SAN FRANCISCO — Chevron’s Richmond, Calif., refinery occasionally makes news for the wrong reasons: pollution, taxes, fires. Now the company has launched its own website to cover community news through its own lens.
The Richmond Standard offers a daily stream of local news, crime and sports stories, with an emphasis on short, entertaining features. Unlike the refinery’s existing newsletter, the Standard rarely covers Chevron directly, focusing instead on local residents, politicians and businesses. The website, which is fully subsidized by the oil giant, also includes a page, “Chevron Speaks,” where the company can post its own views.
The idea of the nation’s second-largest oil company funding a local news site harkens back to an era of journalism when business magnates often owned newspapers to promote their personal financial or political agendas. Now that mainstream newspapers are struggling to survive, online news sites are testing ways to fund their operations, said Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
But the idea of a company sponsoring news in a community where it operates still poses problems, he said.
“The tradition of press independence — even though in many times it’s more aspirational than real — is nevertheless a cornerstone principle,” Wasserman said. The Standard “is a different model. It’s clearly meant as a community outreach effort, so it’s born in an ethically challenged area.”
Chevron and Richmond have had a rocky relationship over the years. A massive 2012> fire at the refinery, perched on the city’s western edge, further strained a relationship that critics already compared to a bad marriage. Richmond officials have repeatedly sparred with Chevron over taxes, accusing the global oil giant of trying to stiff the city. Neighbors complain of air pollution that sometimes forces them to seek shelter indoors.
So a Chevron-funded naturally invites a healthy dose of skepticism from residents.
“There of course have been some questions — which we understand — about the motivations for this,” said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie. “What we’ve been saying is, ‘Give it time, go on the site, and trust us.’”
Local critics view the Standard as another attempt by Chevron, based just 35 miles away in San Ramon, to influence the conversation in a place where the company has often had an outsized role in public affairs. The company also funds a charitable non-profit group called 4Richmond and donates to candidates for local office.
“It’s like a campaign in a third-world country to completely dominate the public space,” said Andres Soto,Ö Richmond organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, a group that has fought Chevron’s plans to upgrade the refinery.
The Standard is the brainchild of Sam Singer, a San Francisco public relations guru known for managing crises and mending damaged reputations. He hired former San Francisco Examiner reporter Mike Aldax in early December to start assembling stories for the website, which launched in January.
The effort was sensitive enough that when a Chronicle reporter asked Singer about the Standard in mid-December, Singer said Chevron had not yet decided whether to pursue the project. The Standard’s first stories appeared online two weeks later.
The Standard, named for Chevron’s roots in the old Standard Oil empire, will not concentrate on investigative journalism, Aldax said.
Aldax has no newsroom or office, other than his Prius. He typically posts one or two stories per day, most of them short. As the former author of the Examiner’s “Law and Disorder” crime blog, Aldax shows a flair for cop stories. One of his recent headlines: “Easy bust: Man cuts off ankle monitor, but keeps it.”
Since he’s the site’s only full-time writer and photographer, serious investigative work isn’t really an option. Instead, Aldax tries to provide quick, straightforward stories on local events while hunting for features that other news outlets overlook.
“The whole concept is that we come out and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are, this is what we’re providing, there’s nothing hidden here,’” Aldax said. “Richmond residents are not going to be fooled — they know where we’re coming from. The onus is on me to provide information that’s factual and accurate.”
The Standard has won some praise for highlighting Richmond people and projects ignored by the Bay Area’s mainstream papers — the Chronicle included. The website makes Chevron’s sponsorship transparent, with a note placed near the top of the site’s home page.
“From one viewpoint, I’ve actually been impressed with some of what they’ve written,” said Tom Butt, a member of Richmond’s city council. “They’ve covered some things I haven’t seen people cover here before. On the other hand, they know who they work for, and they’re not getting involved in anything controversial. They’re certainly not doing anything that’s adverse to Chevron’s interests.”
But Aldax does, occasionally, write stories connected to Chevron and the refinery.
When the city recently released a long-awaited report about possible environmental impact from Chevron’s plans to modernize the refinery, he wrote a story that quoted a Chevron spokeswoman several times but did not quote any of the project’s opponents. Aldax did, however, summarize their complaints.
Aldax also spoke to Butt, who has been critical of Chevron in the past, but Butt declined to comment until he had a chance to read the report. The following day, the Standard also published a brief opinion piece from a union member in favor of the project.
Ritchie, the Chevron spokesperson, said the company does not edit or vet Aldax’s stories. “Mike is independent,” she said. “If it’s not on ‘Chevron Speaks,’ we don’t approve it. We don’t approve his content.”
Aldax said he believes the company could kill a story if it chose but he doubts that would happen. So what if another fire erupts at the refinery?
“I would absolutely cover the fire, because it’s a major thing happening in the community,” Aldax said. “I’d make sure I gave the readers all the information they need about the fire.”
But he probably wouldn’t investigate the causes, he said. Instead, the Standard would use the “Chevron Speaks” page to explain the fire.
“They’ll be able to come out and say, ‘Here’s what happened,’” Aldax said.