Out, and Down and Out, in S.F.

A shutdown Sentinel and turmoil at Bay Times signal upheaval in the city's gay press

While many San Franciscans wonder for whom the bell tolls (Chronicle or Examiner?) in our two-daily town, a parallel drama of survival and death plays out in the city's gay press: Last month, the weekly Sentinel folded. And last week, financial troubles and tensions linked to contract negotiations at the biweekly Bay Times spelled the elimination of its remaining unionized staff.

Though the city's other major gay papers — the weekly Bay Area Reporter (aka B.A.R.) and Frontiers, a year-old biweekly — show no outward signs of turmoil, publishers of both blame newsprint costs, which have doubled in the last year, for belt-tightening and deferred expansion.

Those sobering facts signal another in a series of upheavals that have shaped the city's queer press since the '70s and early '80s, when as many as eight gay rags crowded the doorways of bars, bookstores, and coffeehouses. Observers of the alternative press note that gay and lesbian newspapers in San Francisco have always depended on ego-driven publishers inclined to impose their wills. One five-year veteran of two gay periodicals compares the owners to feudal lords, each staking out different territory, subject to the alliances (and enemies) such fiefdoms have established.

According to departing staffers, tumult reigns at Bay Times, a self-described “gay/lesbian/bi/trans newspaper and events calendar” with a press run of over 40,000 and a reputation for in-depth, ongoing coverage of news and arts. Last week, acknowledging that the paper needed to cut costs, longtime Publisher/Editor Kim Corsaro laid off reporter Tim Kingston, an eight-year veteran on her staff. She also fired ad salesman Matt Lewis. (“I was told I was always late getting back from lunch,” recounts Lewis, who'd been at the paper almost two years.) Kingston and Lewis are the last of five employees in the recently formed union bargaining unit to go; the others have either resigned (citing unbearable working conditions) or were fired in the last year — bringing a whiff of union-busting to Corsaro's actions.

“Though she pretends to be pro-union, she most definitely is not in terms of her own paper,” Lewis remarks. “It's a power issue: Somebody was calling her on her shit” — a reference to Corsaro's alleged mistreatment of staffers — “and she couldn't tolerate it. Being held accountable to the Northern California Newspaper Guild … is something she's not capable of.”

Greta Christina, a Bay Times staffer who quit the paper in August, seconds that assessment: “I left because working [for Corsaro] is like being in an abusive relationship.” The employees organized earlier this year, according to Christina, “not to get more money or more benefits. … The primary issue was the disrespectful and abusive way she dealt with her staff. We wanted some accountability.”

Larkie Gildersleeve, the administrative officer at the Northern California Newspaper Guild who worked with Bay Times staffers on contract negotiations, notes that Corsaro was the first alternative newspaper publisher in the city to recognize the union. She points out that “negotiations had been undertaken with the knowledge that we're not dealing with deep pockets. We were interested in achieving a contract that would stabilize work conditions for employees.”

Corsaro maintains that her employees' union activity “had no effect on the decision of downsizing or changing staff. I still recognize the union.” As for ex-staffers' criticism of her management style, Corsaro states flatly: “I would rather not comment on that. People are entitled to their opinion. My focus is on keeping the paper going in an incredibly difficult time. When finances get tough,” she holds, “other things get tough — that's real life.”

Keeping Bay Times going through the latest round of troubles will indeed focus Corsaro. Though she has pulled out of crises in the past — a fact Christina acknowledges — Corsaro's current woes are indeed daunting. Bay Times, as Christina describes it, “fills an important niche. Of all the gay papers, it's most inclusive of lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and people of color. It's also the most politically progressive.”

Now, coupled with the rising cost of putting out Bay Times, Corsaro faces drastic alterations in the way the paper covers news and fulfills what she acknowledges is its historic “co-sexual” mission. Kingston is a reporter respected for his investigations of Shanti, the troubled AIDS care organization, as well as the city's Police Department. (It was a Kingston story in 1992 that allegedly prompted then-S.F. Police Chief Richard Hongisto to order bundles of Bay Times removed from the stands — which led to a lengthy court fight that continues to preoccupy Corsaro.) Laying off Kingston means scaling back news coverage and analysis at a time when the paper can ill afford to lose its reporting edge over B.A.R. and Frontiers.

Kingston says he was “upset by the layoff, [although] it was not exactly unexpected.” Both he and Corsaro have discussed a free-lance relationship, but Kingston maintains, “I have no idea of how she intends to continue the level of coverage.” Like his colleagues, he is perplexed by the vanishing names on the masthead. “I find her support for the union skin-deep,” he asserts.

