The 49ers Story, or Bad Newspapers Make Good PR
Early last week, 49er flack Michael Colbruno alerted local press outlets that the football team would be "rolling out Roberta Achtenberg" at a press conference. The ex-supervisor, current Chamber of Commerce operative was going to announce, for the second time, her support for the $100 million in revenue bonds the team says it needs to finance a new stadium at Candlestick.
Colbruno's reference to "rolling out" conjured an unsettling vision: Achtenberg wheeled onto a stage like a wax museum dummy and then carefully rolled behind the curtain until needed again. And, because she'd already said she backed the plan, the press conference contained no news whatsoever.
That didn't stop a flock of media types from showing up, including reporters from Channel 4, KGO radio, and the Chronicle and the Examiner, and it didn't stop them from doing stories on the press conference. Newsworthiness has ceased to be a factor in most reporting on the 49ers stadium (a recent Matier & Ross column on 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s gambling ties being a notable exception).
PR is now the rule.
Each time the 49ers' flacks dole out a prefab "news" item, the city's press corps scrambles for first dibs.
The Ex, Chron, KGO radio, and Channel 4 all came through with stories.
When coverage does deviate from the script created by the DeBartolo PR machine, it never strays far. The Achtenberg rollout was a case in point.
The Ex's Eric Brazil began his story on a skeptical note, pointing out how 49ers President Carmen Policy mistakenly referred to a woman unionist as "Mr." But he was soon quoting the labor types and Achtenberg to the effect that the proposal would bring only good things to the city.
To his credit, Chron City Hall reporter Edward Epstein attended the event and skipped over Achtenberg's non-newsworthy performance. In what could have represented a show of independence, and even enterprise, he interviewed Policy about the stadium proposal instead.
The headline of the ensuing Page One story even sounded enterprising: "Key Questions on Stadium Deal." But Epstein's story didn't address very many questions -- he limited himself to half a dozen -- and Epstein allowed Policy to duck answering most of the queries that were posed.
As a result, Policy and his flacks were delivered of a work that could double as a ballot mailer for the stadium's supporters. Sample: How will the 49ers finance their share? "The 49ers say they just don't know and don't want to mislead voters."
Epstein's interview with Policy was not only not a Page One story. It was not a story at all.
The same questions that have dogged the stadium proposal since it was first announced more than two months ago remain unasked and unanswered.
What will the stadium actually cost? What share does the city's $100 million loan represent? What does the city get in exchange? How many millions in property taxes is the city forgoing by "owning" the stadium and leasing it back to the 49ers? What kind of lease will the team sign? Who will pay for roads, sewer, parking, and other site improvements?
And the question that lies behind all others: Why the hurry? Why does there have to be a vote in June? Why isn't there time to find and provide those answers to the public?
The flimsy reason given by supporters for the early bond election date -- that Candlestick could lose out on hosting the 2002 Super Bowl if a new stadium isn't approved now -- doesn't hold up to even moderate scrutiny. San Francisco is precisely the type of city -- photogenic, snowless, and adept at partying -- that the NFL wants for the Super Bowl. Whether it comes in 2002 or some other year, the Super Bowl will come here, and keep on coming back.
For a brief period back in early February, the city's two dailies gave the appearance of actually examining the 49ers proposal closely.
In a Feb. 8 story, the ordinarily passive Epstein and John King, another Chron City Hall reporter, had the temerity to report that Harvey Rose, the Board of Supervisors budget analyst, found the deal full of holes. Their story landed on Page 1. With good reason. Rose's findings "[undercut] claims by the 49ers and Mayor Willie Brown that a flood of new sales tax revenues would cover the city's contribution to the $536 million project," they wrote. "It is certain to provide ammunition to critics who say the stadium deal amounts to public subsidy of a successful football team."
Matters grew even hotter when, two days later, Policy defiantly threatened the Chron's own editorial board, saying he'd move the team if the stadium bond issue didn't pass. That, too, made Page 1, above the fold.
But the Chron's editorial writers responded to Policy's arrogant threat with a mere slap on the wrist. They scolded the 49ers for doing badly with the stadium proposal "from a public relations standpoint."
Ever helpful, the papers then ran stories about how the team could mend its PR, and, sure enough, soon there was a new, improved, "humble" Carmen Policy.
Two months after that blowup and counting, the coverage is now all but exclusively focused on image. Stories are pegged to staged events, and given prominent play despite their extremely thin, if not nonexistent, news value:
* The Ex devotes a sizable chunk of front-page space to report on a press conference in which the city's labor groups say they endorse the stadium bond. The 49ers promised the unions all the construction jobs for the project. It would have been news if the unions hadn't endorsed the stadium.
* Both the Chron and the Ex gave prominent play to a 49ers press conference announcing the team's "decision" to offer domestic-partner benefits to employees. City law requires it to. Only if the 49ers had balked would news have occurred.
* And John King managed to make the front page of the Bay Area section with a press-release story about the 49ers' promotional junket to a mall in Ontario, Calif., that's supposedly the model for what the 49ers intend to build at Candlestick, in conjunction with the stadium.
That set off a real scramble, according to 49ers flack Colbruno.
"They've [the media] been so competitive," he said last Friday, with considerable satisfaction.
It's understandable that Colbruno sounded pleased. He'd just scored a rare one-two punch. Flattering Page One stories about the Ontario mall ran in successive editions of the Ex and the Chron. And that was the day before the junket. The papers were in such a competitive rush, he reported, they flew their reporters down early.
The Chron's version, which ran Friday morning, had the truly over-the-top headline, "The Disneyland of Malls." Both stories gave the shopping center a lavishly illustrated spread -- oh, the multiplex movie theaters, the "designer clothes" outlets, the food courts, the parking, the advertisers who will fill the pages of the papers. (OK, they didn't go quite that far.)
And all this front-page "news" space for a mall that might be something like a mall that might be built here -- if taxpayers pony up $100 million.
"Everybody wanted to beat everyone else to the story," Colbruno said. "If one of them knows the other one's doing something, they want to get it first."
The old journalistic cliche is thus turned into a weapon for civic boosters: Get the story first, and with the right PR.