Crowdfunded Journalism

The Death of The Guardian - A Sign of the Times

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Steven T. JonesSan Francisco
The Death of The Guardian - A Sign of the Times
Steven T. Jones and the struggle for real journalism in San Francisco - and the rest of the world

It's tempting to say the Bay Guardian was killed by the rise of San Francisco as the center of the technological universe -- and there are some telling truths implied in that statement, which I intend to explore in this space -- but it's not quite right. If it was, then all we'd need to do to revive the Guardian is find the right digital platform, like Byline, and our committed community would fund its reincarnation. 

Maybe that's how it will play out, but after spending the last quarter-century as an ink-stained dinosaur, I suspect it will be more complicated than that. The factors that led a pair of corporations to fatally wound and then finally kill the Guardian in October 2014 are complex, and finding our way back as an institution that can demand accountability could be equally challenging. 

Our challenge, dear readers, is whether we want to try to resuscitate it. That’s something that I can’t do on my own, it’s got to be a collaboration. 

The newspaper industry has been in decline throughout my 24-year career with papers in California, since before the rise of the Internet and the myriad ways it has drained the lifeblood from the traditional media world, stealing both revenues and readers. No, even before new corporations cannibalized our corpse, the old corporations were already cutting and consolidating the industry into an emaciated form.

Less than 10 companies now control about 90 percent of what we read and watch, shedding journalists with each new media merger. Even among the alternative-newsweeklies, four of which I worked for in succession (those in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sacramento, and San Francisco), the Phoenix-based New Times Inc. (now known as Village Voice Media) bought up 15 papers around the country and used its market power to kill any competition.

When the chain bought Guardian competitor SF Weekly in the mid-1990s, it slashed its ad rates to well below what it cost to produce the paper, openly expressing the intention of putting the Guardian out of business and executing a deliberate plot to do so. The Guardian won an important civil lawsuit against that illegal predatory pricing strategy, but both papers were already fatally weakened by the tactic.

The San Francisco Examiner had also been hurt by unfair competition from the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle. So a group of investors headed by Canadian media mogul David Black, who was known for buying and gutting newspapers, bought the Examiner, then the Bay Guardian, then the SF Weekly, all at fire sale prices. And in October 2014, the company closed the Guardian.

It was a shock, but not a surprise. The Bay Guardian has always stood with the powerless against the powerful, earning the respect of the former and the ire of the latter. Our loyal readers weren’t enough to keep the paper alive, not without the support of advertisers and a dedicated sales team to sell them, so it was easy for the corporation to just kill the Guardian and finally corner the city’s alt-weekly market. 

We were doing good, impactful journalism right up until the very end. That didn’t matter to the company that bought us, which was more interested in sales-focused gimmicks than being a progressive media voice, the conscience of a once-proud city that was being placed in the service of the tech, finance, and real estate industries and other money-making pursuits. 

There is still good public interest journalism being done out there, but it’s the exception in this brave new media world, not the rule. Sexy or sensational click-bait, superficial listicles, and caustic take-downs of powerless targets dominate the online media world, collectively chasing porn in the hunt for clicks. The real villains — the powerful corporations, the 1 percent that control them, and the politicians they both corrupt — are rarely challenged by the media in a way that democracy needs to survive. And the people, and the planet, pay the price.  

But I believe in the Guardian’s longtime and loyal readers, the people I’ve heard from regularly since the paper was shut down, who tell me that our voice mattered to them and they miss it. The Guardian is dead and maybe it’s not coming back, but we can keep its voice and its perspective alive in new forms.

And that’s what I’m going to try to do.   

To support Steven's goal of reviving the spirit of the Bay Guardian, please click here

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Lorenzo Foleyhorn

5 years ago

It's truly sad how often people fall for "sexy or sensational click-bait, superficial listicles, and caustic take-downs of powerless targets." There needs to be change.