Alternative Facts: SF Weekly Turns 40, Takes a Break

San Francisco's last alt weekly is officially over the hill. A look back at its history and impact.

Back in the early aughts, when Kamala Harris first set her eyes on the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, she had a problem. Despite her extensive experience working in city hall and as a private attorney, she was entering the race with “almost zero name recognition.”

That’s according to former SF Weekly journalist Peter Byrne, who, in 2003, was actually keen to write a profile of her.

Byrne had already reached out to Harris, but she wasn’t returning his calls. However, as the election crept closer, and Harris continued trailing in the polls, she ultimately gave Byrne a call.

“She said, ‘Well, let’s do it,’” Byrne remembers. “I later heard from her campaign manager that somebody had told her that [I was] a fair reporter. I suspect Willie Brown told her that — I wrote a lot about Willie Brown, and I was always fair.”

Byrne spent about six days with Harris on the campaign trail. During that time, the reporter attended Harris’ Pacific Heights fundraisers, listened to her vent over her critics’ (presumably gendered) insinuations about her past dating history with Mayor Willie Brown (they had broken up in 1995), and even interviewed her mother, Gopalan Shyamala, a renowned breast cancer scientist from India. 

Locals might not have known of her before Byrne’s piece. But once the streets of San Francisco were flooded with the Sept. 24, 2003, edition of SF Weekly — the issue containing Byrne’s now nationally cited cover story, “Kamala’s Karma” — things changed.

“She was on just about every corner in the city,” Byrne says.

On the night of Harris’ win against the incumbent Terrence Hallinan, Byrne dropped by her campaign headquarters. When Harris saw him, she screamed and gave him a big hug — summoning in Byrne the kind of “ethical horror” journalists experience whenever they feel their impartiality may have been compromised.

She, along with her campaign manager, Jim Stearns, and Debbie Mesloh, a longtime friend and advisor to Harris, all told Byrne that “she would not have won without the name recognition provided by the cover story.” By this account, the eventual 5,600-word profile was a gamechanger for Harris’ narrow victory.

Stearns did not respond to a request for comment, so take the story with a grain of salt if you wish. But “Kamala’s Karma” remains one of the best read stories on the SF Weekly website to this day.

NOBODY FAMOUS

Long before Byrne’s story on Harris was published — before SF Weekly emerged as an irreverent and friendly competitor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, before Dave Eggers contributed to our pages, before we won a George K. Polk for an investigative series on the U.S. Navy’s careless handling of nuclear waste at the Hunters Point Shipyard, and before the Weekly and Guardian descended into a destructive and bitter legal battle — it was little more than the passion project of a pair of upstart musicians who were tired of being ignored by the establishment press.

Christopher Hildreth, a singer and songwriter for the band Nobody Famous, felt that publications in the Bay Area were too focused on musicians with record contracts, as opposed to independent musicians like himself.

“It seemed rather one-sided,” Hildreth remembers. “I thought that there should be a magazine that not only listed all the places people play, but also was centered on the local arts — all the arts.” 

Past issues of the San Francisco Music Calendar magazine, which later became SF Weekly. (Kevin N. Hume/SF Weekly)

So he, along with fellow musicians Edward Bachmann and Scott Price, decided to do something about it. The first issue of what would eventually become SF Weekly was cobbled together in Hildreth’s living room in the winter of 1981. 

Just as Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and Norman Mailer launched The Village Voice — widely considered to be the country’s first alternative newspaper — from an apartment in Greenwich Village, Hildreth turned his double parlor near the intersection of 24th Street and San Bruno Avenue in the Mission into a makeshift newsroom. The ping-pong table became a desk, and the three of them (Hildreth, Bachmann, and Price, along with a woman named Judy Tampa, all in their early 20s) produced the debut installment of what they called San Francisco Music Calendar. Price still remembers the sum of the seed money he used to start the project: $50

“We didn’t even put a date on it,” Price says. However, he insists he remembers the date. The paper that would ultimately become SF Weekly first hit the streets on Dec. 1, 1981. This coming winter, the first day of the final month of the year marks the paper’s 40th birthday.

PRICE WAS RIGHT

To everyone’s surprise — and excitement — it “took off, right away,” Hildreth says. The fledgling media company soon began charging local bands a small fee to run ads for their upcoming gigs and dropped copies of the paper in bars and other places where fans of local music might find it. 

“We benefited from being so naive and so idealistic and so passionate about what we were doing,” Price says. “It kept going, and it worked against all odds.”

​​By 1984, Price was coming to terms with the fact that he would never make it as a professional musician. Publishing a music- and culture-oriented newspaper, however, seemed like something he could turn into an honest career. Eventually Hildreth, who also owned — and still operates — a local flooring business, opted to withdraw from the publication. Price bought him out for $500 and the promise of a free quarter page ad for a certain number of years.

