Battling Corporate Bullies -- Chapter 4
We knew that the San Francisco Bay Guardian had fallen on hard times. The staff of seven staff writers who reported to me as city editor in 2003 had been whittled down to just one 10 years later. All the editors were writing as well as editing, for both the newspaper and our website, struggling to ensure that the Guardian still read like the Guardian while adapting to the Internet age.
So when longtime Executive Editor Tim Redmond took me to lunch on a sunny spring day in 2012 and told me that the Guardian was in danger of going under and that he had engineered a sale to the new owners of the San Francisco Examiner — who, from the outside, seemed to be an improvement on their right-wing predecessors — I accepted our fate and understood that it was the only way.
It was announced the next week and I tried to be hopeful, even seeing opportunity in shacking up with the Examiner and having more resources at our disposal, particularly with Tim’s assurance that we would remain an independent newspaper under his firm control. I also understood the importance of projecting that hope publicly, knowing it was our only chance.
That’s why I was baffled a week later when Tim called me into his office to say that he’d just received an angry phone call from our new owner, Todd Vogt, who said he’d heard that I was going around City Hall criticizing the merger and that I should shut the fuck up. I told Tim that it wasn’t true, that I was doing just the opposite, and to convey that to Vogt.
At the time, I assumed it was my political enemies trying to undermine me with the new boss. That made the most sense. I had been battling the city’s political establishment and business community for a decade, more pointedly than ever in recent years as the neoliberals took power from the progressives at City Hall, and surely some were seizing the chance to remove a pesky thorn from their sides. Fair play.
Shortly after moving in with the Examiner, during a cocktail-fueled event at a Market Street bar called Local Edition that was the Examiner’s newsroom during its Hearst-run heyday, Vogt even told me, “I was going to fire you.” He didn’t say why, but I told him thanks for not doing so, and we knocked back a few more drinks together, seemingly mending fences.
But I continued to wear a target on my back, as Vogt privately urged Tim to get rid of me and he refused to do so. Neither of us knew exactly why Vogt was gunning for me, suspecting that it was somewhere between a micromanaging power trip and a way for Vogt to establish himself as a player in town.
Vogt made of point of developing relationships with top politicians and business executives, showing up at big events to mix and mingle with community leaders. He wanted to be a big city publisher, cultivating power for himself as his distant predecessor William Randolph Heart Jr. had done, something that didn’t interest his successor, Glenn Zuehls, who only seemed concerned with making money and pleasing the company.
Zuehls was a company man, first and foremost, someone ideally suited to a corporation that bought up newspapers throughout North America, cut their costs, and were never again known for the quality of their journalism. But Vogt wanted to be a big shot in San Francisco, a city he embraced with a big expense account and sense of wide-eyed wonder.
So I girded for battle, starting a file of dirt on the man and his company and preparing my posse of friends and fellow independent journalists to help me fight back once I was forced out. In the fall, that seemed inevitable, particularly after a conflict with Vogt that ended up being a different kind of turning point.
It was the first time that Vogt tried to intervene on an editorial decision, which was sacred ground for me and Tim, the line that we simply weren’t going to let him cross. In our endorsements for the November 2012 election, we just wanted to stop the bleeding and not lose any more progressive seats on the Board of Supervisors, the city’s main legislative body.
So in District 5, a reliably leftist part of town that includes the Haight-Ashbury, we endorsed Julian Davis, a friend with reliably revolutionary values but a reputation for being a cad with the ladies. We thought we knew the extent of his transgressions and that he had made amends, so he was the best choice among bad options to hold the seat against a strong challenge by the neoliberals, as we told Todd when he questioned our call.
It was irksome to be called into his office to explain our decision, a decision that was indeed ours to make, but Tim and I tried to be diplomatic. Vogt railed against our choice and said it would hurt us — which later proved true, sadly — particularly given the circumstances of that crazy year, when the mayor tried to remove our progressive sheriff from office for grabbing his wife’s arm during an argument, blowing the incident up into a major case of domestic violence.
I had been covering the case against Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi all year, from his criminal prosecution to narrowly avoiding being removed from office for official misconduct, and I was proud of the nuanced and prescient stories that I’d written. I acknowledged Vogt’s point that a Davis scandal would compound the narrative that progressives tolerate the mistreatment of women, again emphasizing the difficult choice we faced in D5 and the fairness of my Mirkarimi coverage.
“All you wrote are a bunch of pro-Ross opinion pieces,” Vogt yelled.
“Fuck you!” I told him, momentarily losing my shit. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
Tim helped diffuse the tension, but I knew I was going to get fired now, so fucking fired. This guy had been looking for a way to get rid of me the whole time, and now I took the bait and stuck my neck in his noose. After work that day, I gathered my posse together to plot our retaliation over pitchers of beer on the patio at The Sycamore, sure that I was gone and intent on somehow taking Vogt down with me.
The next day at work, it was the early afternoon before I saw Vogt, walking past my office with a couple of his minions. Seeing me there, he doubled back, stepped into my office, leaned in close to me, stuck his middle finger right in my face and said, “Fuuuuuuuuck you!” Then he smiled broadly, shook my hand vigorously, and left.
What the fuck just happened? I had no idea how to interpret this gesture or what it meant for me, until about an hour later when Tim came into my office, closed the door behind him, and started laughing.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he told me. “Todd just told me that he doesn’t want to fire you anymore, now he thinks you’re awesome and we can’t possibly let you go. He said that he gained a new respect for you last night.”
Now, I’ve never been accused of meekness, so the lesson that I learned wasn’t that I should be more assertive. Instead, I understood the kind of guy we were dealing with, and maybe a bit about the corporate mentality behind it. He was a power tripper and a bit of bully, but one who respected those who stood up to him, so much so that it totally changed how he saw me.
Over the coming months, Vogt began to praise everything I did, attributing it to my finally coming around as a strong writer and editor, even though I was basically doing the same kind of work that I’d always done. The lesson for the Guardian and its independence seemed clear to me, and I shared my thoughts with Tim.
He had to deal with our corporate overlords far more than any of us, so it was up to Tim to hold the line, which was now being threatened by Vogt. “You’ve got to stand up to him, every time. Don’t give him an inch or he’ll take a mile,” I told Tim, who was a tough journalist but a bit of a softy in the office, and someone faced with the daunting task of keeping the Guardian’s rebellious fire burning in this stifling new corporate environment.
During the first challenge to our independence after the David incident, I urged Tim to defy Vogt and his interventions, even if it meant risking dismissal, because if we didn’t project strength and stand our ground — if Tim wasn’t willing to tell him to fuck off — then Vogt would keep pushing until the corporation finally asked for something unacceptable.
And that’s exactly what happened.