So Long, San Francisco Chronicle

What Happens to a Newspaper When It's No Longer Credible?

Among the great sadnesses a person who loves her city and devours the news can experience is the loss of trust in a media outlet. Specifically, her hometown newspaper.

There was a time when I looked forward to opening the San Francisco Chronicle. I've lived in the city for most of my life, and it was a simple pleasure to spread the pages out on the dining room table, reading all the happenings in Baghdad by the Bay and beyond. I believed the stories were correct, trusting that the journalists performed their jobs as objectively as possible. The assumption was that they conducted thorough investigations and did real-world legwork. Most importantly, that eyebrows shot up when information disseminated from City Hall or a biased source seemed fishy and would take feeling as a signal to dig until the true facts emerged. 

Additionally, I believed that everything that was published on the front page was there because it was a vetted cross-section of the most crucial events playing out in our world. After all, the editorial team decides what goes in and what’s left out. It paints a picture. This is what you need to know, now.

Consequently it was exciting when, about ten years ago, the Chronicle asked if I would be among their new City Brights writers. We were chosen because we were “luminaries'' in the city; public figures in everything from the arts to technology. It was an illustrious group, including former mayor Willie Brown and comedian Will Durst. Our columns ran on SFGate, the digital version. I was given carte blanche over the content I produced. As my primary beat is consumer finance, I covered it using San Francisco as a backdrop. (My story about See’s Candy vs. Godiva was a hit, eliciting a slew of boisterous comments from passionate readers.) City Brights was discontinued in 2012. A damn good run. 

Since then, I have continued to read the Chronicle, especially for regional news. I also contributed, writing an editorial about what to do when you see a person on our streets who appears to be in distress. Columnist Heather Knight did a pictorial feature on me, and we toured the city together, discussing the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Tenderloin. (I tossed the brown dress I wore that day because the comments about it were so brutal. Fine. It was an ugly dress.) 

Clearly the Chronicle and I have a long and great history, so it is with immense sadness that my time as a subscriber is coming to an end. Most stories are not worth reading because they’re so shallow and skewed. As San Francisco descends deeper into lawlessness, chaos, and blight - something residents, businesses, and visitors know - the Chronicle maintains a bizarre party line: Crime is not happening, and if it is, it’s not that bad. Look, we have statistics from our new, specialized data collection experts! All is well, all is well, all is well. Do not believe what you see. 

We now have our very own Pravda. 

The final nail for me was the front page on October 16, 2021. Walgreens Inc. had just announced it would be shuttering five locations in the city, bringing the total closures to 23 since 2018, largely due to constant and uncontrolled retail theft. 

Residents and workers were upset because they knew how bad shoplifting had become, not just in the drugstore chain but in supermarkets, big box stores, and small businesses. 

The city has been trying to portray the crimes as organized, but in reality it’s mainly individuals wandering in, taking what they want, then leaving with the goods. They either use the merchandise or sell it for their own profit. Such property crimes are rarely reported to the police because even if the thieves are caught, they aren’t prosecuted. Most of the thefts fall under the $950 threshold for felonies, and district attorney Chesa Boudin has made it his platform to avoid prosecution. I even reported how easy it is to steal, and demonstrated it by going undercover as a shoplifter at a Target store.

Nonetheless, the Chronicle made the decision to go with a series of propaganda filled reports. On the front page, each story claimed that what we’re witnessing is false. The paper even went so far as to dredge up a story from July by a New York criminal justice critic asserting that shoplifting is all a silly panic that “desperately needs some context.” The story was widely ridiculed (the comments are priceless) because his premise was so absurd.

So why rerun a dated, distorted story? Why add more to the false narrative that rampant crime isn’t causing retailers to pack up and leave with additional stories that are so poorly researched? Why haven’t the Chronicle’s editors and journalists stood up and said, “No, this doesn’t seem right. We’re going to do our own investigation and publish the results, even if it differs from the official numbers. That’s what a good newspaper does.”   

Now we have a problem. A major media outlet that was once respected has lost credibility. Though there are a few fine reporters and columnists left, the reason to read is waning. I hope the Chronicle changes course and takes a stand against partisan reporting. 

In the meantime, I went to cancel my subscription but was presented with the option to keep it going for an additional three months, for 99 cents. The price matches its current value, so I agreed. After that time has run, I’ll decide if it still is. I hope it’s worth a lot more.