, also a lecturer at Cal. The idea was for first-year journalism students to get hands-on experience covering a 108,000-population community, reporting on everything from local events to crime.

But this fall, the publication propelled itself into the national spotlight when the student reporters started exposing Chevron’s involvement in the election and the oil company’s hiring of former San Francisco Examiner reporter Mike Aldax to start the Richmond Standard.

“I can’t envision a more exciting or valuable opportunity for a student journalist,” Rogers says. “Reporting in a city as news-rich as Richmond and being able to make a real impact on the community’s future would be valuable on its own. But in this situation the students got to cover a unique battle with extremely controversial issues, which turned out to be a national story.”

While Richmond Confidential put its efforts into covering the election, the Standard steered away from the topic, with only a couple of exceptions: a report that Contra Costa County’s website had gone down on Election Day, and a story about voter intimidation at the polls. The day after the election, the site dutifully announced the winners, but that was it.

Given his affiliation with Chevron “it would’ve seemed like electioneering,” says Mike Aldax, the Standard’s sole reporter and editor, who freely acknowledges that the site will not publish anything critical of Chevron.

While the regional news organizations popped in occasionally to cherry pick the biggest campaign stories, it left the field wide open for Richmond Confidential.

The reporters zeroed in on everything from campaign contributions to looking at councilmembers meeting attendance and out-of-town travel expenses. They fact checked a Chevron-funded campaign against termed-out Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who successfully ran for city council. The opposition tried to make the case that McLaughlin traveled more than any other Richmond politician: In one web video, McLaughlin was shown getting onto an airplane while a narrator said, “Gayle McLaughlin ran away when we needed her the most. Why would we elect her to City Council?”

It turned out, according to a Richmond Confidential analysis, that McLaughlin traveled less, and spent less on trips than City Councilman Nat Bates, the Chevron-backed candidate for mayor. In fact, the analysis showed that she had a better meeting attendance record than any other councilmember.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Richmond Confidential had a high impact on the election,” Rogers says. “Its investigative reporting lifted the veil on Chevron’s campaign strategy and helped provide honest and straightforward reporting that assisted voters in making informed decisions at the polls.”

Brett Murphy, a 23-year-old Cal journalism student who covers economic development for Richmond Confidential and had written for magazines and a website before graduate school, says he has never been part of a story this big.

“Chevron is such a looming presence here,” he says. “There’s nothing better than a big corporation trying to buy an election and getting to jump in the deep end. You see all these attack campaigns on billboards and commercials and this enormous sense of duty comes over you to expose the truth. We know big stories like this don’t always come along. We got lucky and we’ve had a blast.”

Aldax, in the meantime, cruised around the East Bay town in his Toyota Prius, looking for alternative stories—anything from hip-hop singers to the works of non-profits. Chevron told him he could have an office at the refinery, but Aldax says working out of his Prius or Starbucks is more convenient. On most weekdays he is able to post five stories to the Standard’s website.

He bristles at the notion that Chevron is buying its own news. “It’s no different than the Bay Citizen,” he said, pointing to the non-profit news organization founded by the late Warren Hellman, a San Francisco private equity investor and Berkeley alum, who believed that the local for-profit newspapers weren’t paying enough attention to the arts or doing enough investigative pieces.  “The Standard isn’t a publication to make Chevron look awesome,” Aldax contends. “We’re confident that Chevron will get covered in other publications. The whole point is that we’re going to fill in the blanks—cover the stories that aren’t getting written about.”

For some, having a news organization paid for by Chevron highlights just how much Richmond is a company town. According to Aldax, the site gets between 50,000 to 60,000 unique visitors a month. The student-operated Richmond Confidential says it received about 63,000 visitors last month, about double what it received the previous month.

As for how Richmond Confidential staff regarded the Richmond Standard: “We never thought of it as competition,” Murphy said. “But we did look at it as a source and as a tip sheet.”

The rest of the media is looking at both publications. The Standard has gotten nearly as much publicity as Richmond Confidential—just not as positive. As the British newspaper The Guardian pointed out last week, “Aldax has been called a corporate prostitute, a propagandist for big oil, an apologist for pollution, Voldemort and more.”

The reporter told the paper that he prefers to be called “a journalist.” And he says that as long as he’s competing with Richmond Confidential it’s upping his game.

