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

November 13, 2014
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 staffers Harriet Rowan, Brett Murphy, Semany Gashaw, Candese Charles

“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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