|November 10, 2014|
Chevron's one-man 'news' room.
|Mike Aldax has been called a corporate prostitute, a propagandist for big oil, an apologist for pollution, Voldemort and more. But he'd rather you call him a journalist.|
Every morning, after all, he drives across the Golden Gate bridge to Richmond, a gritty town on San Francisco bay, and spends the day seeking out local stories, interviewing people, attending events and then writing them up for a news site called the Richmond Standard.
He casts his net wide: a renovated baseball field, an ice cream store's award-winning marijuana-infused edible, a burglary suspect shot by police, a city hall debate, a pumpkin carving contest.
Aldax, 36, who previously worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and Bay City News, is a one-man news operation: he is the sole writer and editor of the Richmond Standard, which launched in January.
"I've always loved hyper-local news," he said, perched over his laptop in a Starbucks which doubles up as his office. "It's about finding stories that matter to the community."
There's a catch. The $240bn oil giant Chevron entirely funds the site, and Aldax is employed by a public relations firm, Singer Associates, which is paid to improve Chevron's image.
Critics say the site is an audacious attempt to disguise propaganda as news and manipulate public opinion.
Chevron has run a big and at times controversial refinery in Richmond for over a century. In 2012 it blew up. Smoke billowed over the city, prompting 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment.
The green-tinged Progressive Alliance which runs the city council is suing Chevron, citing neglect and lax oversight. Relations between the company and city hall are toxic.
The company waged a $3m effort to replace its critics with pro-Chevron candidates in this week's elections -- an unprecedented amount for this city of 107,000 people. It didn't work: progressives won the four council seats, including the mayorship, which were up for grabs.
The Richmond Standard played a controversial role in the election and is set to continue as a unique voice in the community.
In addition to other news, Aldax covers Chevron donations to schools and community projects, takes swipes at Chevron foes, and has a special section for company announcements called Chevron Speaks.
"If you're looking for criticism of Chevron you're not going to find it in the Richmond Standard," said Aldax, with the directness of one used to newsrooms, not press offices. "When I took this on I gathered that this would not be a website where I challenged the refinery."
It did, however, let him cover other topics of interest and importance to his readers. "I do what I do. I'm not embarrassed about it. I'm proud of it."
What Aldax does, exactly, is a source of contention which shines a light on the decline of traditional media in the United States and the role of corporate money in public life.
US newsrooms have shed thousands of jobs over the past decade, according to the American Society of News Editors. Public relations, on the other hand has thrived: for every working journalist there are now 4.6 PR people, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 3.2 a decade ago.
Some credit the Richmond Standard with filling a news void left by the decline of the likes of the San Francisco Chronicle, which has cut local news reporting.
"The Standard produces content that would not exist otherwise, and which has some benefit to the community," said Robert Rogers, who edits Richmond Confidential, an online news service produced by UC Berkeley graduate journalism students. "But it's a site that takes the form of a straight news product. And that's not what it is."
Richmond's vice-mayor, Jovanka Beckles, a member of the Progressive Alliance, gave a harsher verdict: "It's solely a marketing strategy to distort and distract from the real news. It's part of the way Chevron bullies this city."
The refinery was built by Standard Oil in 1902 and contributed jobs, taxes, infrastructure -- and pollution -- which created an ambivalent relationship with the largely African American and Latino population.
Beckles accused Chevron of "dropping a metaphorical nuclear bomb" in its failed attempt to install a friendlier council. The Richmond Confidential tracked the lavish spending on billboards, mailers and television and online advertising.
Braden Reddall, a Reuters energy correspondent-turned Chevron spokesman, said the company backed pro-growth candidates. "Chevron supports leaders that share the company's commitment to policies that foster an economic environment where businesses can thrive."
Reddall rejected accusations that the Richmond Standard was a Trojan horse. "It's producing community-driven news and is funded by Chevron and that's never been hidden."
The site declares on its front page that it is "brought to you by Chevron Richmond" and aims to provide "important information about what's going on in the community, and to provide a voice for Chevron Richmond on civic issues".
Some commentators say that is insufficient warning, and that readers can mistake the site as an independent news outlet. The progressives view it as a nefarious corporate prong.
"They consider me Voldemort," said Aldax. The former San Francisco Examiner reporter still considers himself a journalist and feels stung by attacks from other media outlets which, he said, did not visit Richmond nor ask him for comment.
Married with a young son, he describes himself as politically liberal and an environmentalist who recycles, makes compost and worries about global warming.
Aldax said he took the Richmond job not for what he termed a modest salary improvement but for the chance to cover local news better than shrivelled newspapers, which rely on agency copy and homogenous, click-bait stories to win advertising.
"Richmond is a fascinating place and I can cover stories that are heartwarming and useful to the community without worrying about advertising. I saw gigantic holes that could be easily filled. It's incredibly freeing." Of almost 1000 published news stories, 90% made no mention of Chevron, he said.
Aldax works from his car and cafes and says he feels proud to present a more rounded portrait of a community which often appears only as a crime story in other media outlets.
He denied masking spin as news. The site explicitly stated its identity and separated news from company statements, which appeared in the Chevron Speaks section. To suggest readers were misled or confused was patronising, said Aldax. "They're not stupid."
Other outlets such as Richmond Confidential, Richmond Pulse and La Voz de Richmond regularly bashed Chevron, he said. "They're anti-Chevron and that's fine. That's their voice."
A pro-Chevron voice enriched plurality and allowed him, or the company, to challenge inaccuracies, such as the claim that 15,000 people were hospitalised -- as opposed to sought medical treatment -- after the refinery explosion, he said.
Critics accuse Aldax of inaccuracies, or worse. He wrote that Beckles, the vice-mayor, made a "verbal assault" on homophobic hecklers during a council meeting. Other outlets cast her as the victim. Another of Aldax's pieces depicted climate change activists as rowdy bong-smokers.
During Tuesday's election he ran a story, citing several sources, about "widespread reports of voter intimidation" by Green party representatives.
Aldax said there was a tradition of companies bankrolling newspapers dating back to the railway barons. That would not mollify critics, he lamented. "Being called a prostitute is hard. It can make you wonder about your career."