By Andy Van De Voorde
Executive Associate Editor, Village Voice Media
Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond took the stand in his newspaper’s predatory-pricing lawsuit against the Weekly Wednesday and spent most of his time happily trashing his longtime rival for sins both small and large -- and sometimes metaphysical.
“I don’t like the SF Weekly because I don’t think they have a soul,” Redmond told Weekly attorney Ivo Labar. “They’re not part of San Francisco like we are.”
It wasn’t the only melodramatic rhetoric to emerge during the testimony of the self-described “progressive” journalist, who took the stand wearing a puffy jacket and a baseball cap, but removed both before being sworn in.
Labar also questioned Redmond about an internal memo he’d written in 1997 in which he described his paper’s “competitive battle with the SF Weekly as more than just a simple business challenge. We see it as … a struggle for the soul of the American news media.”
The Guardian ostensibly called its editor to sing the praises of the paper’s editorial staff, and Redmond’s early testimony consisted of fielding softball questions from Guardian attorney Richard P. Hill.
The paper where he has worked since 1982 “has a mission to make San Francisco a better place,” Redmond told the jury. He also took time to praise his longtime boss, Guardian owner Bruce Brugmann. “Bruce is a legend in the business,” said Redmond, who beamed as Hill pointed out Brugmann -- who was sitting in the gallery -- as “the silver-haired gentleman in the back.”
But for all the talk of other people's souls, there was little soul-searching on Redmond’s part when he was put under a withering cross-examination by Labar.
When asked, for instance, if the Weekly is “a quality local paper,” Redmond replied, “I would say the SF Weekly has done some good stories. I would not say that overall the Weekly is a quality local paper.”
Labar then listed some recent Weekly stories and asked Redmond if he believed they constituted good local journalism. Although Redmond had earlier told the jury he reads the Weekly every week as part of his job, he professed ignorance of two out of three of the articles, including one that received first place in investigative reporting last year from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
He did acknowledge having read and respected a Weekly story about police spying on local journalists. That article was written by A.C. Thompson, who left the Guardian to work for the Weekly two years ago.
Redmond offered a similarly backhanded response when Labar asked him if he would be surprised to learn that the Weekly spends more money on editorial staffers than the Guardian does. “I think it’s nice they have that much money to spend,” he said.
The issue of editorial spending is critical in the trial because it constitutes a significant portion of a weekly newspaper’s expenses. One of the Guardian’s common mantras thus far during the trial has been that the Weekly should be viewed with suspicion because it refused to lay off reporters even though it was losing money.
Redmond told Hill that it was very difficult for him to fire a number of reporters and editors, who were dismissed during three rounds of layoffs. He was not asked to comment on why the Guardian laid off low-paid writers while choosing to spend more than $300,000 on a protracted lawsuit.
It was initially expected that Redmond would testify primarily about editorial matters. However, Redmond also sits on the Guardian’s board of directors and thus is a key player in strategic decisions. His name has turned up on several documents that suggested he and his fellow staffers at the Guardian were concerned about much more than journalism when it came to the Weekly.
For instance, Labar quizzed Redmond about a memo written in 2001 by the Guardian’s managing editor. By that time, the paper was beginning to see sales and revenues sag following the dot-com bust. “Your input and ideas are invaluable in keeping us on track and –- as I love to say –- determining ways to kill the SF Weekly,” Melissa Houston wrote.
Redmond responded to Labar, “I don’t want to see the Weekly go out of business. I want to see [Phoenix-based] New Times sell it to a local owner, like they did with the East Bay Express.”
However, that claim didn’t jibe with a memo Redmond wrote for the board in 1997. Under the heading “Send the Guys from Phoenix Packing,” Redmond listed long-term goals that included “forcing the New Times to admit they can’t make it in San Francisco” and “making them shut the SF Weekly down.”
In that same memo, Redmond admitted that the Guardian had problems that went beyond the unwelcome presence of New Times. His paper’s “leaders and decision makers were considerably older than our target audience,” he noted, and the Weekly was already perceived as a hipper publication more likely to attract coveted younger readers.
When Labar challenged him about the goal of “shutting the Weekly down”—which is precisely what the Guardian is accusing the Weekly of -- Redmond backpedaled. “I guess at the end there I got a little carried away,” he admitted.
However, Redmond wasn’t the only witness to testify about the Guardian’s longtime animus toward the Weekly. The subject also came up when Weekly attorney H. Sinclair Kerr Jr. completed his cross-examination of Guardian co-publisher Jean Dibble.
Dibble told jurors yesterday she is only “somewhat familiar” with the Internet and has not been on a sales call in more than 35 years. Apparently concerned that his lead witness may have left the wrong impression with the jury, Guardian attorney Ralph C. Alldredge had Dibble explain that she has sales personnel who make calls for her. But the rehabilitation effort may have hit a snag after an encouraging Alldredge asked Dibble whether she did in fact “talk to advertisers from the Bay Guardian from time to time.”
