Sticking It to the Man  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2003

Sticking It to the Man   

The San Francisco Chronicle aims to improve its city one pothole at a time with its ChronicleWatch feature. City officials are less than pleased.

By Michael Duck
Michael Duck is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


Lazy Bay Area public officials beware: If you're not efficiently eliminating eyesores or pouncing on pothole patch-ups, this could be a job for...ChronicleWatch!

The daily feature in the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't shoot for the big targets of typical journalistic investigations. Instead, it calls mild-mannered civil servants on the carpet for failing to fix elevators, playgrounds and roadways.

"The idea is to hold public officials accountable," says Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein, who came up with the idea. "It was a way to...shine a light on things that were small and seemed small in nature, but really had an effect."

Since October, ChronicleWatch has been amassing complaints from readers and publishing descriptions of problems alongside the name, mug shot and contact information of "Who's responsible." The paper used to print the same complaint every day until it was resolved, but now all the yet-to-be-fixed problems are cycled through a sidebar. All the while, the Chronicle implicitly exhorts readers to stick it to the man until those darn public officials do their jobs.

Bronstein and lots of Chronicle readers think it's a super idea, but most civil servants aren't big fans. Some journalists, meanwhile, remain lukewarm on the subject. As John Mecklin, editor of the alt-weekly SF Weekly, puts it, "It's not what people who go to journalism school aspire to do."

"I think that it's a very interesting idea," says Claudette R. Ford, director of Oakland's Public Works Agency and a frequent ChronicleWatch target. But, she adds, "I think that it misses the point."

San Francisco's Department of Public Works Director Edwin M. Lee was more blunt. "Your paper continues its arrogant attitude to have us sweep sand off the beach, and now water off the highway when it rains," he wrote to the Chronicle. "Your paper does not deserve the fish bones I wrap in it."

"I really do hate upsetting the public officials," says Heidi Swillinger, the paper's community editor and ChronicleWatch coordinator since March. The hardest thing about her job, she says, is dealing with officials' anger.

But, Swillinger points out, the goal isn't to make officials happy--it's to make them do their jobs. She says she hears frequently from those who've gotten the runaround from officials. "It's definitely a service to readers.... It gives people an outlet for frustration."

Swillinger and the reporter on ChronicleWatch duty (it's a rotating, three-month assignment) sift through readers' complaints and pick out worthy candidates for the feature. Many of the problems have been fixed already or just aren't important enough to publish, Swillinger says.

She has tweaked the ChronicleWatch concept since she's been in charge, expanding its focus from San Francisco to the entire Bay Area and posting periodic updates on long-term problems.

Ford has noticed some of the changes and appreciates that ChronicleWatch gives credit where it's due. "They do at least publish when we get things fixed," she says.

But Ford wishes ChronicleWatch didn't imply that officials are slacking off if a pothole isn't filled pronto. "We want them to be fixed as well," she says. "But we have very limited funding sources." She says the Chronicle should look at the big picture: Most infrastructures in the country are aging and crumbling, and public works departments don't have the money to fix everything properly. Bronstein defends the narrow focus. "Big-picture public policy can take a long time to change," he says. The small items in ChronicleWatch, on the other hand, "can and do get fixed in really short order." Plus, he says, readers love it. "In market research that we've done, people mention it gratuitously as something they enjoy."

Still, there's been resistance in journalistic circles. Even Bronstein admits there was "a fair amount of skepticism" from the newsroom when he pitched the idea. And when a few Sacramento Bee readers asked Ombudsman Sanders LaMont about starting a similar feature in his paper, he responded in an April 27 column that the editors "do not seem inclined to copy it anytime soon."

Not that LaMont has anything against such a crusade. "I don't think it's a bad idea, and readers like it," he says. It's not "great journalism that changes the world...but if it fixes a pothole, that ain't bad."

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