By Christopher D. Cook on Jun 28, 2013
On a recent Wednesday evening in San Francisco, a crowd of more than 130 people packed into a community center for a wonky two-hour discussion about Plan Bay Area—a detailed roadmap for regional growth that would displace thousands of people while cramming the city with pricey residential high-rises, and a whole lot of cars.
In a cover story two weeks earlier, Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond examined the little-discussed “smart growth” plan that, he wrote, would usher in another 280,000 people, 92,000 housing units, and 73,000 cars.
The June 12 community forum—developed and moderated by Redmond and featuring speakers from labor, environmental, community development and housing rights groups—inspired a still-bubbling conversation about how progressive movements can mobilize to create a far different, more equitable and sustainable future for the Bay Area.
Two days later, Redmond was out of a job—removed by the Guardian’s new corporate ownership after he refused to fire half of the paper’s editorial staff.
No warning, no thanks, and no severance.
The news sent shock waves through the city’s progressive communities, already embattled by gentrification, displacement, and related trends that could be intensified exponentially by Plan Bay Area.
Redmond broke the news himself in a blog he launched that same afternoon, declaring, “I am no longer with the Bay Guardian…[Owner Todd Vogt] and I had a major disagreement over personnel and editorial direction, and this is how it ended. I was hoping that if my employment at the paper I have helped build over all these years had to end, it would be on more friendly terms.”
Later that day, as community outrage and support mounted, he added, “I am overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of support I've seen in the past few hours since the news came out.”
As local LGBT labor leader Gabriel Haaland put it, “Tim is my local hero. He is the guardian for all our communities. His depth of understanding of the complexity of our issues will be sorely missed, and the Guardian’s credibility is suffering as a result of his firing.”
My heart sank instantly when I heard the news early that Friday afternoon from an editor at the San Francisco Public Press newspaper. Redmond, long a leading voice in Bay Area journalism and politics, had been a fixture at the Guardian for 31 years (I was city editor there for one of them). Now he’d been iced out.
“I feel badly, particularly about Tim, one of the finest editors in the country, in my opinion,” reflected Guardian founder and former publisher Bruce Brugmann, who sold the paper last year after publishing the weekly since he launched it in 1966. “Tim was the keeper of the flame…The irony is, the day before all this happened, Tim was out there moderating this amazing panel he had organized on the very progressive issues we had been covering all these years.”
Brugmann added: “Tim was largely responsible for making the Guardian the major progressive voice in San Francisco, a major force in First Amendment and public access issues throughout the state, and a national model for the alternative press throughout the country.”
Indeed, the news felt surreal: How could this prolific award-winning journalist be canned by the paper he helped mold into a nationally recognized standard-bearer among city weeklies? Since 1982, Redmond has been spicing up Bay Area journalism and politics with his mix of investigative reporting and trenchant, envelope-pushing political analysis and commentary.
Earlier in the week, Guardian top exec Todd Vogt—whose San Francisco Newspaper Company owns a growing share of the city’s print media—ordered Redmond to cut three people from the paper’s slender 6-person editorial staff. Redmond refused and was quickly ousted by Vogt, who later claimed the veteran editor resigned; Redmond insists he never resigned, and Guardian management has never provided a letter of resignation showing that he did leave voluntarily.
Guardian editors Steve Jones and Rebecca Bowe detailed the backstory of Redmond’s removal in a follow-up report a few days later—a story that ran despite a worrisome moment when Guardian management stopped the printing presses so Vogt could review the piece.
Caitlin Donahue, the paper’s culture editor, quickly accepted a voluntary layoff and left the paper, telling the Guardian: "Getting rid of Tim, and the others they told him were next, is part and parcel of the company's slice and dice attitude to their acquisitions. You can't run that paper after cutting nearly 50 percent of its editorial staff — or a good one, at least."
Todd Vogt did not return repeated phone and email requests for comment for this story.
Own Globally, Cut Locally
Redmond’s exit and the Guardian’s cloudy future reflect the larger crisis in alternative and mainstream print media. In a for-profit economy, with both news outlets and advertising money fractured and diffused via the Web, journalists continue to be slashed as owners balance their profit-loss sheets.
The SF Newspaper Company has been purchasing local media control at a startling pace: In the past two years, Vogt’s firm acquired the venerable (since 1865) Examiner daily newspaper, along with both city weeklies, the Guardiann and the Weekly. It is now reportedly exploring a 49 percent ownership stake in the Bay Area Reporter, a widely read LGBT weekly.
Vogt isn’t shy about his desire to buy up a whole chain of newspapers: "If it was just going to the Examiner as a standalone…I wouldn't have been interested," Vogt told the Wall Street Journal in May 2012. "The interest was in the opportunities to consolidate newspapers in the area or to launch new products."
Sitting quietly in the backdrop is Vogt’s well-heeled business partner David Black, a Canadian newspaper magnate whose Black Press owns or controls 170 publications in Canada and the US, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal.
"Media ownership consolidation inevitably leads to homogeneous content,” says Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a Bay Area media democracy group. “For progressives, that means public conversations that don't include us. For 30 years, Redmond and the Guardian made sure that didn't happen.”
Local activist and writer James Tracy argues that Redmond’s exit reflects a political shift wrought by monopolistic media control: "Media consolidation of this magnitude almost always shrinks the ability of everyday people to influence public affairs. In one city, a single person acquired a conservative paper, a progressive paper, a gay paper, and a free weekly. It would be a mistake to think of this as a simple personnel dispute. It's about the politics of information."