After Hildreth left, Price moved quickly to expand. In March of 1989 he borrowed $20,000 from “the bank of mom and dad,” and convinced local real estate developer Merritt Sher of Terranomics Development to kick in $50,000.

Though plenty advised him against it — “‘Scott, you can’t do this.’ ‘The economics will never work.’” — Price pressed on. “I didn’t understand the economics,” he cracks. “So that wasn’t an obstacle for me.”

The cover of the very first branded SF Weekly edition from March 1, 1989 from the archives of former editor and publisher Scott Price. (Kevin N. Hume/SF Weekly)

In March of 1989 the paper was officially rechristened SF Weekly.

Those early years — before and after the name change — were a strange time to be printing an alternative weekly, Price recalls. “There was a bit of a dichotomy. In the macro-cultural picture, you had Reagan in the White House and there was a concerted effort towards expanded capitalism,” he says. But on the local level, things were almost the opposite.

“Money wasn’t important yet,” Price goes on. “SF Weekly was really a grassroots, ‘You’re in the street,’ counterculture perspective on what was happening, and really staying close to what new and young people were doing creatively.”

THE OLD GUARDIAN

Of course, Price was not the only — or first — publisher of an alternative newsweekly on the block. The San Francisco Bay Guardian, launched by founding editor and publisher Bruce Brugmann in 1966, had been waving the banner of the local counter culture for nearly 25 years by the time SF Weekly began poaching talent from its ranks. The Weekly’s first editor was Marcelo Rodriguez, a former Bay Guardian writer.

As Tim Redmond — former executive editor of the SFBG and founder of 48hills.org — tells it, in the early days of San Francisco’s two-alt-weekly era, competition between the papers was fierce, fair, and fun.

“They were struggling at first, financially,” Redmond says. “But they were doing a good job.” So much so, that Redmond and the rest of the Guardian team were inspired to work harder.

“The first thought that ran through my head was ‘OK. We gotta step up our game. We got competition,’” Redmond remembers. “It made the Guardian a better paper.”

It was the Alt Weekly Golden Age, and both papers discovered they had different roles to fill and parts to play.

Redmond remembers that SF Weekly clearly appealed to a younger demographic — 20- and 30-something Gen-X-ers interested in nightlife. The Guardian sought to differentiate itself by being the “political activist’s paper.” In the end, however, both publications often met somewhere in the middle, with the Guardian eventually covering more pop culture and SF Weekly coming into its own as a source for investigative deep dives.

“It was really exciting,” Redmond says. “I felt like we had something that worked.” The money that the Guardian generated from advertising went back into editorial, he hired more talented people, and ultimately made a serious impact. “We had a huge influence in the city.”

Price remembers things similarly. “We prospered, despite all odds,” he says. “I had as many as 50 people on the payroll. Both papers were thriving.” Today, as SF Weekly prepares to pause print production for the second time in the span of two years, the paper has two full-time staffers. The Guardian, of course, is no longer with us — but that is a story that’s already been told better than I could ever tell it. Those who are interested in learning more can find that story by typing “The Great West Coast Newspaper War” into the Google search bar.

Y2KRAIGSLIST

Though the turn of the millennium did not bring the Four Horsemen thundering down from the heavens, it did mark a distinct shift in how Americans — and the rest of the world — sold their cars, discovered jobs, posted missed connections, and hired romantic companions. Thanks in large part to the advent of digital publishing, which has increasingly empowered corporate advertisers and individual sellers to reach individual consumers directly, the newspaper as an advertisement delivery system has become largely obsolete.

Craigslist, Price explains, “was the beginning of the end of a beautiful era.”

Classified ads were the “meat and potatoes” of SF Weekly’s finances, Byrne explains, so when Craigslist became popular, that was a death knell for the previous financial model that newspapers around the country relied on. In 1998, when Byrne first started working at SF Weekly, their issues were thick with classified ads.

Archive issues of SF Weekly from 1990 belonging to former editor and publisher Scott Price. (Kevin N. Hume/SF Weekly)

“Our books would sometimes be 200, 240 pages,” he says. “It was just stuffed with classified ads, everything from real estate to sex workers. On any given Friday, you’d go to the lobby, there would be a line of 50 or 60 sex workers, paying for their ads in cash because a lot of them didn’t have checking accounts.” Former art director Darrick Rainey remembers there being a designated fetish section in SF Weekly’s classified pages, about two to three pages long. 

“In their heyday, when the pages were fat … and they were pumping out a lot of content, you would almost always have a cover story about some public policy issue or cultural issue that would be analysis or investigation,” says Michael Stoll, executive director of the San Francisco Public Press. Earlier in his career, Stoll wrote for both the Guardian and the Weekly as a contributor and later taught editing and reporting at San Jose State University.

But then Craigslist sapped the classified advertising market and promoters learned to post their event calendars on their own social media feeds. Shrinking revenues meant shrinking editorial budgets, Stoll says. By the early 2010s, shorter profiles on bands and packages focused on local events became standard anchors for cover story holes that were once held by 4,000-word exposés.

