San Francisco, 'A Very Dysfunctional City'
In October 2014, the San Francisco Bay Guardian closed down. Chief Editor Steve Jones is not going down without a fight, though. He is leading a small group of former colleagues to produce regular Bay Guardian-like columns, in collaboration with Byline. We recently spoke to Steve about the demise (and hopes for resurrection) of this iconic paper.
Daniel Tudor ("DT"): What was the Bay Guardian, and why was it important?
Steven T. Jones ("SJ"): The Bay Guardian was the conscience of San Francisco, a proudly progressive newspaper that opened in 1966 and became an important community institution that also set the standard for alternative-newsweeklies across the country. In both our investigative reporting and our editorial advocacy, we stood with the powerless against the powerful and did the kind of watchdog journalism that is disappearing in San Francisco and other important cities.
DT: Why did the owners pull the plug on it?
SJ: The Guardian was weakened by an illegal predatory pricing scheme by our main competitor SF Weekly and the New Times corporate chain that owned it. We won a civil lawsuit and multi-million dollar verdict against that chain in 2008, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the damage done to both papers by the strategy to devalue alt-weekly advertising. So in 2012, we were forced to sell the paper to the Canada-based ownership group that ran the San Francisco Examiner, which then bought the SF Weekly and decided to shut the Guardian down in October 2014 to corner the market and get rid of a media voice that was often critical of the business community.
DT: How did the closure play out? Were you given enough warning that it was coming?
SJ: Without warning, we were told on Oct. 14, 2014 that the next day’s paper would be the Guardian’s last and that we were all laid off effectively immediately. They even shut down the paper’s SFBG.com website right in the middle of a hotly contested election campaign. But our community rose up and we worked together to get the website back up, win a guarantee that it would remain up through 2015, and launch a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25,000 for us to do a final commemorative edition that reported on the circumstances of our demise and the role that the Guardian had played in the city and country.
DT: So many local newspapers have gone under in the past few years, but I think many people would have been surprised that a paper with 100,000 readers, a long history, and iconic status could just disappear. What kind of reactions have you received from people in SF and elsewhere about the closure?
SJ: The Bay Guardian’s closure made international news and triggered a strong outpouring of community support. People were really angry that the paper could be so unceremoniously shuttered by these corporate executives who barely understood San Francisco and had no real appreciation of the Guardian’s role here. I think they were really caught off guard by the strong and widespread reaction to their decision, but that put us in a good position to do a final issue and negotiate with them on the preservation of our archives.
DT: During your time at the Bay Guardian, what story or stories that you did were you most proud of?
SJ: There were so many impactful stories that we did that you wouldn’t see elsewhere, from exposing the terrible conditions in public housing projects in the city to using public document requests to show elected officials were telling lies to the public, including stories we did about tax breaks given to big tech firms such as Twitter and Airbnb or why the Mayor’s Office was blocking the CleanPowerSF renewable energy program. Often, it was our framing and focus of stories that helped readers see their world from a new perspective, such as the story I wrote last year called “Save the World, Work Less,” which explored how reducing work hours would help lessen global warming and recalled how using productivity gains to reduce work hours was once an important societal goal that’s been somehow forgotten.
DT: What is your view of the relationship between the tech scene and SF? Is tech solely responsible for gentrification?
SJ: San Francisco is currently experiencing hyper-gentrification and a serious eviction and displacement crisis that is changing the population and politics of the city. Some of that is caused by the latest dot-com boom and the influx of companies that are awash in venture capital funding, snapping up all available office space and driving up for commercial and residential rents. But we at the Guardian have tried to use this as a teachable moment, drawing a distinction between the average tech worker and the tech titans who are really reaping massive profits and doing little to offset their impacts on the city. There’s definitely a culture clash between longtime residents and the young techies, who don’t seem to appreciate the city’s sociopolitical history or dynamics, and we have been trying to help address that.
DT: Is SF losing its edge? If so, can any lessons be learned that can apply to other cities (ie. London, where if you replace techies with bankers, the same conclusion can probably be drawn...)?
SJ: Yes, San Francisco is losing its edge, largely because the edgy creators of grassroots culture are being driven out of the city and a greedy libertarian ethos has settled in. It isn’t just tech, it’s also the finance and real estate industries and the neoliberals that have taken control of City Hall. They’re all contributing to this new gold rush attitude, where everyone is trying to make as much money as they can while things are booming and giving too little thought to what the loss of an authentic grassroots culture means to a city like San Francisco. It’s tragic.
DT: What is going on in SF right now that you really want to cover?
SJ: The city is losing its important cultural institutions at such a rapid rate right now that it’s tough to keep up and stay motivated to fight for the soul of the city. The Guardian was shut down just when it was needed the most and our challenge now is to revive that voice and perspective. I want to tell the stories of what we’re losing and what’s being installed in its place. I want to puncture the self-serving lies being told by the real estate industry and their enablers, who act as it if building luxury condo towers is somehow magically going to preserve housing that is affordable by the working class. And I want to show how the failure to tax that wealth and make needed infrastructure investments is a recipe for a very dysfunctional city in the coming decades.
DT: What is your take on the state of the media these days? What are the main problems?
SJ: The mainstream media is usually just terrible these days. The San Francisco Chronicle is a cheerleader for powerful interests that writes mostly for its suburban readers and fails to reflect the urban values or capture the zeitgeist of its namesake city. There’s certainly lots of experimentation going on with new digital media platforms, particularly here in the Bay Area, but none have been able to establish themselves as journalistic institutions that can demand accountability. Hopefully the crowdfunding model of Byline will be a part of what changing that trend.
DT: Do you think the ‘native ad’ can be an answer, or is it just another nail in the coffin of press freedom?
SJ: I’ve never been a fan of sponsored content, which I think undermines the credibility of journalists. Even at the Bay Guardian, which did many special issues that might appeal to potential advertisers (but never native ads or sponsored content), I was always an advocate for sticking to our core mission and having our advertising reps focus on the paper as a whole and not niche content. While I understand that native ads can help some media outlets survive, I do think they’re a nail in the coffin of press freedom.
DT: Is it possible in this day and age to run a financially viable media organisation and still speak truth to power?
SJ: That’s the challenge, and I do believe that it’s true, although I’ll be the first to admit that’s an article of faith these days. We’re still waiting to see an effective and sustainable model to make this work, and I do think that crowdfunding is going to be an important part of that model.
DT: According to Reporters Without Borders, the US now ranks just 49th in press freedom, and has been merely ‘partly free’ for some time. What does this mean for the US? And do you think the situation will get better or worse?
On paper, the US has excellent press freedom, with our First Amendment and related caselaw and legislation affording far more press freedom than journalists in most European countries enjoy. But our problem is the corporate media models and the consolidations that have been driven by Wall Street, which have gutted the journalism profession and left the reporters who remain susceptible to editors who told want to publish anything contrary to the Chamber of Commerce orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the Internet and a handful of big companies have trivialized the media by promoting superficial click-bait over substantial reporting.