Discord with the boss also afflicted the Sentinel, where staff (particularly on the business side) bit the dust like riders thrown from a carousel gone haywire. As owner/publisher for the last seven years, Ray Chalker pulled the plug on the Sentinel because he could no longer “baby-sit” the weekly and its staff of 10 — particularly in terms of reining in their hourly pay. Chalker maintains staffers were “abusing the system”; former Associate Editor Eric Haeberli rebuts that Chalker was unrealistic about how much time it took to produce the paper, which had recently been redesigned. Worried that ad revenue would not cover expenses, Chalker lived up to what Haeberli characterizes as his impulsive style and put the Sentinel on “hiatus” while searching for a buyer.

To hear Chalker talk from behind the bar at Rawhide II, the country/western saloon he owns on Folsom Street, the Sentinel was on its way to solvency when he suspended operations. “We had gross receipts of $1 million a year,” he explains, “and we were starting to get national accounts.” He ticks off the list — Calistoga, Jim Beam, Smirnoff, Wrangler, Levi's — that “could make it work. We were breaking even, it just needed leadership” — something he admits he couldn't always provide, given the demands of the Rawhide and his real estate holdings.

Haeberli agrees that the Sentinel suffered from a leadership deficit, and that he always encouraged Chalker to sell. The paper went down, according to Haeberli, “because of bad business management. Ray makes his money and spends most of his time at the Rawhide, and because the Sentinel required more time and money, he just couldn't do both.” The exodus of staffers at the paper was chronic — “There was a constant flux of people coming and going,” Haeberli recalls of his year and a half there — much of it due, he insists, to the fact that Chalker “was a nightmare to work for.” Haeberli nonetheless feels that, with its 35,000 weekly press run, “There was a good future for the Sentinel; the only problem was Ray.”

But the shuttering of the Sentinel and the problems at Bay Times stem from more than just personality. A certain business wherewithal is required to counter the chilling frost of increasingly high production costs and stiff competition for ad revenue. And that may be a determining factor in how many gay papers can thrive.

Publisher Bob Ross, whose B.A.R. will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, relies on a survival strategy that combines cost containment (“Newsprint is half our production cost,” he explains, “so we tighten our press run when necessary” — it's about 37,500 now — “and don't run trade-out ads or do massive discounting”) with what Ross calls a steady, continuous coverage of “gay news with a gay sensibility.” Constants in that editorial plan include an open obituary policy — B.A.R. is the sole gay paper that runs obits every week — and an extensive arts section that highlights gay and lesbian entertainers, filmmakers, and authors.

A relative newcomer to the landscape is Frontiers, a Northern California spinoff of its same-named parent in L.A. According to Associate Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Michael DeLauzon, San Francisco Frontiers is already profitable. With its glossy color covers and magazine format, he says the publication will produce in-depth features and news analysis on local and national topics — naturals for a biweekly's less deadline-intense production schedule, he explains. Though high newsprint costs have delayed the paper's press-run goals, DeLauzon plans to bump it up to 30,000 from 25,000 soon.

Whether these publications — along with a presumably reconstituted Bay Times — can coexist profitably is a matter of some speculation. One former gay press staffer who requested anonymity posits that “this market hasn't taken itself seriously in terms of relating to advertisers.” That means auditing circulation — only B.A.R. does so now — and “weaning away from dependence on alcohol and tobacco ads, which so much of the gay press is addicted to.”

He also cites the challenge of mainstream newspapers “co-opting” gay and lesbian stories. “We used to call the Examiner San Francisco's gay daily,” he observes, pointing to its increased coverage of gay news and its AIDSweek column. “The gay press has to overcome that challenge in order to keep relevant to its readers.”

Reporting on AIDS treatments, health and lifestyle issues, and anti-gay discrimination is the driving principle that will ensure a place for “many gay papers” in San Francisco, according to Chalker, who insists he is waiting to sell the Sentinel to the “right people” who will continue along those lines. “The gay press has a strong, traditional advocacy role to play,” he declares. “We've gotta watch these politicians.”

Former Bay Times staffer Lewis has a somewhat less sanguine outlook: “I think there's room for a couple of gay publications here, but more than two is overkill. In D.C., the Washington Blade is 100 pages a week. There should be a similar consolidation here, but the egos involved are not going to permit that.”

That opinion is backed by yet another gay press veteran, who declares, “There's not enough water for so many piranhas.” The city's traditional gay press, he observes, has long relied on visionary leaders — people like Ross and Corsaro who inspire the publications over which they rule. He concludes that the extent to which they can behave like businesspeople — and not like despots — will determine their survival.

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