It’s unclear whether the Chevron-created website will survive, although Aldax says it’s been budgeted for at least another year. It’s also uncertain whether it will serve as a model for other corporations hoping to advance their agendas, or a cautionary tale.

“While the Richmond Standard isn’t the first community-driven journalism site that doesn’t rely on advertising revenue, it is among the first to receive seed funding from a major corporation,” the website declared last year in a story announcing its role. “We believe the website has the potential to blaze the trail for a new model of corporate-sponsored, community-generated news.”

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It’s very easy to take pot shots at a major corporation that has provided thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue over the past 100 plus years. I am a retired police officer for the City of Richmond and a Cal Alumnus, having a reasonable perspective of the issues. Chevron (originally Standard Oil) has has a significant presence and impact on the economy and growth of Richmond since its inception. While many companies have come and gone ( Ford Motor Company, Kaiser Shipyards, American Standard to name a few) Chevron has remained as the predominant source of employment and revenue for the city. While Chevron has a responsibility to operate in a safe, compliant manner, I would suggest an atmosphere of cooperation, rather than confrontation for the benefit of all.
I wonder, Dave, if you still live in Richmond, and if you do, what area. I have lived in my current home here for over 26 years. We raised our son here. We had cats and dogs and snakes and lizards. We had great neighbors. We didn’t have any decent parks for my son to play in, but Berkeley wasn’t that far, and I didn’t have to do a sweep for drug paraphernalia before I could let him play. And we had three major fires and explosions at the refinery and a handful of other times when we had to “shellter in place.” These particularly concerned me, since my son had pretty serious asthma. I’m not going to blame Chevron for the parks, or for causing my son’s asthma - but I know that I didn’t see the benefit of all the money Chevron donated to the city. They all had strings attached. We’ll sponsor the fireworks, but you have to have a huge banner above the stage saying brought to you from Chevron. Everything was like that. Meanwhile, the schools were terrible, people mistrusted the police and Chevron - they felt like both lied to them - and it wasn’t a great place to raise your kids. But I got lucky. I met a lot of the neighbors in my neighborhood. Someone took a chance on us and opened a great coffee shop so I didn’t have to go to Berkeley anymore. A group of parents took on the task of fixing up the park that had become a drug den when the city didn’t have the money. Some of us decided Richmond needed new trees, so we started a group to do planting days, and got the city to provide the trees and our original training. We’ve now planted I believe over 300 trees, not just in our neighborhood, but in parks in other neighborhoods that people or the city had reclaimed for the kids. We got a national park (Rosie the Riveter) and the Craneway was saved from demolition because of severe earthquake damage. It now hosts concerts, conferences, car shows, private affairs, and the 3rd of July fireworks, arguably the best in the bay area. None of this was done with Chevron money, except the aforementioned fireworks. Yet for six months before every election, Chevron buys up all of the billboards in town and plasters them, first talking about how great Rosie the Riveter park is and how nice the parks are and how much Chevron loves them all - as if they had anything to do with it. Now out of about 2500 employees less than 200 are hired from Richmond. Rather than do recommended repairs to their facility, they put clamps on leaky pipes and then ask to expand so they can refine even dirtier fuel. Oh, and they spent millions of dollars trying to get the candidates they supported elected. This time, however, it backfired. With all the billboards proclaiming lies about some candidates and the smiling faces of those they supported - asking us to vote “no” on the candidates it didn’t like, as if they were an initiative rather than people running for office. We got sick of it. They could have used that money to buy a lot of good will from the people. Combined with the money they spent on the campaign two years ago, that money could have paid for ten full-time music and art teachers for the high schools with labs equipped with brand new state of the art equipment and all the art supplies anyone could want for those new art teachers to use in classes. Instead, they tried to buy the election. And they lost. And all of the other big companies you mention left many years ago. Maybe they just needed to move on. Or maybe they were tired of operating less than a mile from a plant that didn’t seem to mind that it was belching out toxic fumes and pumping polluted water into the bay. If Chevron really wants an atmosphere of cooperation, they need to stop lying to us, stop trying to buy candidates for mayor and city council, and start cooperating with us to improve Richmond.
As a Richmond homeowner of 27+ years, WELL PUT ELLEN! So Dave, where do you live on that fat RICHMOND-PAID retirement? I’m betting it’s not Richmond.
