It's the Journalism, Bruce

Why Bruce Brugmann and his Bay Guardian are (by their own admission) failing

There was a time not very long ago when San Francisco Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann thought he was winning the war of the San Francisco weeklies, and back then, he was in a predatory frame of mind. In 1996 news reports, Brugmann boasted that he would drive the Weekly's owners at New Times Inc. out of town, and that his paper was "beating them into the cement." He and the Guardianwould, Brugmann suggested, not just defeat but humiliate the Weekly and New Times.

"This will be their Afghanistan," Brugmann was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Examiner.

Now, five and a half years later, we are still here and publishing successfully, and Brugmann and his 35-year-old Guardian are, by the paper's own tacit admission, slipping badly. In the March 6 issue of the Guardian, Editor Tim Redmond has a lengthy column, headlined "The Predatory Chain," that tries to pin his paper's financial decline on some sort of foul dealings by SF Weekly and New Times, which owns the Weekly and 11 other alternative weeklies. The column is, like many a Guardian offering, misleading and unpersuasive, in no small part due to sourcing: The piece is largely a restatement of accusations in a letter written by the Guardian's own attorneys, on behalf of the Guardian. Because it is so obviously self-serving, I was tempted to let the column be.

But I have been around San Francisco long enough now to know the Guardian's tendency to repeat ridiculous assertions ad infinitum, to mail them, and e-mail them, and pass them out at events -- until some trusting souls accept them as containing some kind of truth, simply because the targets of the idiotic rhetoric consider it demeaning to reply. Also, I've noticed, a couple of journalism-related Internet sites have linked to Redmond's piece, and there is the possibility that unwary non-San Franciscans might mistake Guardian propaganda for something akin to journalism.

So I've decided to respond; oddly enough, I'll start by acknowledging that Redmond got some things right.

Yes, it's true that the San Francisco Bay Guardian has fallen on hard times. The paper was publishing issues that were significantly larger than the Weekly -- sometimes as much as 30 or 40 pages larger -- just a few years ago; now the Guardian generally runs a bit smaller than the Weekly.

Yes, some of this reversal of fortunes certainly is attributable to competition with us. The Weekly's talented writers have attracted a large and expanding audience by producing a mix of lively, distinguished journalism that regularly wins recognition in major national competitions (including, recently, the prestigious George Polk Awards). The increased audience has no doubt made it easier for our ad sales staff to sell in competition against all Bay Area publications, including the amazing, shrinking Guardian.

But now we have to move to the part of the weekly newspaper war that Redmond has gotten entirely wrong. The Bay Guardian is failing, but the roots of the failure lie not in evildoing by SF Weekly and/or New Times; most everything Redmond claims in that regard is either untrue or a real distortion of reality.

No, the Bay Guardian is headed down because Bruce Brugmann and the Guardianhave abused the paper's readers and advertisers at length. On the editorial side, the paper has trampled journalistic standards and bored readers with a stream of repetitive and predictable ideological lectures. On the business side, among other things, the Guardian has failed to maintain the type of basic circulation auditing that would assure advertisers they are getting what they pay for.

Yes, the San Francisco Bay Guardian seems to be suffering -- from self-inflicted wounds.

Redmond's column attempts to make a case that New Times and SF Weeklyhave somehow engaged in illegal business practices aimed at putting the left-lurching Guardian out of business. Part of his claim involves a lawsuit the Guardian filed many moons ago against an ad executive who left the Guardian for employment at SF Weekly; the suit ended last summer.

In the lawsuit, the Guardian claimed that the ad saleswoman printed out Guardianadvertising records, took them from the paper, and gave them to the Weekly to use in competing against the Guardian. Everything I know about the claim makes it seem bogus to me, at least as regards the Weeklyand New Times; I know of no evidence that any Weeklyor New Times manager has solicited, seen, touched, smelled, or otherwise experienced these documents, much less used them against the Guardian.

Here are the fact errors and distortions that undermine Redmond's argument:

- The claim: "In a lawsuit against the [ad] executive and New Times ..."

The reality: The Guardian did not sue New Times or SF Weekly. It sued only its former employee. Given the hostility between the warring papers, I can only presume the Guardian did not sue the Weeklybecause the Guardian had no evidence for a suit.

- The claim: "... the Bay Guardian charged that she had removed the records and taken them to the SF Weekly 'in order to enhance the S.F. Weekly's competitive advantages for advertisers.'"

The reality: That's what the Bay Guardian claimed, but in sworn testimony, the ad executive repeatedly insisted that she printed out the records as part of her duties at the Guardian and did not take them from Guardian offices. SF Weekly managers have also repeatedly testified, under oath, that they never saw the supposedly purloined records.

- The claim: "The move follows a legal agreement in which a former SF Weekly employee agreed to pay the Bay Guardian $10,000 to settle charges that she stole confidential sales information."

The reality: After months of hounding by the Bay Guardian, the poor woman did settle the lawsuit. At the time she settled, she had not worked for SF Weeklyfor months, and New Times' attorneys did not represent her. I have no idea whether she actually paid the Guardian$10,000 but am assured that neither New Times nor SF Weeklyhas paid, or agreed to pay, her or the Guardian a dime in this regard.