Dibble described three ways in which she talks to advertisers. Some of them, like her, sit on the board of a neighborhood merchants' association; she sometimes patronizes their establishments, such as restaurants; and some of them show up to drink free beer when the Guardian throws parties sponsored by the likes of suds giants Budweiser and Miller. She did not mention any contact with advertisers that appeared to involve conscious outreach on her part.
While Dibble’s testimony about her accidental approach to publishing made for an interesting interlude, Kerr was more interested in pressing her about issues more directly relevant to the underlying claims in the case.
For example, the Guardian’s lawsuit alleges that the Weekly sold its ads too cheaply in an effort to “injure” its competitor. But Kerr produced a Guardian document from April 2000 that seemed to suggest the Guardian was the one with a grudge.
In that report, the Guardian discussed “establishing a policy of refusing to allow any competitor (especially the SFW) to gain a lead in any [ad] category.” Another professed goal? “Reverse the slide in SFBG readership. Stop SFW readership gains.”
Dibble admitted that the policies discussed in the document had in fact been implemented, though by all indications they have been unsuccessful. A chart presented to the jury yesterday showed the Weekly overtaking the Guardian in readership.
When Kerr followed up by asking Dibble if her paper’s plunging readership may have been linked to the quality of its journalism, she did not seem to appreciate the implication. “There are many factors,” she answered.
Redmond was more blunt when Labar pressed him on the same issue.
“Do you think one reason people don’t want to read the Guardian is because they’re not interested in what you’re writing?” Labar asked, after noting that the paper is famous for printing dozens of stories advocating for a publicly owned utility company and running exhaustive endorsements for city elections at a time when few young people bother to vote.
“No, I don’t think that’s true,” Redmond shot back.
As Labar’s questioning continued, the two men grew animated, and both were asked by the judge to speak more slowly so the court reporter could keep up.
Labar also questioned Redmond about the fact that he had written a scathing attack on Craigslist, the free online classifieds Web site that has sucked huge amounts of business away from print papers. “You compared Craigslist to Wal-Mart, didn’t you?” Labar asked. Redmond acknowledged that he had.
Craigslist was started in the Bay Area and even today is reported to employ a relative handful of employees. The company has marketed itself in part by suggesting that it helps build Web “communities” in various markets.
Labar’s questions clearly implied that Redmond has a habit of lashing out self-righteously at people or companies whom he views as threats to the Guardian’s pocketbook. “I have some concerns" about Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Redmond acknowledged. But the story, which was shown to the jury on a large screen, seemed to sum up Redmond’s view of Craigslist better than his testimony.
“If he wants to build an empire, that’s his right under the (warped) rules of American capitalism,” Redmond wrote about Newmark. “But don’t give me this community building bullshit.”
Far from shying away from his incendiary prose, Redmond told the court he was proud of what he had written. And he also boasted of the many articles his paper has written slamming the concert promotion firm owned by Clear Channel despite the fact that the Guardian accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the conglomerate. “We’d be happy to take their money today,” he added.
That might be difficult given the decision by Clear Channel’s local affiliate, LiveNation (formerly Bill Graham Presents or BGP), to do most of its business with the Weekly.
The Guardian’s lawsuit initially accused the Weekly of offering “secret rebates” to BGP, but the claim was dropped before the case went to trial. However, the Guardian will attempt to cite the Weekly’s dealings with BGP as an example of illegal below-cost pricing, and the subject came up when the Guardian called its third witness, its former sales boss, Jody Colley.
Colley is now the publisher of the East Bay Express, which New Times sold to a group of local investors last year.
Alldredge didn’t get far on the BGP front, however. Colley testified that when she asked a BGP representative about his company’s deal with the Weekly, “he wasn’t too willing to go into the details of that arrangement.”
Still, Colley’s role in the case is critical because the Guardian does not plan to call a single advertiser to the stand to support its claims. By asking Colley what other people told her, the Guardian hopes to introduce damning evidence without offering the Weekly the ability to cross-examine the customers.
Colley did tell the court she believes the Weekly’s prices are lower than the Guardian’s, and cited two examples of customers who, she said, told her they took their business to the Weekly because of its “good rates.”
She also told Alldredge that she was surprised to see how low the Express’ rates were under New Times ownership, especially given that it could offer advertisers more distribution because it owned both the Weekly and the Express. One of those advertisers, she said, was BGP.
“Have you tried to convince [the BGP representative] to raise the rate?” Alldredge asked.
“Yes,” Colley replied. “Unsuccessfully.”
Colley’s testimony, including her cross-examination by Weekly attorneys, will resume Thursday morning at 8:30 at the courthouse on McAllister.