“That was a tipping point,” Stoll says. Both SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian no longer had the resources to mount the kind of journalistic endeavors that had earned them readership and political influence. 

Raising Hell & Hella Fun

Nevertheless, SF Weekly persisted. Even over the course of the 2010s — as revenues waned, outgoing staffers were not replaced, and everyone wore more hats — the newspaper continued to cultivate talented writers and publish fearless and original stories.

Matt Saincome, SF Weekly’s former music editor (music editor!), left the paper to found the satirical website The Hard Times. Saincome still looks back at SF Weekly with fond memories. “For me, a white kid from the suburbs, SF Weekly was an alternative voice,” Saincome says. “It was against the mainstream, Sean Hannity, prim-and-proper, nuclear family, Americana vibe.”

Saincome isn’t alone. Rachel Swan, who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, described SF Weekly as her “dream job.” Byrne thought it was “heaven-on-earth.” The paper boasts many alumni who have gone on to excel in the field of journalism — locally and nationally. That includes New York Times reporter Kate Conger, Politico columnist Jack Shafer, Bloomberg reporter Ellen Huet, Guardian UK reporter Julia Carrie Wong, and Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir. 

In the city, former staffers have filled out the ranks of local publications, including Michael Barba and Ida Mojadad at the Examiner, Jessica Christian and Susie Neilson at the Chronicle, and Nuala Bishari, who’s currently doing a ProPublica fellowship at the San Francisco Public Press. The Examiner is about to get even more Weekly energy, as I noted in my letter from the editor on page 3. SF Weekly’s two editors before — Richard Proctor and Peter-Astrid Kane — have continued to serve vital institutions: Proctor is an assistant editor at CalMatters and Kane is communications manager for SF Pride and continues to freelance in local publications.

Joe Eskenazi, a former SF Weekly staffer and current managing editor of Mission Local, likens the experience of working for the paper to “being on a pirate ship. There was that kind of reckless camaraderie.”

But it was about more than slinging mud and being irreverent. “A muscular alt weekly is really necessary to cover a town,” Eskenazi contends. In its heyday, the writers at SF Weekly could spend an enormous amount of time on a single, long-form story compared to the high-speed stakes of online journalism in 2021.

Redmond agrees. “Alternative weeklies were an incredibly important force in American journalism,” he says. “They took a boring moribund objective model” and “transformed it into a lively form of activist journalism.”

Alt-weeklies were also hubs for creative expression, according to Rainey. “It gave us a lot of leeway to be extra creative over all the visuals,” Rainey says. “I really enjoyed that — it allowed me to flourish and come out with really crazy, wild, and conceptual covers.” Rainey’s very first cover as art director featured two men kissing in a pool, which — even in San Francisco — incited immediate backlash and threats from “very, very old men.” Rainey didn’t mind the onslaught of angry phone calls. “I said ‘yes, I can do this for a long time. I love it.’”

Sometimes, of course, the snark might go a little too far. In 1999, when people were angry over SF Weekly’s coverage of the “Yuppie Eradication Project,” saying they were the subject of “yuppie hate crimes,” former editor John Mecklin and Rainey made a fake ad about a “yuppie support rally” in the Mission. It was meant to be a prank printed in the paper, but people ended up taking it seriously — including several reporters from the Examiner, the Chronicle and some TV and radio stations. The fake rally gathered 200 people, some support from amused readers, and a lot of criticism from the local press, who were not very happy about being duped.

But, at its core, a well-funded alt-weekly can produce robustly-reported, long-form features that bring an alternative perspective to the news. Where else would you find the life story of a stolen iPhone or a profile of an endangered plant hidden in the Presidio? Over the years, reporters at SF Weekly wrote about an architect-led movement to stop designing for solitary confinement rooms, unpacked a toxic relationship at Bayview Hunters Point, and even exposed former supervisor Vallie Brown’s former history of evicting Black tenants — a story that might have impacted her loss in a special election between Brown and now-supervisor Dean Preston. “We did serious stories, but we also attacked things with humor,” Rainey says. “We loved to piss people off.”

Sometimes the impact wasn’t always tangible — especially for arts and culture stories that don’t gain the same kind of internet virality that political stories tend to invite. “It does feel like sometimes you’re writing into the void, but you never know what kind of impact you’re going to have,” Saincome says. He was later told by record companies and venue organizers that they looked towards SF Weekly to consider booking or signing artists. “I think quite a few people were materially helped by our coverage in our music section.”

And that goes back to SF Weekly’s origin story — it was started by a couple of musicians who wanted to counter the echo chamber of the mainstream. “I wanted the magazine to be for the community,” Hildreth says. Hopefully, 40 years later, we can say we have delivered on that promise. 

Grace Z. Li contributed to this story.

Nick Veronin was the Editor of SF Weekly.
@veroninsvoice

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