- The claim: "TheWeekly and New Times remain under a permanent injunction forbidding them from using proprietary documents the employee downloaded from the Bay Guardian's computer files before taking a job at the competing paper."

The reality: The highlighted passage is simply false; neither the Weekly nor New Times was a party to the lawsuit, or the injunction.

If the segment of Redmond's column dealing with the lawsuit is thin, the rest of his argument is laughable. A huge portion of the Guardian/Redmond claim that SF Weekly has engaged in anti-competitive behavior appears to rest on the Guardian's shocking -- shocking! -- discovery that the Weekly sometimes offers discounts to attract new advertisers. People on the Weekly ad staff tell me that the Guardian is itself a past master at bartering, giving away, and discounting ad space. And public records prove that the paper has given away tens of thousands of dollars of ad space to a favored political cause.

But you know what? It's OK with me if the Guardian discounts or gives away its ad space, because discounting is a fairly ordinary part of the newspaper business. Our business side sometimes discounts ads to gain new business -- within the context of making profit. That's called enterprise, and the last time I looked, even here in San Francisco, enterprise and profits were still allowed.

So if the Weekly and its owners haven't engaged in some massive effort to improperly subvert the Bay Guardian's business, why has the battlefield in the San Francisco weekly newspaper war changed so dramatically over the last several years? How has the Weekly been able to catch up to and sail past the Guardian?

Well, for one thing, we've had a lot of help from the Guardian.

Over the past five years, Bruce Brugmann has done something at the Bay Guardian that is, it seems to me, unprecedented in American big-city journalism, at least since the era of Citizen Hearst and yellow journalism. He has actively, openly pushed for the paper to be acknowledged as a political power broker. Not as a newspaper that reports a lot on politics, or even has a particular political point of view. No, Brugmann appears to desperately covet being a player in the S.F. political game, and his paper has stepped on journalistic norms and bored readers to tears in this years-long quest to attain particular political ends.

The degree to which the Guardian has abandoned journalism and chased political power is difficult to exaggerate.

If it suits the paper's agenda, or fits with Brugmann's fixations, the San Francisco Bay Guardianwill print repetitive, unbelievable, one-sided "stories" on the same subject, week after week, year after year, whether they are newsworthy or interesting -- or, as is frequently the case, neither. The Bay Guardian will try to squeeze policy concessions out of political candidates as a precondition for endorsement. The Guardian has bankrolled much of a political campaign to create a publicly owned electric utility, donating $100,000 in cash and free advertising; for a time, some of those donations were hidden -- inside a group dedicated to the advancement of open government! In issue after issue, the paper has run lasciviously positive articles praising the so-called public power movement -- often without mentioning that Brugmann and the paper were major financial supporters of the effort.

Every pre-election issue of the Bay Guardian throws all notion of journalistic credibility to the winds, sporting a cover consisting of nothing but listings of the paper's endorsements in the election. This year, the paper created an election hotline that citizens could call on Election Day to learn how to vote the Guardian way. And in the days before the election, doorknobs all around town were festooned with Guardian slate cards, informing the insufficiently instructed on how they were to vote.

As a result of this amazing focus not on political journalism but on the influencing of political outcomes, the Bay Guardian has indeed become a minor flicker in the San Francisco political firmament. In essence, it has become one of the many political "clubs" that San Francisco political consultants advise San Francisco candidates to appear before, seeking endorsement.

But if Bruce Brugmann has, after years of trying, achieved at least part of his goal of becoming a political force in San Francisco, a city of just 750,000 or so souls where relatively small numbers of votes can have big consequences, the achievement has come at a cost. The San Francisco Bay Guardianis often no longer recognizable as a newspaper; what it prints in its news columns comes across, rather obviously, as political advertising or propaganda, rather than journalism. And condescending, ill-written propaganda, to boot. Read a Bay Guardian, and you'll know what it's like to be trapped in a room with a tremendously confident '60s acid casualty who needs a bath and just can't stop talking political trivia.

In short, as a newspaper, the Bay Guardian is boring, predictable, one-dimensional, noncredible -- and scattering readers by the droves.

As it has abused journalism and readers, the Bay Guardian has committed a cardinal sin of the business kind. Last year, the paper cut off its relationship with the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the group that most all serious publications use to verify circulation figures. So the Bay Guardian continues to claim that it prints 150,000 papers, but businesses really have no way to verify that claim. The circulation figure is just something the Guardian says, rather than something it swears to.

By decimating whatever journalistic credibility it ever had and, simultaneously, raising questions about the reach and value of the advertising space it sells, Bruce Brugmann's Bay Guardian has shot itself in the gut. Indeed, it must be extraordinarily difficult to sell ads in an unbelievable and tedious newspaper of indeterminate circulation -- especially when there is another weekly in town that verifies its circulation with the ABC and prints some of the nation's best journalism, week after week.

Now, as his "newspaper" bleeds, Bruce Brugmann and his functionaries are staggering around, pointing at ghosts and screaming, "J'accuse!"

Sooner or later, I figure, they'll stagger in front of a mirror.

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