RIP SF Bay Guardian: Activist journalism no longer worth its weight in wood pulp

By Dan Raile , written on October 15, 2014

From The News Desk

It’s a sad day for “the real” San Francisco. Today, sidewalk boxes will fill up with the latest and last edition of The San Francisco Bay Guardian, the progressive weekly rag that’s been a fixture in the city for just shy of half a century. The Guardian’s publisher, the San Francisco Media Company, made the announcement yesterday, freezing the paper’s online version and laying off all staff, effective immediately. In the end it wasn't any sexy defamation or obscenity lawsuit that undid it, rather just a whimpering obsolescence.

The end was sudden, violent, final. But it had been looming on the horizon since at least 2012, when the paper’s founders Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble sold it to San Francisco Media, which despite its name is wholly owned by Oahu Publishing, which is itself a subsidiary of Black Press, the anachronistic print empire of the Canadian David Holmes Black (no relation to Canadian media mogul Conrad Black or Pando wunderkind David Holmes).

The San Francisco Media Company also owns the San Francisco Examiner (the former cornerstone of the Hearst empire, now a free daily) and the SF Weekly (another “alt weekly” and the Guardian’s chief competitor).

While news of a shuttered local paper comes as a surprise to no one, it’s important to take pause and pay some respects. The Guardian was a relic from a bygone era, namely San Francisco in the heady sixties. Founded in 1966, it outlived and outperformed the other underground papers of those times and somehow was still muckraking and howling at corporate abuses and back-room politics well into the internet era.

The Guardian sunk its teeth deep into stories that more mainstream outlets were too prude to touch. It could be myopic and monotone, but it was damn fierce. It represented the crusty residue of a San Francisco rinsing away under the pressurized stream of new money pouring into the city. And now it too has come unglued.

As the city gears up for next year’s mayoral election, which promises to be a doozy of a match between the tech-friendly incumbent Ed Lee and whoever comes forward to receive the projected ire of his detractors, the Guardian will be sorely missed. Now as much as ever, this city could use an injection from a dogged, countervailing narrative-machine to neutralize the oily PR coating every par-baked news morsel.

The nation’s mainstream press have jumped aboard the ‘anti-tech’ angles to fill the breach somewhat:  gleefully shaming Uber, decrying the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and so forth. But all this is done from a New York state of mind that ultimately hopes to aggrandize itself at the expense of ‘tech.’ Not for them the tireless obsession with the shadowy machinations of city politics which kept the Guardian going for all those years.

Hopefully, the closure of the Guardian is more a symptom of the continued decline of print media than a death knell for the city’s homespun style of progressive press. There are still a few local media outlets to take up the Guardian’s banner, if an audience still exists for their product. Former Guardian editor Tim Redmond has taken his screeds online with his new venture 48 Hills. The Spanish/English El Tecolote is still on the beat. Monthly broadsheet SF Public Press has recently emerged with a mission focused on investigative deep-dives on local progressive issues.

There are the abundant local blogs (SFist, 7x7, Uptown Almanac, the Bold Italic, et al) whose coverage sometimes overlaps (or directly cannibalizes) that of the Bay Guardian. The chaotic, metastasizing constellations of ‘tech press’ headquartered in town have started to incorporate oblique critique into the repertoire. Junkies will still be able to cover their sidewalk turds for free with the Examiner and SF Weekly. And the Chronicle is reportedly still in print. But none of these outlets as yet can match the single-minded determination of the Bay Guardian’s antagonistic broadsides. And if they did, its far easier to get lost amid the fury of online content than among a handful of sidewalk boxes.

For almost fifty years the Guardian stuck it to The Man in permanent ink on a weekly basis. But the Internet is the new Man in town, and it’s dispatched the Guardian at last. Ed Lee and his ilk won’t miss the Guardian’s voting-guides and gadfly journalism. Will anyone else? If a tower of wood pulp and ink falls in San Francisco and no one is around who cares, does it make a difference?

Recommended read: "The Birth, Life and Death of an Underground Newspaper" by Charles Bukowski