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Another independent voice silenced as ‘The San Francisco Bay Guardian’ stops the presses

One more newspaper box goes empty in San Francisco. photo: Patxi Izkue

Print the news and raise hell.
— Bruce Brugmann, founder, editor and publisher, The San Francisco Bay Guardian

When The San Francisco Bay Guardian announced on Oct. 14, 2014, that it was shutting down after 48 years, many people were shocked, but not me, because I’ve seen it coming for a long time. A lot of bloggers and media pundits chalked up the Guardian’s demise to a left-leaning publication no longer being relevant in a gentrifying San Francisco where moderate politics now rules (but would still be seen as quite liberal in most places across the country).

In a 2006 Editor’s Note called “Talking about the passion,” I wrote: “Independent media is dying not only in San Francisco, it’s dying throughout the country. The Hearsts, Singletons, and Clear Channels are buying up every newspaper and radio station in sight and homogenizing them, and the SF Weekly, which calls itself ‘alternative,’ is now owned by a giant conglomerate of ‘alternative weeklies,’ all of which look — and sound — alike. Bruce Brugmann, who, along with his wife, Jean Dibble, founded the Guardian in 1966, has managed to stay independent despite SF Weekly’s thinly veiled attempts to monopolize club advertising, once Guardian’s main source of income (along with classifieds, which have all but disappeared thanks to Craigslist). It’s been rough going for Brugmann the past few years, but he’s still here, because he is passionate.”

Nearly a decade later, that corporate conglomeration has claimed The Bay Guardian as another nail in the coffin of independent journalism. The San Francisco Media Co. took over the Guardian in 2012, hoping to share resources with its other papers, the Examiner and SF Weekly, with profits front and center. I worried when one corporation purchased all three, because I knew the buyers had a cutthroat reputation for destroying newspapers by putting profit first and quality content last. I feared that, in a town with just a few strong print publications still standing, it would be too easy for them to simply squash the three together, get cheap with editorial, share content between the papers, cut as many writers as possible, and speak with one voice on everything from politics to restaurant reviews. A prominent restaurant public relations executive told me that she “had no idea how to pitch stories” to the three papers anymore because “it seemed like one big paper, and not a very good one at that.”

In its heyday with Brugmann at the helm, the Guardian was known for robust opinion pieces and topnotch investigative journalism. While people often joked about the number of covers featuring the evils of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) or illustrations of Mayor Gavin Newsom in a chicken suit, the fact is Brugmann was one hell of a journalist who spoke for those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. He was way ahead of his time in his fight against corruption at PG&E and its cozy relationships with politicians, the social elite, and its regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — all of which recently came to light in the wake of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood. There are also calls for PUC President Michael Peevey to step down after a series of e-mails revealed improper off-the-record contact between his staff and PG&E executives where deals were cut, from a $1 million contribution from PG&E to defeat a ballot initiative, to PG&E providing $100,000 toward a dinner honoring the PUC’s 100th anniversary in exchange for favorable consideration in a rate-setting case.

Brugmann also frequently blasted the mainstream media for their corporate ties. In 2008, he took on the San Francisco Chronicle over its support of PG&E’s energy monopoly and its breach of key provisions in the Raker Act, a 1913 federal law that provides the City and County of San Francisco with the only public power mandate in the United States. Brugmann said that publisher William Randolph Hearst was a champion of public power until PG&E gave him money to save his struggling newspaper empire in the 1920s. The Hearst Corporation, which added the Chronicle to its portfolio in 2000, is known for opposing public power initiatives until this day, which Brugmann called “one of the great censored stories in American journalism.”

After my 2009 exposé “How the San Francisco SPCA let us down,” I received an e-mail from Brugmann. He had picked up Northside San Francisco and the Marina Times at the City Tavern on Fillmore Street and said he wanted to compliment me on two excellent publications. He pointed out that, while we often came down on different sides of the political fence, our passion for keeping independent journalism alive made us kindred spirits. He asked if I could bring some copies of the papers to the Guardian’s office so he could put them in the lobby. The following week I brought the papers as promised and met with Brugmann in his office. “The Chronicle, Examiner, and Weekly are not independent; they’re corporations with corporate agendas — it’s all about profits, and that’s bad for journalism,” Brugmann said. “You have to stay independent to give a voice to the voiceless and keep politicians and corporations on their toes. You’re doing that, and we’ve been doing that at the Guardian for over 40 years. I’m damn proud of what we’ve done, and you should be proud of what you’re doing, too. San Francisco needs journalists who raise hell and bring change…”.

As I left Brugmann’s office that day, I recalled that when he founded the Guardian in 1966, he vowed to “print the news and raise hell.” He certainly did that, and it must be crushing for him now to see the most iconic progressive newspaper in the Bay Area succumb to the very corporate agendas and profit mongering that he loathed, and another independent voice in San Francisco journalism silenced.

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