SPECIAL REPORT: How the San Francisco Chronicle Became the Paper of Record for the Santa Clara-49ers Story

By Robert Haugh

In an interview with Santa Clara News Online (SCNO) last week, Ethicist Dr. Tom Shanks had some interesting things to say about the Bay Area’s two largest papers.

He was critical of one. “The Mercury News, for example, used to be strong on ethics and transparency but they either don’t understand what’s happening in Santa Clara or they have concerns about offending a major advertiser,” said Shanks.

“Their recent editorial called the 49er contributions ‘troubling.’ That was a major understatement. They also placed the responsibility on the elected officials, not the team.”

But Shanks was complimentary of another: “The San Francisco Chronicle has done some recent good reporting and they’ve become the paper of record for this larger story even though it’s technically not in their backyard.”

Shanks was a former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He also taught communications.

Shanks says that he’ll evaluate media coverage differences as part of his case study on the Santa Clara-49ers story.

SCNO documented a major difference between the Mercury News and the Chronicle in 2018 when they had really different takes on the City’s successful effort to stop the team from reducing its own rent. (There are links to other anti-Santa Clara news stories, too).

The 2018 Mercury News’ story headline:  49ers blast Santa Clara for ‘fuzzy’ math

The 2018 Chronicle’s story headline: 49ers get sacked again in rent battle with Santa Clara City Hall

In 2020, when the 49ers spent $3 million to elect 3 Council members, the Merc wrote just one story about it.  According to a former Mercury News reporter, someone outside the news department had to push for it to be written.  Wow.

This year, the team has spent well over $1 million between the fake organization Santa Clara Now and independent expenditure committees to back Councilmembers Anthony Becker, Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy.

The Chronicle has extensively covered the spending, writing multiple stories. 

The Mercury News has only written one story about the 49ers spending even though it started in February. And reporter Grace Hase combined the team’s spending with a story on The Related Companies’ $100,000 independent expenditure for Lisa Gillmor.

According to a former Mercury News reporter, the fact that the paper has written more stories about the 49ers spending $300,000 in the San Jose mayor’s race shows “either a bias or a blind spot.”

The Chronicle has also done some serious reporting on the major legal settlement between the City and the team. In an in-depth analysis, they reported that the 49ers offer to the City was a fraction of what the team said it was – and what the Mercury News reported.

Hase was the author of two Mercury News stories on the settlement. She wrote that the deal was worth $13 million. Her only source was the team.

Hase was contacted multiple times last week for comment but did not respond.

When former reporters and other media experts were asked why the coverage between the papers is so different, SCNO heard a lot of theories.

Some suggested that the Chronicle is just a superior newspaper. “They have real investigative reporters and real columnists that can write,” said one expert. “The Merc’s newsroom has been gutted of its talent.”

Others, like Shanks, suggest that the 49ers are a major advertiser. Since the Mercury News is owned by Alden Global Capital who pushes its papers to make higher profits even at the expense of good reporting. So they can’t afford to offend the 49ers.

One source pointed out that the Mercury News Publisher Sharon Ryan has a friendly relationship with 49ers CEO Jed York on the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Board of Directors.

But since the team left San Francisco, the ownership doesn’t really have personal friendships with the Chronicle at the highest levels.


  1. After watching my 49ers lose tonight’s pathetic game, I’m beginning to believe that whole ‘karma is a bi***’ thing. Merry Christmas.


    Ebenezer S. York

    PS Thank you for the Golden Goose that is the
    City of Santa Clara!

  2. These comments demonstrate the unrealistic expectations and frankly, ignorance, we have about our media.

    PBS – Federally subsidized. They do a good job of disclosing SOME dollars as it relates to the stories about Big Tech. But have you ever heard a disclosure about GOP candidates and past GOP presidents trying to pull all their funding to kill PBS? And how the Democrats saved them? No you don’t. This is kind of a key disclosure that affects political coverage, don’t you think?

    Merc – Doesn’t need to disclose anything since they work of subscriptions and adds. I’m guessing they don’t cover 49ers since they don’t get enough clicks to matter. Plus Merc is owned by the CC Times that has much more in-depth coverage.

    SJ Spotlight – Obviously a Union driven online joke. But they disclose a long list of those supporters and their sponsorship levels. So why is it we never say, ‘well it’s yellow journalism sure, but they disclosed their financial support so I’m ok with trash news.”

    Understand my point about disclosures being useless?

    • News.

      Cpras about emails between becker jain and the 49er lobbyists who run the 49er committees cited in fppc complaints are being blocked by steve ngo until after november 15th

  3. This is an email I sent today to District Attorney, Jeff Rosen. Here is the email link if others want to contact him: jrosen@dao.sccgov.org

    To the 49ers Officials and the City Council members who are on the teat of the 49ers, and undoubtedly will read this, I do not think I am at all alone in these thoughts, by a very long shot.

    Dear DA Rosen,

    I am a very long time and proud resident of Santa Clara. I have no political connections and write only as a concerned citizen of the city.

    The 49ers have been a pariah for our city. They have proven themselves to be dishonest, corrupt, and without any moral compass regarding the best interest of the city.

    I admit to not being highly educated on what is kosher or not when it comes to special interest groups, and their funding and legality. I do know that the citizens of Santa Clara, including myself, are being bombarded by slick political ads in both snail mail and social media, by “community groups of concerned citizens” which appear to be shell groups set up by the 49ers to groom and elect those candidates in Santa Clara which will financially benefit the 49ers. Reading the legally required fine print on these ads state they are paid for by the Debartolo Corporation and the 49ers. No business should have that sort of power to fool citizens and warp the democratic voting process through their billions of dollars, and to quash elections free of undue influence.

    This matter is worthy of a civil grand jury, at the least, and perhaps a criminal investigation, imo.


  4. Newspapers today are in a world of hurt. The reality is they need advertising. And yeah, the 49ers are a big one for the MN. But they should disclose it when they write stories. NPR does a great job with transparency when they tell listeners that they receive financial support from the likes of Facebook or Amazon when they broadcast stories about those companies. Newspapers should do the same. They owe it to their readers.

  5. Is there much of a difference between the SF Examiner writing stories as a “media partner” of the Niners and the Merc News?

    The only difference I guess is that the Examiner is honest about it and discloses it.

    • Journalism’s job is to help promote democracy. SFExaminer is at least disclosing their source of information and SJMN is bought and paid for. Just like SJSpotlight and SJInside. No credibility or democracy. I hope SFCHRON will continue to provide credible news that will guide voters to November 8 to a democratic result that is fair and proper. Not based on fake news and $$$$$.

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