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It's the Journalism, Bruce 

Why Bruce Brugmann and his Bay Guardian are (by their own admission) failing

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
There was a time not very long ago when San Francisco Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann thought he was winning the war of the San Francisco weeklies, and back then, he was in a predatory frame of mind. In 1996 news reports, Brugmann boasted that he would drive the Weekly's owners at New Times Inc. out of town, and that his paper was "beating them into the cement." He and the Guardian would, Brugmann suggested, not just defeat but humiliate the Weekly and New Times.

"This will be their Afghanistan," Brugmann was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Examiner.

Now, five and a half years later, we are still here and publishing successfully, and Brugmann and his 35-year-old Guardian are, by the paper's own tacit admission, slipping badly. In the March 6 issue of the Guardian, Editor Tim Redmond has a lengthy column, headlined "The Predatory Chain," that tries to pin his paper's financial decline on some sort of foul dealings by SF Weekly and New Times, which owns the Weekly and 11 other alternative weeklies. The column is, like many a Guardian offering, misleading and unpersuasive, in no small part due to sourcing: The piece is largely a restatement of accusations in a letter written by the Guardian's own attorneys, on behalf of the Guardian. Because it is so obviously self-serving, I was tempted to let the column be.

But I have been around San Francisco long enough now to know the Guardian's tendency to repeat ridiculous assertions ad infinitum, to mail them, and e-mail them, and pass them out at events -- until some trusting souls accept them as containing some kind of truth, simply because the targets of the idiotic rhetoric consider it demeaning to reply. Also, I've noticed, a couple of journalism-related Internet sites have linked to Redmond's piece, and there is the possibility that unwary non-San Franciscans might mistake Guardian propaganda for something akin to journalism.

So I've decided to respond; oddly enough, I'll start by acknowledging that Redmond got some things right.

Yes, it's true that the San Francisco Bay Guardian has fallen on hard times. The paper was publishing issues that were significantly larger than the Weekly -- sometimes as much as 30 or 40 pages larger -- just a few years ago; now the Guardian generally runs a bit smaller than the Weekly.

Yes, some of this reversal of fortunes certainly is attributable to competition with us. The Weekly's talented writers have attracted a large and expanding audience by producing a mix of lively, distinguished journalism that regularly wins recognition in major national competitions (including, recently, the prestigious George Polk Awards). The increased audience has no doubt made it easier for our ad sales staff to sell in competition against all Bay Area publications, including the amazing, shrinking Guardian.

But now we have to move to the part of the weekly newspaper war that Redmond has gotten entirely wrong. The Bay Guardian is failing, but the roots of the failure lie not in evildoing by SF Weekly and/or New Times; most everything Redmond claims in that regard is either untrue or a real distortion of reality.

No, the Bay Guardian is headed down because Bruce Brugmann and the Guardian have abused the paper's readers and advertisers at length. On the editorial side, the paper has trampled journalistic standards and bored readers with a stream of repetitive and predictable ideological lectures. On the business side, among other things, the Guardian has failed to maintain the type of basic circulation auditing that would assure advertisers they are getting what they pay for.

Yes, the San Francisco Bay Guardian seems to be suffering -- from self-inflicted wounds.

Redmond's column attempts to make a case that New Times and SF Weekly have somehow engaged in illegal business practices aimed at putting the left-lurching Guardian out of business. Part of his claim involves a lawsuit the Guardian filed many moons ago against an ad executive who left the Guardian for employment at SF Weekly; the suit ended last summer.

In the lawsuit, the Guardian claimed that the ad saleswoman printed out Guardian advertising records, took them from the paper, and gave them to the Weekly to use in competing against the Guardian. Everything I know about the claim makes it seem bogus to me, at least as regards the Weekly and New Times; I know of no evidence that any Weekly or New Times manager has solicited, seen, touched, smelled, or otherwise experienced these documents, much less used them against the Guardian.

Here are the fact errors and distortions that undermine Redmond's argument:

- The claim: "In a lawsuit against the [ad] executive and New Times ..."

The reality: The Guardian did not sue New Times or SF Weekly. It sued only its former employee. Given the hostility between the warring papers, I can only presume the Guardian did not sue the Weekly because the Guardian had no evidence for a suit.

- The claim: "... the Bay Guardian charged that she had removed the records and taken them to the SF Weekly 'in order to enhance the S.F. Weekly's competitive advantages for advertisers.'"

The reality: That's what the Bay Guardian claimed, but in sworn testimony, the ad executive repeatedly insisted that she printed out the records as part of her duties at the Guardian and did not take them from Guardian offices. SF Weekly managers have also repeatedly testified, under oath, that they never saw the supposedly purloined records.

- The claim: "The move follows a legal agreement in which a former SF Weekly employee agreed to pay the Bay Guardian $10,000 to settle charges that she stole confidential sales information."

The reality: After months of hounding by the Bay Guardian, the poor woman did settle the lawsuit. At the time she settled, she had not worked for SF Weekly for months, and New Times' attorneys did not represent her. I have no idea whether she actually paid the Guardian $10,000 but am assured that neither New Times nor SF Weekly has paid, or agreed to pay, her or the Guardian a dime in this regard.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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