In the unsettled aftermath of Redmond being pushed out, it remains unclear whether (or when) other Guardianstaffers may get axed—and whether the paper will join the ranks of other deceased city weeklies such as, most recently, the Boston Phoenix and Honolulu Weekly. (Out of the Phoenix’s ashes, former editor Liz Pelly launched an online weekly called The Media; meanwhile the Phoenix parent company’s Providence and Portland, Maine, papers live on, for now.)
Just after the Phoenix closure, Neiman Journalism Lab explained, “Look, there are bigger factors at play here — alt weeklies, like their rival dailies, thrived in an environment of limited publishing choice, when both readers and advertisers had fewer options available to them. The model is in varying degrees of trouble everywhere.”
In San Francisco, Chicago, and other major cities, longtime independent weeklies are now under corporate ownership—and the editorial and advertising “synergies” sought by these companies threaten to erode these papers’ irreverent politics. For instance, the SF News Company now runs Guardian and SF Weekly articles in its mainstream daily Examiner—raising concerns that the alt weeklies’ editorial content could be pressed increasingly to match the daily paper’s agenda and tone.
As San Francisco Magazine reported in February, “One of Vogt’s first moves after taking over the Weekly was to assign a single editor to coordinate the online news content of all three publications…Vogt also consolidated the art direction and layout of the alt weeklies. The new regime had already laid off a huge chunk of the Examiner’s production force, and staffers say that everyone is bracing for more drastic cuts.”
Similar change is afoot in the Windy City, where a left-tilting weekly and conservative daily are now part of the same corporate portfolio. In May 2012, Wrapports LLC, which owns the conservative Chicago Sun-Times tabloid, added the Chicago Reader to its growing Sun-Times Media group stable, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Veteran journalist Michael Miner, who has written and edited for the Reader for decades, explained the insidious effects of their new arrangement, which includes running Reader material as an insert for the Sun-Times:
“What concerns me is the possibility that under the new conditions—Reader editors creating content every week that they know will wind up in the Sun-Times, and Sun-Times editors depending on it—eventually the Sun-Times will influence what the Reader publishes even if no one wants that to happen. At the very least, the Reader's roots are being given a yank. Anyone who still thinks of the Reader as an alternative to the dailies will have to strain hard to think it when some of the Reader shows up each week in one of them.”
Ironies and Endgames
The Bay Guardian’s meltdown is rife with ironies that echo a historic shift in media—from the rising alternative newspaper movement of the ’60s and ’70s to today’s era of downsizing, mergers, media digitization, and growing corporate control.
In a sense, the Bay Guardian was created by a media monopoly. In 1965, Bruce Brugmann—then a reporter for a suburban Bay Area paper after years with the Milwaukee Journal, and, earlier, the U.S. Army’s Stars & Stripes—successfully sued the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle newspapers for entering a joint operating agreement that effectively created a local monopoly. Out of that lawsuit, and the proceeds it generated, the Bay Guardian was born in 1966.
Over the decades, the Guardian emerged as an award-winning local and national progressive voice, publishing investigative stories on the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco (including their classic 1971 book, “TheUltimate Highrise”), nuclear power plant hazards, pay-to-play politics, corruption in city planning and development, and a rich and lively mix of arts and culture coverage evoking San Francisco’s wildness and irreverent spirit.
By the early 2000s, spurred in part by a “dot-com boom” that helped generate ad revenues as well as gentrification and displacement, the paper boasted a staff of eight reporters and a weekly paper often exceeding 100 pages. But as the Guardian predicted in numerous articles—including an essay by Redmond titled “The Economic Monocropping of San Francisco”—the boom went bust, and ad revenues plummeted. In recent years, the paper’s editorial staff and page count shriveled.
The day after Redmond was forced out, Media Alliance summed up the paper’s changing fortunes: “Once a 70+ page publication, the Guardian has been a smaller publication in the second decade of the 21st century as ad revenues dried up and after a hard fought battle with competitor the SF Weekly over predatory print ad pricing (which the Guardian won). Despite the paper's shrinking physical presence, it maintained an influential role in City Hall politics and the Bay Area progressive movement, largely thanks to Redmond's editorial presence.”
In a recent interview, Brugmann reflected on the Guardian’s struggles. “We could see the handwriting on the wall. We kept trying to figure out what in the world to do [to keep the paper going], there’s no clear model…It was hard for us to let go, but it was clear we had to. We [Brugmann and his wife and business partner Jean Dibble] had a lot of debt and kept losing money...Jean and I are still mired in debt.”
With metro dailies and weeklies across the US struggling to survive, Brugmann said it was tough finding a buyer to keep the Guardian going. “Todd Vogt was the only practical alternative we had. He seemed financially viable. He had the printing presses and a big office downtown for the staff. He said he would keep the Guardian as the Guardian, keep the staff, and let Tim run the paper without interference…We didn’t have any idea he was going to buy these other papers in San Francisco.”
It remains unclear what comes next for the long-ailing weekly, which remains a key voice and venue for the city’s progressive communities. As the Guardian reported, Redmond has offered to buy back the paper, which Vogt has rejected thus far. For now, Redmond told the paper he once led, "I'm looking at my options for ensuring progressive, independent journalism is alive in San Francisco."
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author, and a contributing writer for The Progressive (his article Nutrition, Inc. can be found in the July issue). He worked as city editor for the Bay Guardian in 2000-2001 and has written for the paper since 1995. Contact him at www.christopherdcook.com.