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Politics & Policy

Spat over Chinese newspaper contracts shines fresh light on city’s odd media meddling

Pedestrians walk past the Sing Tao newsroom in Chinatown of San Francisco | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

A Board of Supervisors committee on Wednesday added a third publication to a newspaper outreach contract affecting the city’s Chinese-speaking community, the latest turn in a weeks-long spat over how to allocate a few thousand dollars’ worth of ads to local newspapers.

The details are complicated. But the episode is a reminder of how San Francisco’s city charter has been weighed down over the years by special-interest ballot initiatives, and how supervisors have used the process to preserve their right to meddle in issues that may affect their political fortunes.

The current drama involves three rival Chinese-language newspapers, two of which are national and one a registered foreign agent. But the dispute dates back to Proposition J, a 1994 law that required the city to advertise municipal services to local residents.

Passed by voters after a heavy lobbying campaign by the politically connected Fang family, which owned a now-defunct newspaper called the San Francisco Independent, the law calls for newspapers to be awarded city advertising contracts based on a set of objective criteria such as circulation and whether the paper is printed in the city. The city’s Office of Contract Administration solicits applications, and awards the annual contracts with the goal of reaching all the city’s neighborhoods and language cohorts. 

But supervisors can also make amendments, essentially adding carve-outs for certain favored newspapers. Hence, there is sometimes drama, and accusations of favoritism. 

This year’s dust-up began on June 22, when District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan made an amendment to designate Sing Tao Daily—a national paper that runs a local edition—as the city’s outreach venue to Chinese speakers in the Chinatown, Visitacion Valley, Richmond, Sunset, and Excelsior neighborhoods. Sing Tao Daily isn’t published in San Francisco, meaning that it was added by amendment in prior years as well.

District 1 Supervisor, Connie Chan, takes notes during a Board of Supervisors meeting in City Hall | Camille Cohen | The Standard

Portia Li, publisher of the independent Wind Newspaper, slammed Chan’s addition of Sing Tao Daily in a July 11 letter to the supervisors and Ethics Commission and an editorial on July 12.

In the editorial, she called Chan’s amendment “special treatment” and suggested that the supervisor added the Sing Tao Daily because of its favorable coverage of her. Chan appears frequently in Sing Tao media, and recently co-hosted one of their radio shows for eight weeks. In the editorial, Li also noted that Sing Tao was recently forced to register as a foreign agent by the U.S. Department of Justice due to its allegedly serving as a platform for Beijing’s foreign influence operations. 

Li also alleged that Wind newspaper’s circulation was unfairly scored lower in comparison to World Journal, which had initially won the contract for citywide outreach to Chinese speakers. Li’s complaints eventually led World Journal—also a national paper with a local edition—to be dropped and replaced by the Wind Newspaper.

Frances Hsieh, Chan’s aide, wrote in a statement that Sing Tao Daily was added because it serves a significant number of Chinese-speaking residents, particularly in areas with high concentrations of Chinese immigrants. 

On Wednesday, District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar made yet another amendment to the contracts, this time to add World Journal as an outreach venue for Chinese speakers in the Portola and Sunset neighborhoods. 

According to Mar, the city’s Chinese-language papers “have built up their readerships in distinct ways to serve different parts of the community.” But Mar also acknowledged that the contracting process “could have gone more smoothly” in a possible reference to the accusations of political favoritism by Li. 

So now, the Board of Supervisors is set to approve a set of contracts that oddly demarcates the city’s large Chinese-speaking population, which spans many of the city’s neighborhoods, by newspaper. The board will consider the contracts on Sept. 6.

A pedestrian stops to look at a display of Sing Tao News newspapers at the Sing Tao News offices in Chinatown. | Getty Images

The dust-up marks the second time in recent years that the city advertising contracts have sparked accusations of political meddling. 

In December 2020, Supervisors Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen attempted to drop The Marina Times, a neighborhood newspaper serving the northeast part of town, from the city’s advertising contracts due to what they deemed illegitimate reporting—along with acerbic tweetstorming—by that paper’s editor, Susan Reynolds. 

Their effort initially prevailed, with several dissenters that included board elder statesman Aaron Peskin. Besides differentiating between the content of the Marina Times and Reynolds’ tweets, Peskin called for a “larger public policy conversation” on Prop J to include consideration of digital media. 

Though Peskin’s call for reform of Prop J earned some tart remarks from colleagues, they were swiftly drowned out by free speech watchdogs who slammed the board’s vote as a violation of First Amendment protections. The decision was reversed later that month, with the Marina Times added back to the outreach list.