If you attend any meetings at San Francisco's City Hall, you're likely to find shutterbug Luke Thomas snapping shots for his Web site, Fog City Journal. His 10,000 monthly readers tune in for news and opinion catering to the interests of city government's left wing. Typical was the Jan. 4 headline, "The Case for John Avalos," in which Supervisor Chris Daly used the Fog City site to urge his colleagues to elect fellow progressive John Avalos president of the Board of Supervisors.
On June 10, Thomas was where he often is: in the Board of Supervisors' hearing-room press box — this time attending a meeting of the board's budget and finance committee, which is chaired by Avalos. It was discussing how to divvy the money the city spends on public notice advertisements in newspapers.
"I said to the supervisor, 'Why aren't online publications being considered? There may be a time when there are no newspapers. Why not consider Web-only sites as well?'" Thomas recalls.
He may not have realized it at the time, but he'd just uttered the rallying cry of a statewide movement of politicians and bureaucrats who say that newspapers are an outdated and obsolete medium for informing the public about official government business.
In San Francisco, Supervisors David Chiu, Ross Mirkarimi, John Avalos, and David Campos — members of the city's left "progressive" wing — have quietly slipped antinewspaper language into a proposed charter amendment that is being characterized as a mere measure to require five-year budget plans. Sprinkled unassumingly throughout, however, are edicts to strip part of the $450,000 in annual city advertising placed in newspapers, primarily the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Instead of publishing the notices in newspapers, the proposed measure would have the city post notices only on its Web site, www.sfgov.org.
"I think there has to be some innovation in upgrading our ability to reach out and spend limited dollars on advertising, and modernize the way we do it," Mirkarimi said during a June 17 committee meeting. "The way we are doing it now is almost archaic." State law requires San Francisco and other cities to use newspapers for official notices, potentially limiting the proposed charter amendment's scope.
However, a pending bill in the state Legislature backed by California's local government clerks would allow public agencies to stop paying newspapers to publish government ads such as legal notices, and instead direct residents to a municipal Web site.
Newspaper publishers say this is yet another in a long list of efforts by bureaucrats to hide their activities from the public.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said allowing cities and counties to limit public notices to government-run Web sites would create a conflict of interest. Politicians and government employees, he said, often seek to hide, rather than publicize, their business.
"The issues are whether or not it's appropriate for local government to publicize its function, the making of local laws, to the public, and the question is, 'What is the best way to do that?'" Newton said. "What this bill says is, 'Local government knows best how to inform people of its operations.' But that's not their mission. Their mission is to have illegal serial private meetings."
However, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), sponsor of the state bill, said she was merely responding to a desire by municipal officials to save money and streamline operations. "Frankly, I didn't expect the tempest that we've encountered," she said in reference to opposition she's faced from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "Nobody wants to lose a source of revenue. I'm sensitive to the fact that newspapers are struggling due to declining readership. I order newspapers, and I understand that it's important to get news through a newspaper. But I also realize that I'm a minority."
This idea that news organizations are an outdated way of obtaining information, and that other Web-based media are more up-to-date, comes up a lot nowadays. The public itself, however, is not buying this line of dot-com bombast.
Despite their financial problems, newspapers, whether online or in print, remain by far the most popular source of information about public life. The Chronicle's Web site, SFGate, has more than 3.4 million unique monthly visitors, 400,000 more than it did a year ago, according to the Web analytics site Compete.com. The Examiner's parent company site, Examiner.com, had 3.7 unique million visitors this past month, six times its traffic a year ago; www.sfgov.org, by comparison, had 223,000.
Californians outside San Francisco obtain an even greater portion of their information from newspapers and newspaper Web sites. As an example, Newton cites Grass Valley, a city two hours north of San Francisco, whose official Web site gets 150 daily visitors, while the Grass Valley Union newspaper's site gets 45,000. For finding specific information, a government Web site is a natural place to go. For a citizenry that wishes to remain casually informed about the day-to-day business of government, newspapers and their Web sites are by far the preferred alternative.
So the question becomes: Are these bureaucrats and politicians truly attempting to make government more efficient? Are they trying to abet government secrecy? Or are they attempting to punish their old bugaboo, the press?
San Francisco's left-wing politicians have long denounced political coverage by the Chronicle and the Examiner, the primary beneficiaries of the city's legal-notice ads. Could it be that this proposed charter amendment, which would be a blow for the two struggling publications, is more about payback than saving the city money?
Obviously, no elected official will admit to such pettiness. But it is worth pointing out that these "progressive" pols are not above steering business to their friends in the press.
I get this idea from the comedy of errors that ensued last week when Avalos attempted to take amateur newsman Thomas' suggestion to consider Web-only sites. Avalos seemed to see that as a way to throw a few thousand tax dollars to political supporters.
Last year, in addition to official city advertisements published in the Examiner and the Chronicle, the city spent about $50,000 in official "community outreach" advertising in various ethnic, gay, and other special-interest print media. This spending is the result of a 1994 voter-approved law intended to make sure minority groups see government notices.
At the June 10 hearing, Avalos proposed a new interest group in need of a special source of information, composed of people who obtain all their information online. But in a city that is host to Web sites such as Twitter, Technorati, and Digg, Avalos, with the help of board president David Chiu, found an old-fashioned way to join the digital age: They chose three online publications to be considered for "Internet outreach advertiser," each of which specializes in promoting the causes and careers of politicians like themselves.
In addition to the 10,000-reader Fog City Journal, proposed sites included BeyondChron.org, also with 10,000 readers, and the Bay Guardian's Web site, with 68,000. All three are left-leaning sites with content that consists largely of smoke signals sent among left-wing political insiders.
After the June 10 meeting, SF Weekly posted two stories on its news blog, The Snitch, pointing out the cronyism.
By the June 17 hearing of the board's budget and finance committee, Avalos' proposal had become a subject of farce.
Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann hadn't been told about the proposal, and told me he'd reject it outright. "We don't bid, or go in for, these city contracts," he said. "And we don't intend to do it now."
After the hearing began, Alex Clemens, a registered lobbyist whose consulting firm received $150,000 from city government last year, stood up and offered to post public notices on his own site for $1 per year. Putting this lobbying contractor in charge of city government information would pose a bad conflict of interest.
Apparently aware of the mounting absurdity his measure had inspired, Avalos put a stop to it. "This was a rare moment last week," he said. "We were caught off guard. We did not make the best decision about city finances. I do want to give an apology."
Somehow, however, neither Avalos nor his allies have moved to scrap their cagey charter amendment, which would go even further toward taking the job of dissemination of official government information away from news organizations and into the hands of bureaucrats and pols.