San Francisco Bay Guardian, Once a Force on the Left, Shuts Down

Friday, October 17, 2014

Google’s page of 32 “Defunct newspapers of California” warns the reader, “This list may not reflect recent changes.”

Indeed, they need to add the iconic San Francisco Bay Guardian. The progressive weekly, which began “Raising Hell in 1996” shortly after the birth of alt-weeklies, was hurriedly closed on Wednesday after years of dwindling circulation and revenue.

The San Francisco Print Media Company, which also operates the Guardian’s chief competitor, SF Weekly, as well as the San Francisco Examiner, bought the paper in 2012 from founding husband and wife publishers Jean Dibble and Bruce Brugmann. Guardian editor Steven T. Jones expressed hope that the staff and the community could find some way to buy the paper, but that didn’t seem to be a fleshed-out thought.

Jones could be forgiven for not having a plan at the ready. He’s busy. “I need an escort to go to the bathroom and get back to the office to pack up my stuff,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle

The newspaper was once a leader of political thought and action in the Bay Area. “The Guardian was truly a kingmaker on the left,” political consultant Eric Jaye told the Chronicle. “For progressive candidates, the Guardian’s endorsement was . . . the progressive primary.” At the end, it had seven full-time editorial employees and a circulation of 50,000.

As late as 2008, the newspaper was being given a lot of credit for Dave Campos’ victory to fill the Board of Supervisors seat left vacant by progressive Tom Ammiano, who was elected to the Assembly. It was a daily website presence for issues of the left that have been losing visibility in the Bay Area for years. It has been a steady voice for renters, consumers and non-Silicon Valley types in an area quickly being transformed by its growing wealth. 

But that was nothing like its heyday. The newspaper was the social conscience of San Francisco with a strong focus on local news and a hearty appetite for muckraking. It was fierce in its defense of the underclass and its criticism of moneyed interests that perpetuated social injustice.

The newspaper’s decline predated the area’s tech boom transformation. The Guardian suffered from all the maladies afflicting the alt-weekly industry as well as dead-tree publishing everywhere.

Former Washington City Papers and S.F. Weekly editor Jack Shafer detailed the reasons for the decline of alt-weeklies across the country in a column for Slate last year. He was writing about the death of the Boston Phoenix, a “colossus,”  after 46 years in print and reflected on “the whole gestalt” that allowed alt-weeklies to flourish.

“Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.”

They were the social media of their day. They were free and read everywhere.

But the times changed. Even before the Internet gobbled up the alt-weekly entertainment listings and ads, and Craigslist stole their lucrative classifieds, people were shedding their ‘60s sensibilities and shifting their reading priorities. Record-company advertising followed the record industry into the grave. Indie retailers, a staple of display advertising, were whacked by big-box stores and online shopping venues. Hollywood ads went away.

Longtime Guardian editor and publisher Tim Redmond was forced out in June 2013 when the new owners dictated another round of layoffs, and rumors of the newspaper’s imminent demise were always present. Now they are true.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

The Decline and Fall of the San Francisco Bay Guardian (by Will Oremus, Slate)

San Francisco Bay Guardian Closed by San Francisco Media Company (by Joe Eskenazi, San Francisco Examiner)

San Francisco Bay Guardian Shuts Down (by Demian Bulwa and John Wildermuth, San Francisco Chronicle)

S.F. Bay Guardian Shuts Down, No Longer "Viable" as a Business (by Chris Rauber, San Francisco Business Times)

The Long, Slow Decline of Alt-Weeklies (by Jack Shafer, Reuters)

S.F. Newspaper War: Examiner Sues Chronicle for Alleged Predatory Ad Rates (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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