Chronicle Deserves “Shame” for Lead Story Attacking Yoshi’s

by Randy Shaw on June 4, 2007

In my May 22 story on how the Chronicle’s financial losses were self-inflicted, I noted the paper’s curious priorities in coverage. With Highway 580’s repair forcing the paper to end its “Meltdown at the Maze” series, and with the whales no longer in the Delta, the Chronicle turned to a “breaking” story for its June 2 lead: Yoshi’s jazz club issued a 10th anniversary CD with no African-American musicians. Was Yoshi’s action wrong and racially insensitive? Absolutely. Does the printing of 1000 CD’s by a jazz club most readers have never visited justify a front-page, lead story that accuses it of being “shamed” by the incident? Absolutely not. While Yoshi’s CD was the Chronicle’s defining story of the day, the paper provided few details about Mayor Newsom’s proposed San Francisco budget for 2007-08, released on June 1. No wonder the Chronicle loses $5 million each month while newspapers across the United States are making annual 15-25% profits.

After “breaking” the story on June 1 that Yoshi’s anniversary CD failed to include African-American musicians, the San Francisco Chronicle made this the lead story on June 2. The second story headlined that Yoshi’s was “shamed” and was pulling the CD.

In most newspapers, this follow-up piece would have appeared in a small-story in the entertainment section. But Chronicle editors were apparently so excited to accuse the small jazz club of being “shamed” that it became the main news section’s lead story.

It was deemed more important than new data showing increased global warming (relegated to page 3), and far more critical than explaining to readers how Mayor Newsom plans to spend $6 billion in taxpayer dollars for San Francisco’s 2007-08 budget.

It also received far more attention than the San Francisco Opera’s abrupt firing of its lead soprano, African-American Hope Briggs. Briggs’ discharge received a small story in the paper’s entertainment section the same day.

The City budget affects hundreds of thousands of people, yet was covered in a small story in the Bay Area section. There were only 1000 copies even made of Yoshi’s CD, and yet the content of its songs became the Chronicle’s most important story of the day.

And keep in mind that it became the lead story the day after the Chronicle had already broken the news about the racial exclusion.

Understand the context here. There is barely a single radio station on the AM or FM dial that is devoted to jazz. Other than Yoshi’s, one is hard-pressed to name another Bay Area jazz club. The Chronicle has not boosted jazz musicians since the long gone days of its legendary critic, Ralph Gleason, and its overall coverage of African-American musicians and cultural performers is nothing to be proud of.

If, as Glen Pearson, a College of Alameda instructor quoted in the June 2 story suggests, that Yoshi’s oversight “calls for a larger discussion of the dynamic of what jazz is all about,” then the Chronicle should have this discussion. In its entertainment section, not as the lead story on a day where major world, national and local events have occurred.

The fact is that half of the musicians who play at Yoshi’s are African-American. You don’t see this racial mix at the Mountain Winery concerts in Saratoga, or at the San Francisco Opera or symphony.

On the same day that Yoshi’s became the paper’s lead story, relegated to a small story in the entertainment section was the San Francisco Opera’s firing of African-American soprano Hope Briggs only three days before the opening performance. Briggs’ termination became a national story, raising serious charges of racial bias.

Why was Briggs’ story played down and Yoshi’s played up? Could it be that the Pacific Heights set targeted by the Chronicle attends the Opera but not Yoshi’s?

We can certainly hope that it had nothing to do with the fact that Japanese-American Kaz Kajimura owns Yoshi’s, while the San Francisco white elite have long controlled the city’s Opera.

After writing my piece on the Chronicle’s planned layoff of 25% of its staff, I learned that, contrary to popular assumption, the paper is virtually unique in the newspaper industry in being a money-loser.

The newspaper industry is thriving in the United States, with average profit margins of at least 15%. The reason we keep reading about layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers is that stockholders are demanding greater returns.

It is investor greed, not the Internet, that is killing newspapers. But the Hearst Corporation that owns the Chronicle is privately held, and is immune from stockholder pressure.

In other words, the Chronicle is one of the few major newspapers losing money, and perhaps the only one whose layoffs are needed to stem the flow of red ink.

Why does the paper’s top leadership not change in response to its colossal failure?

Sports fans know the answer well. Fans of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, or the NFL’s Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers, can automatically tell you the reason why Chronicle editors stay on regardless of their failures.

It’s called the phenomenon of the Mediocre White Men. No matter how ineptly the Matt Millen’s, Flip Saunders’ or Phil Bronstein’s of the world perform, they know how to keep the loyalty of their moneyed bosses and retain their jobs.

A story on who has made the decisions that plunged the Chronicle into losing $5 million a month would be quite interesting. But do not expect to read a story of this “shame” in its pages.

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