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Hellraisers: The Death of the Bay Guardian Is Painful, and Bad News for San Francisco. So Was Its Demise. 

Tuesday, Oct 21 2014
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This week, for the first time since a grittier, headier era when independent newspaper publishers couldn't always scratch up the bread to put out the paper, there will be no San Francisco Bay Guardian in San Francisco newsracks. Last Tuesday, the parent company of SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Guardian, abruptly pulled the plug on the 48-year-old alt-weekly. It was a profoundly miserable experience and a legitimate shock of the sort that leaves you feeling cold and hollow and giving the carpet the thousand-yard stare for days on end. But it was no surprise.

That day was like an earthquake: a jolt of tragic upheaval no less unpleasant for its long anticipation. Recognizing its meaning requires taking the long view — something this city is increasingly loath and ill-equipped to do. For decades, this newspaper and the Guardian engaged in ruthless (and costly) journalistic, ideological, and legal warfare throughout what was, in retrospect, a golden age of San Francisco newspapering.

At the end of that battle, both papers fell, spent, into the fold of the same ownership group. And so, the decadeslong crosstown rivals ended up in adjacent offices within the same antiseptic suite, surrounded by a city increasingly teeming with ephemeral, disengaged newcomers who didn't know or much care how profoundly odd that was.

That's the surprise.

The blood feud nourishing the years of journalistic trench warfare between Guardian founding editor Bruce Brugmann and former SF Weekly overlord Michael Lacey concluded in a brutal stalemate. Nobody wins when everybody loses.

And, make no mistake, we have lost something — both tangibly and symbolically. At a time when this city's power brokers spin back-room deals in full public view (perhaps someone rented out that back room on Airbnb), we now have fewer watchmen. A long-rooted institution has vanished from an increasingly rootless city. San Francisco's powers-that-be will continue powers-that-being, unimpeded by the cacophony of quotidian blogs sprouting in a realm where journalism has, increasingly, moved from a calling and a profession to an avocation and a gig.

That's the way things are; it is not the way things should be. Sadly, the Guardian's inability to draw the line between the two has helped to bring us to this place. San Francisco has never needed the Guardian more. But the Guardian isn't here.

And hasn't been for a while.

The October 1996 30th anniversary edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian was printed on 140 pages of newsprint the size of a school lunch tray. Hundreds of names were on the masthead of a profitable and thriving entity. Founding editor Brugmann confidently predicted that "print journalism is going to last as long as there are bathrooms." The generation of San Franciscans today waddling around in diapers will never know a world in which trips to the toilet are unaccompanied by a small and powerful computer. And they will never know the Guardian.

Let the record show that a San Francisco jury in 2010 did indeed find SF Weekly guilty of selling ads below cost with the intention of bleeding the Guardian dry. And let the record also show that the advent of technology enabling you to peruse Craigslist on the toilet has eviscerated the overall newspaper industry like a flesh-eating virus.

We are all suffering. But the implosion of print media's business model hurts a paper like the Guardian more than most. From its founding in 1966, the paper's biases were overt — with the most notable being an obsession with toppling the monopolistic gorgon that is Pacific Gas and Electric and establishing public power in this city.

Politicians vying for a Guardian endorsement knew what to say when asked about public power. Even aspiring members of the school board or police commission were made to weigh in on PG&E.

A crusading paper channeling the compulsions of its flamboyant owner requires more than bravado to establish sway and legitimacy. But the Guardian had more: A litany of skilled Guardian reporters and editors had time and space to hone top-notch, revealing articles about the machinations of those who ran — and still do run — this city. For much of its existence, if you failed to read the Guardian, you failed to know what was going on in San Francisco. The desiccation of newspapers has, increasingly, rendered the onetime lifeblood of the Guardian a luxury item (perhaps produced for niche customers willing to fund it via Kickstarter or other means). The paper's painstaking reporting increasingly gave way to polemical editorializing — and occasional conspiracy theory-mongering. And the Guardian, always a self-proclaimed voice of the malleable term "progressivism," became aligned with specific, individual "progressive" politicians and specific, individual union bosses and their organizations. As such, those assailing the city's ossified system were often rebuked within the Guardian's pages with a spirited progressive defense of the status-quo.

The Guardian was not outside the system. It became part of the system.

And this gave it cachet, and great power. Until it didn't.

In 2000, the Guardian served as the amalgamating force for lefty activists and neighborhood dwellers united by their opposition to the runaway development and rampant cronyism of the Willie Brown years — in part thanks to the Guardian's excellent city coverage. Polls revealed that an astonishing 30 percent of this city's electorate that year voted for the Guardian's "Clean Slate" candidates, toppling Brown's hand-picked (and cynically diverse) lackeys.

It's difficult to imagine any media outlet, let alone a newspaper, today wielding this much influence. The journalistic landscape has changed immeasurably in the past decades, and no newspaper is an island. But, after demonstrating the value — and necessity — of uniting disparate groups, the Guardian only grew more insular and clubby. It narrowed its horizons at the exact time it needed to be broadening them: The earnest, left-leaning San Franciscans who served as its core readership were increasingly priced out of town (one could argue that the slow-growth policies long championed by the Guardian played some role in that).

The paper purported to lead this city's progressive movement even after it became apparent this city no longer had a progressive movement. There is, however, a growing and palpable sense of outrage among residents of this city regarding the ongoing transformation of San Francisco into Silicon Valley's bedroom community, a playground for wealthy perpetual adolescents, and an overseas real-estate investment zone — and our leaders' obeisance to the monied, ascendant forces behind it all. But this outrage hasn't coalesced into a movement; there's no amalgamating force to bind these motley bands of residents together. Their actions remain disparate and, as the Guardian itself grew to be, alienating.

San Francisco, again, has never needed the Guardian more. But the Guardian isn't here.

The Guardian provided plenty of ammunition for those gloating over its demise. It was a reflexively union-backing paper that broke its own workers' attempts to unionize. It purported to represent the city's have-nots, but for decades relied upon the efforts of battalions of unpaid interns. It anointed itself the sole arbiter of "San Francisco values," relegating those who disagreed with its pronouncements into the role of municipal heretics.

The paper, often and spectacularly, failed to live up to its own ideals. But it did have ideals.

Regardless of what you thought about their conclusions, its writers and editors genuinely care about the best interests of San Francisco. This is more than you can say about those they targeted. And that's sad. But so much these days is sad. Because, despite everything you've read in this column, we are far poorer for losing the Guardian.

Some of its former staff harbor ambitions to purchase the now-defunct paper or carry on in some other form. Best of luck to them. A flawed lifeboat is better than none at all. We can use every last one.

Journalism thrives on competition. We are a healthier city with more. And we could all do worse than to abide by the living — and dying — mantra of the Guardian: "Print the news and raise hell."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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