Switching sides

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Following the waves of layoffs that have occurred over the past year at several newspapers in the Bay Area, former top editors and reporters are reinventing themselves as media spokespeople, also known as "flacks," after the jackets that deflect incoming rounds of ammunition. At least a half-dozen prominent journalists have succumbed so far.

Their job now is to stamp out unsettling questions from their former colleagues or put a positive spin on bad press, like calling a slight dip in San Francisco’s homicide rate last year a huge success for Mayor Gavin Newsom or characterizing his lurid affair with a subordinate as a chance for him to heal emotionally.

They’re perhaps most famous for the phrase "no comment," but flacks the world over would likely prefer a more honorable description, like the one promoted by the Public Relations Society of America: "Public relations helps our complex, pluralistic society to reach decisions and function more effectively by contributing to mutual understanding among groups and institutions."

Spoken like a true flack.

So who better to work as a media relations executive than a former reporter? Newspaper insiders know more than anyone else how to kill a story or at least blunt its impact by instilling doubt in the mind of the reporter. It’s not uncommon for journos to hear "That’s not a story" from the new flacks.

Another tactic, used by C.J. Cregg, the fictional flack in Aaron Sorkin’s television series The West Wing, is to invite uncooperative reporters out for coffee and off-the-record chatter until they’ve been befriended. District Attorney Kamala Harris’s press office is famous for coffee invites.

Among the newspaper expatriates:

Chris Lopez, an editor of the Contra Costa Times who was laid off by parent company MediaNews Group last year, took a job as a communications director for the Denver host committee of the Democratic Party’s 2008 convention.

Paul Feist, formerly the Sacramento bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year to serve as a communications secretary for the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Tom Honig, who recently departed as the longtime editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, accepted a job with Armanasco Public Relations, an affiliate of Hill and Knowlton, which represents such illustrious clients as McDonald’s, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and Starbucks. Hill and Knowlton helped McDonald’s diminish fallout from the 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock attempted to survive exclusively on the fast-food chain’s food for 30 days, with disastrous results (his health condition plummeted).

Honig, however, promised Sentinel staffers Nov. 30 that he wasn’t betraying the values of news reporting and proclaimed himself a martyr hoping to save the Sentinel from further staff cuts enacted by MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton.

"Just because you’re in public relations does not mean you’re a liar," the paper quoted Honig as saying. "What I do now is tell people’s stories. This is just another way to tell people’s stories."

He’ll make a praiseworthy spinner indeed.

Lopez and Honig could not be reached by deadline. Nor could we get hold of a spokesperson for the spokespeople at the Public Relations Society of America. Feist wouldn’t comment when we contacted him.

There are other defectors. A former Chronicle reporter from the paper’s Sacramento bureau, Lynda Gledhill, is now a spokesperson for State Senate leader Don Perata, and a San Jose Mercury News capitol reporter, Kate Folmar, is working for the press office of Secretary of State Debra Bowen. And former Chronicle City Hall reporter Charlie Goodyear is now working for the high-powered SF flack firm Singer Associates.

Newspaper giant MediaNews set the trend this year for pushing career journalists into public relations. The company laid off scores of people after it purchased several newspapers in the Bay Area, including the Sentinel, the CoCo Times, and the Mercury News. But other Bay Area newsrooms, including the Hearst Corp.–owned Chronicle, today have literally half the staff they had just a few short years ago.

Lopez previously worked for Singleton’s flagship paper, the Denver Post, which he helped earn a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Columbine shootings. Columnist Charles Ashby of the Post‘s rival Pueblo Chieftain pointed out Dec. 10 that two more former Post staffers are now working as press secretaries for Colorado governor Bill Ritter and reporters from other large Colorado papers are today handling public relations for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the University of Colorado.

Gene Rose of the National Association of Government Communicators insists citizens are better served by bureaucracies that contain former reporters.

"With the shrinking news hole and with less reporters to cover news, agencies and governments are being forced to figure out ways to communicate more directly with people one-on-one," Rose, also a former reporter, said.

The interim dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school, Neil Henry, documented the phenomenal rise of public relations in this year’s book American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media (University of California Press). In particular, he notes, TV news organizations have grown increasingly reliant on polished video news releases produced by flacks, which sometimes air verbatim, as opposed to expending their own dwindling newsroom resources. The VNRs, as they’re called, give "coverage" of a product or idea the veneer of journalistic credibility, when in fact they’ve been created by professional manipulators.

"For the concerned citizen and certainly for the dedicated American journalist, it is horrifying to see how significantly business and political advertising has compromised the mission of the news industry, at times with the industry’s full participation," Henry writes.

He adds that in 2004, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson lured more than 20 journalists, including some of the state’s best, into his administration with the promise of good pay.

So who else in the Bay Area plans to depart for the dark side? No comment.