The Demise of the San Francisco Bay Guardian

The demise this week of what was left of the San Francisco Bay Guardian came as no surprise to anyone who understands the trend toward corporate concentration which has accelerated in the last three or four decades. The mechanisms go under a variety of names—merger, acquisition, leveraged buyouts, private equity—but the ultimate effect is similar. Eventually, the operation of capitalism reduces or eliminates the very competition which its fans boast that it promotes.

And sometimes whole markets disappear. The Guardian was the prime example of what we used to call the alternative press. It was positioned as the voice of the counter-culture back when there was a dominant culture to be counter to.

Back in the day, to be sure, married founders Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble were unlikely defenders of the counter-culture. They were quintessentially Midwesterners, clean-living straight-ahead exponents of the classic small-town American version of the free press, almost like Martians who were unexpectedly transported to the 60s San Francisco scene. It was a mom-and-pop-shop from the beginning, with the kids joining the operation as they got old enough.

You could imagine Bruce aspiring to be played in the movie by Jimmy Stewart as the kindly old newspaper editor, though in reality he was considerably larger and louder than life. The masthead motto was “print the news and raise hell”, and nothing, at least in the early days, was allowed to get in the way of that goal.

When I came back from the Midwest in the early 70s, Bruce and Jean were publishing in a narrow old wood frame structure south of Market, at least five stories top to bottom. I had a year or so to fill between applying to law school and actually entering. I’d never tried any newspaper journalism, just editing and writing for academic journals, but that didn’t stop Bruce and the editor of the moment from giving me a chance to show what I could do . (Editors came and went with some regularity in those days, so it’s hard to remember who was in charge then.)

Most if not all of the reporters were freelancers like me—paid , though poorly, and only, it turned out, when cash flow smiled on Jean’s check writing. Once when I asked for my pay (which was in Calvin Trillin’s classic high two figures) Bruce, whose desk was on the top floor, told me Jean had it the basement. I trooped down five flights of stairs, only to be told that Jean was actually in the attic. Up again, and of course then they told me she’d gone for the day. Another time, when I suggested that I needed compensation for a piece I’d turned in, he said to “do it for your cause” (whatever that might have been).

On the other hand, I never had to pay them a penny for the experience. Working for the Bay Guardian at that time was a better education than any expensive journalism school would have been. (In the process I also learned a lot about mom-and-pop entrepreneuring, which stood me in good stead in later endeavors.)

Bruce had an uncanny instinct for identifying stories which in many cases were a couple of decades ahead of their time. Like Cassandra, he was derided for his efforts.

He was roundly ridiculed for his crusade against PG&E, but now what’s left of the San Francisco Chronicle is dining out regularly on the power company’s many sins, just coming to light in the mainstream media.

He coined the term “Manhattanization” to denounce the avaricious attempt by real estate developers to devour the San Francisco skyline. His campaign against them was not completely successful, but things would be a lot worse without it. Citizen-sponsored ballot measures in San Francisco and Berkeley have been holding the line lately, since the remaining “alternative” newspapers have shifted their allegiance to the side of Big Property.

Bruce assigned me to cover the newly-formed California Coastal Commission and we did stories on the many problems with the San Onofre nuclear power plant proposed for a Southern California beach town. Despite our best efforts, the plant was eventually built, but last year it was closed for good because of serious safety issues. Told ya so!

I reported on that era’s scheme to demolish San Francisco’s Transbay  bus terminal for the benefit of developers, since I commuted on the bus through that terminal every day myself. I’d picked up a rumor from Lowell Bergman that the newsstand in the terminal was run by an organized crime front, and I added it to my story. The Guardian ran the piece, including this accusation, without hesitation.

The day it appeared, however, the manager of the stand found me at my bus stop, summoned me into his office, locked the door behind us, and warned me never to say anything like that again. I was glad to be able to tell him a friend was waiting for me outside the door. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything else to report.

Along with death and taxes, however, development plots never go away. Eventually, just recently, the Transbay Terminal was indeed demolished, and at the moment the unseemly shenanigans of the developers who got ahold of the site are front page news once again. As far as I know, the Mafia is not involved this time around.

These days most of the free newspapers which still litter urban street corners aren’t much more than thinly disguised shopping rags, if what you’re shopping for is cheap commercial sex. Insofar as they editorialize on the political scene, they’re as likely as not to applaud the actions of the moneyed interests in the urban landscapes they inhabit—e.g. the current incarnation of the East Bay Express, the successor in name only to a former excellent alternative weekly, whose editor seems never to have met a real estate developer he didn’t admire.

The 70s and early 80s were the heyday of the effective alternative press. After that things went downhill, not just in San Francisco but everywhere, largely for economic reasons, as print advertising lost out to online competition.

Editor Tim Redmond provided a kind of stability to the Guardian, working hard for low pay for thirty years while Bruce Brugmann’s windmills of choice gradually became the monopolistic practices of his San Francisco competitors. He won a key legal victory in a predatory pricing lawsuit against the New Times chain which owned the rival S.F.Weekly, but he and Jean, in their seventies, eventually decided that they needed to sell the paper to an umbrella corporation which subsequently bought the Weekly and turned the venerable San Francisco Examiner brand into a free tabloid .

It was obvious that one of the papers would have to go. Redmond quit or was fired, depending on who you ask, and the ax fell a few months later.

Bruce Brugmann’s lasting legacy may be his lifelong devotion to freedom of information. Investigative reporting these days consists mainly of non-profits which data-mine public records for shocking statistics. This useful activity was made possible by the efforts of people like Bruce who worked hard to defend and maintain the California Public Records Act and founded groups like the California First Amendment Coalition.

It’s harder and harder these days for interested citizens to figure out what’s really going on. The San Francisco Chronicle is even more of a joke than it used to be, with acres of front page space devoted to splashy photos and soft features. A single suburban monopoly, the Bay Area News Group arm of the Media News empire, now rings the city of San Francisco with a welter of seemingly different locally named publications which repeat identical copy in an endless echo chamber.

Many bloggish outlets (some of which prefer to be called online news sources) have sprung up in San Francisco and environs, but none has become a dominant information provider. Each online publication has its own coterie of readers, but no one reads all of them.

When the San Francisco Bay Guardian was freely distributed in boxes everywhere, everyone who cared about progressive causes had a chance to pick it up, and mostly they did. The Guardian’s endorsements were golden—my mother in her nineties always checked them at election time even though she never read the paper. They were not infallible, of course. I remember once, back in the paper’s heyday, standing in the newsroom as endorsements were being crafted, and hearing the editor-du-jour hollering “Anyone here know anybody in Marin?”. The editors in recent years were often confused by Berkeley’s incumbent faux-progs, whose stance on Manhattanization was the opposite of the position the Guardian espoused in San Francisco.

Over 40 years there was much to criticize and much to praise in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Its gradual demise, with the parallel disappearance of the counter-culture and the genuine alternative press, has left the Bay Area a place that is ever more vulnerable to the abuses of uncontrolled capital, and also, a duller place. We’ll miss it, warts and all.

Becky O’Malley is Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.



Becky O’Malley is Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.