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Pointing the Way -- The Last Guardian, Chap. 3

Steven T. Jones photo
Steven T. JonesSan Francisco
Pointing the Way -- The Last Guardian, Chap. 3
The latest chapter of my memoir-in-progress looks at the man who finally killed the Bay Guardian and the strange memento I kept from our first clash

The end came suddenly, unexpectedly, even if the endgame had been underway for years. San Francisco was purging itself of its voices of conscience and compassion, values of another era that were just getting in the way of the latest dot-com and real estate gold rush. The progressives were just a minor obstacle to their progress, particularly after being starved of resources for so long.

"Tomorrow's issue of the Bay Guardian will be its last," the Bay Guardian’s new Publisher Glenn Zuehls, a company man installed by our corporate owners a few months earlier, told us in the Guardian's newsroom on Oct. 14, 2014.

The Bay Guardian — a 48-year-old model for alt-weeklies in cities across the country and the voice of the progressive left in San Francisco — was dead. The news spread quickly and within minutes I was inundated with calls from journalists, doing more than a dozen interviews while packing up my personal belongings and meeting with the company’s painfully pleasant human relations minions.

As its last editor-in-chief, I was the captain who went down with the Guardian ship, fighting fate until the bitter end to keep it afloat. We almost sunk 16 months earlier when longtime captain Tim Redmond got forced out, but the seven us of who remained in the newsroom decided that the city needed the Guardian, particularly as we exposed and amplified an eviction and gentrification crisis that was rapidly changing the character of San Francisco.

That brush with death followed one a year earlier when Redmond engineered the Guardian's desperate sale to the Canada-based owned that ran the venerable if depleted San Francisco Examiner, ending our proud claim to being an independent newspaper.

“As a company, we are proud of the SF Bay Guardian’s legacy as a community watchdog, a publication with stellar reporting and its passion to push for a better city. It gave a voice to many in the city who might have been otherwise shut out of the corridors of power, kept countless city leaders honest and inspired a new breed of journalism across the country,” the company wrote on our website, temporarily replacing access to decades of that work.

It was the strongest vote of confidence that we’d received from the San Francisco Media Co., even if it smacked of self-serving corporate spin, and the closest I ever heard Zuehls come to voicing an understanding of what we were about. He seemed to regard us as exotic animals, native to this weird urban jungle and perhaps dangerous. We were tattooed and queer revolutionaries that the company penned up in a newsroom at the end of a long hall of our office in the Westfield Mall, beyond its other two more mainstream and potentially profitable newspapers.

In the end, Zuehls and his corporate masters in Canada and Hawaii deemed the Guardian a drag on the Examiner and SF Weekly, a newspaper that had been our bitter competitor until the company bought it eight months after we moved in, an event that was probably a harbinger of the Guardian’s demise. The Weekly had learned to play the modern media game, filling its website with shameless and sensational click-bait and its newspaper with cynical takedowns of anything that seemed earnest or progressive, offering attitude fronting as analysis.

After Zuehls and CFO Pat Brown told the Guardian staff and had boxes brought in for us to begin immediately vacating the premises, they took me and Executive Editor Marke B into another room to explain their decision a bit more. They loved our passion and commitment to progressive values, they said, but it was getting in the way of attracting advertisers to the company.

To illustrate, Zuehls described his meeting with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to discuss media partnerships with the company, and he said the Chamber was only willing to work with the company if the Guardian wasn’t involved. I smiled and chuckled a bit, acknowledging that the Chamber has always hated the Guardian for exposing its efforts to sabotage every major progressive reform of the last couple decades, from paid sick leave and mandatory health coverage for workers to chain stores regulations that protect small businesses.

Throughout my 24-year journalism career, I had angered many potential advertisers for newspapers where I worked, and while my publishers weren’t always happy with my approach, they understood the value of editorial independence in attracting a loyal readership. Zuehls didn’t seem to have that kind of understanding. He was a salesman in the Glengarry Glen Ross mold who seemed to think that he worked for an advertising agency, not the publisher of a media company whose readers were abandoning the increasingly mediocre products that these decimated newsrooms were producing.

For months after I was laid off, I retained a strange and auspicious reminder of my first significant encounter with Zuehls: a large black bruise under the nail of the middle finger on my right hand. That’s my “fuck you” finger, my go-to finger when flipping someone the bird.

It was a couple months after Zuehls took over as publisher when he finally stopped by my desk at 5pm on a Monday to ask if I wanted to grab a drink after work. Sure, I said, but it was the day I finished writing and editing all the stories for the news section, so I’d need a couple more hours.

He was roaming around Union Square in a futile search for a “good dive bar” among the chain stores, at his insistence, but I took him over to The Tempest, a good dive bar behind the Chronicle Building that was once popular with journalists, before corporate media conglomerates had hollowed our ranks.

Our conversation began on the walk there, and if the languages we spoke were any more different then we would have had to hire a translator to understand each other at all. He was all about revenues and he wanted to know how I could help the company land more big fish advertisers, but I told him my job was to reach and keep readers, the people who would see the ads.

He wanted to know what my vision was for bringing in more revenue and I wanted to know what his vision was for creating newspapers that people could easily find and wanted to read. He told me to trust him and the systems that he created in Hawaii and I wanted him to understand San Francisco was a more competitive and sophisticated media market, one we could help him with.

Around and around we went, round after round of drinks he bought for us, and our failures to get through to the other became frustrating for each of us. When he said that he was the boss and threatened to fire me, I dared him to, telling him that I wasn’t clinging to this job, particularly if the Guardian was no longer going to be the Guardian.

Halfway through this animated barroom debate that would eventually stretch to four hours, as we were locked into a discussion that I hoped would finally yield some common ground, committed to seeing this segment through even though I desperately had to piss, I finally excused myself and raced to the bathroom, which was occupied.

I potty-danced in the hall, squeezing my legs and doing my yoga breathing, as much to deal with the despair at my professional situation as my exploding bladder. And when the bathroom finally opened, I frantically went inside and slammed the door — right on my middle finger! I bit down on the pain, refusing to tell Zuehls or let it affect our interactions.

In the end, he and I fought to stalemate, which was more like a loss for me given that he had the power. Then and repeatedly thereafter, he told me that he respected my passion, but that I needed to be more realistic. And by realistic, I believe he really meant either professionally dead or unconditionally surrendered.

I didn’t know it then, but he and his corporate bosses had already made the decision to close the Guardian, putting secret plans in place about a month before our conversation and telling the employees that would implement them they’d be fired if they tipped us off, as several later told me.

As we moved toward our date with death, my fingernail began to swirl with sickening shades of purple, black, and red, with the irregular edges of a Rorschach test, swirling with premonition like a crystal ball that pointed to my future while gesturing to my past. 

#Bay Guardian, #San Francisco Media Co., #Glenn Zuehls