Richmond Confidential has been a blessing for Richmond for years and again in 2014. Robert Rogers did good reporting early on when he was part of RC starting group. However Robert Rogers got eventually hired by the reactionary paper Contra Costa Times. From the Contra Costa Times Robert Rogers became (by whatever reasons) Corky Booze’s defender and justifier regardless of Booze’s outrageous actions towards the Progressive mayor Gayle McLaughlin and the Progressive vice-mayor and openly gay official Jovanka Beckles. No matter what Booze’ did Robert Rogers gave him a pass in his CCTimes articles and described his actions in soft and sympathetic terms. He also described the Richmond Progressive Alliance and members in biased terms and colors, reflecting the pro-corporate nature of his pay-masters. Just review Rogers’ articles in the CCTimes. Judge by yourselves. In the last year, Rogers lowered down a bit his pro-Booze’ flag under an overwhelming and citywide repudiation of Corky Booze’ actions. Now I see Robert Rogers promoting his relationship with Richmond Confidential. I hope that Rogers has what it takes to shake-off the pro-corporate bias he has shown against the RPA, and goes back to his roots in the early days of Richmond Confidential….and once more Harriet Rowan: You are amazing!
It is hypocritical to peer into the influences of Big Oil in Richmond, while ignoring Big Oil on the University campus. It’s easy to investigate the other guys. It’s a challenge to examine the corrupting influences on university education by an oil corporation a few minutes walk across campus. That’s the nature of public education. Students are discouraged from examining their own university institutions. The Richmond Standard is corporate propaganda, but can University students dare to engage in self-examination? The problem of Big Oil extends far beyond Richmond, far beyond UC Berkeley, to the global catastrophe of global warming. The Richmond Chevron refinery should be shut down as part of an effort to nationalize the energy sector for the purpose of shifting off fossil fuels.
“Dave’s not here.”
I don’t live in Richmond (wouldn’t if you paid me), so I don’t have a horse in this particular race. I do find a couple of things to be of interest here, however. Dave’s simple observation that Chevron has an obligation to operate safely, and then his suggestion that folks should try and find a way to jettison the knee-jerk “I hate business” bigotry and search instead for ways to communicate and compromise (I paraphrase) sound pretty logical, not to say grown-up. It is bewildering (and I suppose revealing) that such innocent suggestions touch off such a stream of accusatory philippics. I didn’t see anywhere in all of this any discussion of what Chevron’s proposed improvements would entail. Any of it aimed at making the sprawling campus safer and more community friendly? I’d be shocked if it wasn’t. I also find it humorously ironic that Chevron is raked through the coals for trying to gold plate its story, while America’s legendary rapping grifter, Jessie Jackson, sweeps through Richmond unmolested, collects his protection money from that same corporation, and is gone before anybody lays a glove on him. Question: have the cub reporters over at Berkeley’s school of investigative “journalism” ever drawn a bead on that con artist? Didn’t think so. Reading the book-length screed of Ellen, I offer this suggestion: find somebody who can teach you the communicative advantage of the paragraph. And to Mark (sigh)… Mark, it is too long to go into here, but trust me, nationalizing things does not lead to good things. I recommend you do some reading on how government theft of private industry worked out in Mexico and Venezuela, to name just two very sad stories, never mind in the Soviet Union and Communist China. A great deal of learning there. In answer to your predictable question: Berkeley for five years, followed by San Francisco and Marin, and now up in the Sierras. I am partial to Point Richmond, though, if you care. Especially like the Up and Under. Carry on.
Ellen, a thousand apologies. I see now where your lack of paragraphing was perhaps not your doing, but (presumably) a result of the way the website formats the comments. My submission fell prey to the same stream-of-consciousness editing machinery.
I would like for a Journalist to interview those who live (over 50+ age) in Point Richmond, and please interview the business owners and property owners too! Ask how Chevron(Standard Oil) has affected and infected Its’ community.Next, I would like for a Journalist to interview those who live (over 50+ age) in North Richmond(unincorporated area) and ask that community the same question. Finally please print the interview. Let’s hear from the people whose names were not on the ballot.
Karl, since you simply HAD to say you don’t live in Richmond “and wouldn’t if you paid me”, maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself. I don’t know or care where you live but please don’t disrespect my community.
To Dave, it is a well-known fact that of the employees at the Richmond Chevron refinery, less than 10% are Richmond residents. Yes, Chevron provides lots of jobs but not for this community. Oh - and you know the “big whigs” in Chevron keep their entertainment dollars where they live in San Ramon.