After 10 Years, Beyond Chron Still Going Strong

by Randy Shaw on April 7, 2014

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Beyond Chron. I’ve learned a lot about San Francisco politics, the media, activism, and the drive for social change from editing this site. Our anniversary gives me a chance to discuss our coverage of these issues and exciting future plans.

I started Beyond Chron out of frustration over the San Francisco Chronicle’s one-sided coverage of the December 2003 mayoral runoff between Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom. I strongly supported Gonzalez and felt that the Chronicle had become campaign literature for Newsom. I had written some pieces for the San Francisco Sentinel website during the election, and felt that a more professional looking site was necessary to attract more readers.

But the person running the Sentinel was content with his site as is, which led my organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, to decide to create our own site. Dean Preston was one of our attorneys (he now heads the statewide tenants group, Tenants Together), and he came up with the name “Beyond Chron.” Dean had a friend named E. “Doc” Smith who knew how to run websites, which is how the drummer and jazz critic got started with Beyond Chron.

Our Vision

My original vision for the site was threefold: BC would cover tenant issues too often overlooked by other media; enlist activists to provide inside accounts of San Francisco campaigns; and provide accurate coverage of the Newsom Administration. On the latter, BC would offer a contrast to the Chronicle’s still fawning reportage of the new mayor.

Soon after Beyond Chron began that I learned that one of my chief goals—enlisting activists to promote their causes—would fall short. Many activists have a desire to write but can’t find the time. Others lack confidence in their writing skills. Some feared alienating the Newsom Administration with criticism.

Casey Mills, our first managing editor, was a product of San Francisco State Journalism School and recruited students from the program to write for us. But most of the students had trouble meeting out time deadlines—i.e. covering a Tuesday event for a story to appear Wednesday—so that did not work.

This meant that I ended up doing more writing than originally planned. Fortunately, Paul Hogarth, an activist with college journalism experience, came on board to give BC a political punch that also expanded readership.

Most Important Stories

I see our most important stories as those that raised issues ignored by other media.

Topping this list for national stories was SEIU’s attempt in 2009-10 to takeover longtime union ally, UNITE HERE. Because SEIU financially supported many progressive publications, and had long been portrayed by the New York Times and others as the progressive model for unions in the 21st Century, nobody wanted to touch the story.

I had gotten to know key leaders in both unions in the course of my writing a book on how the farmworkers movement influenced SEIU and UNITE HERE. But my loyalties were clearly with UNITE HERE, and for months BC was the only news source on SEIU’s takeover effort.

BC became such a trusted source for UNITE HERE members that when I wrote an April Fool’s Day story in 2010 announcing that SEIU President Andy Stern had surrendered and admitted he was wrong (which I thought would be recognized as untrue), I got anguished emails from UNITE HERE workers who saw me as the only trusted media source on the struggle and believed what I wrote. I had falsely raised their hopes that the war against their union was over. I still feel terrible about it, and that’s why BC stopped doing April Fool’s stories (Stern and SEIU did surrender that fall, so story had happy ending).

Locally, I take greatest pride in a story I wrote in October 2010, “In District 6, Jane Kim Takes on the Machine.” I saw the Bay Guardian/ Democratic machine anointing their handpicked candidate to represent the Tenderloin and the rest of D6 as profoundly disempowering and contrary to what progressive politics is supposed to be about. D6 voters agreed, electing Kim handily.

In the decade prior to that story I had a good relationship with Aaron Peskin and used to talk to him about once a week; the only time we have talked since then is when we ran into each other briefly at a North Beach café.

Beyond Chron has never surrendered to the larger “groupspeak” whereby a small number of politicians and reporters define who and what is “progressive.” We have pointed out that those doing the defining are overwhelmingly white, often little concerned with poverty, and have long shown disrespect for the progressive Asian-American community.

Biggest Regret

My biggest regret is that many activists today still do not understand how to capitalize on online and social media. I discuss this in detail in my new book, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and it remains puzzling to me. BC and other online sources have such great potential to get important stories out that you would think all groups involved in social change struggles would eagerly embrace these resources.

But too many activists do not recognize the importance of placing stories in sites like BC and then promoting them like crazy on social media. Or fail to understand that the traditional media often picks up stories they learn about from BC and similar sites.

It’s frustrating for me to hear about great protests or campaigns not building broad public support due to a poor media strategy. Activists can generate their own media stories, and need to stop waiting for the traditional media—which has never been more fragmented anyway– to bite.

Choosing Stories

We choose stories based on the issues we care most about. As a publication of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, locally that means stories about tenants, the Ellis Act, the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, homelessness and the city budget.

Our key contributors are passionate about issues such as schools, a strong personal interest of mine. Lisa Schiff has written a School Beat column for BC for years, and has been honored by state educational groups. Dana Woldow has followed her path breaking stories on improving school lunch programs with a brilliant series of articles on “Big Soda.” Woldlow’s reporting is among the most persuasive and well-researched articles on the subject, and should help the San Francisco campaign to tax Big Soda on the November ballot.

Nationally, I try to promote stories about activists working for change. Particularly young activists like the DREAMERS. This leads to many stories on education, immigration reform and labor. We would run more on such environmental issues as the Keystone Pipeline and climate change, but they don’t attract readers on BC.

The Future

We are in the midst of BC’s first complete redesign. It will be a vast improvement. The new site will be up in early May. We are also adding reporters and technical staff, financed in part by a defamation lawsuit filed against BC and me by a landlord who had used the Ellis Act to evict a longterm tenant. The court determined it was a malicious SLAPP suit, and awarded us attorneys’ fees.

Yes, there is a delightful irony in that.

If someone had told me in 2004 that I’d still be running BC ten years later I would have said “no way.” Reviewing stories five nights a week, and coordinating daily with our great webmaster, David Virgo, can get wearying.

But what keeps me and BC going is our commitment to the issues we care about, and the recognition that if we don’t cover a lot of these stories, or report them more accurately than other media, nobody will. I know our Tenderloin and SRO residents really appreciate that events they are involved with are covered, and that the issues that impact them are exposed to a larger audience.

That alone is good enough for me. And it will probably keep BC going for another decade at least.

Thanks to all our contributors and readers for your support.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

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