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RIP, SFBG

The San Francisco Bay Guardian's former managing editor takes one last look back.

The paper's final cover.

 

It seemed like we all should have been at a wake, at the Slow Club, or the old Sadie’s Flying Elephant, or Thee Parkside, or one of the other bars where San Francisco Bay Guardian employees went to bruise our livers over the years. Instead, I came home on Tuesday evening, after a long day of swiping through Facebook tributes, bitter postmortems, and countless depressive tweets (many from former Guardian editorial staffers who, like me, had long since left the paper), poured a solo whiskey, and went to the homepage at SFBG.com.

I came to look for old music columns I’d written, a favorite book review of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a 2002 piece on the Clarion Alley Mural Project, then, in a less embarrassingly solipsistic gesture, last week’s Endorsements issue, for the November 4 elections. None of it was findable—supplanted, in a trade of surreal disproportion, by that stupid splash page, where some stranger had written that the San Francisco Media Company, the Bay Guardian’s parent company (shudder) since 2012, was “proud of the SF Bay Guardian’s legacy,” calling the paper a community watchdog, an institution, and “a vital advocate for its vision for San Francisco for nearly half a century” that leaves the city a better place for “the role it has played in shaping it.” Apparently not better enough, if it was going to be wiped from the Internets by its proud parent.
 
The panic I’d felt around 10:15 a.m. that morning, when a former colleague and friend, a longtime Guardian employee, had texted, “Bosses just shut down the newspaper. SFBG is over”—the weird, gut-level collision of shock, resignation, and acute nostalgia—was happening again. After 48 years in the muck and thousands upon thousands of stories about street protests, high-rises, privatized parkland, public schools, political machinery, the new queer cinema, environmental justice, underground art scenes, dive bars, rock clubs, techno-culture, sexual subgenres, life during wartime, and, let us not forget—as if Bruce B. Brugmann, our fearless, towering, trigger-tempered leader, would ever let us forget—sweetheart deals, sunshine in government, and public power, the record had been wiped with no explanation. All that was left was a bland piece of rhetorical junk mail glibly acknowledging the Guardian’s central role in the life of the city.

And then, the next day, the site was back up, and a large (if, as always, poorly searchable) chunk of that history restored, at least temporarily. Its hiatus stayed unnerving, though—an uncomfortable illustration of what the paper’s fate might be if (or when) it falls down the memory hole.

That wake I mentioned—it could have been one for the record books, lengthwise, because, as all those vitriolic, mournful, astounded, and shrugging web posts make clear, it could have gotten started any time this past decade, attendees drifting into the room at whatever highly subjective point in the timeline signified, for them, the nail in the coffin. The sale of the Guardian to an out-of-town corp. The corp’s hair-raising purchase of the paper’s sworn enemy, the SF Weekly, linking (with the Examiner) an unsightly, misshapen chain of journalistic properties, and resulting in visions of a bizarre arrangement of office cubicles, former combatants sharing a printer queue. (Though I think the editorial rank-and-file, if I may use such a term in the context of a progressive, pro-labor paper with a black-mark history of union-busting, generally never had much heart in the fight, waged largely at the top of the masthead.)

For many, no doubt, it was the unceremonious sacking in 2013, after 30 years, of executive editor Tim Redmond (a mentor to me and many othes), which you could liken, not unreasonably, to ripping out the paper’s beating heart, if that didn’t seem unfair to the hardworking journalists left behind. (Props, by the way, to the paper’s corporate overlords, for wringing that last bit of underpaid sweat out of the Guardian’s handful of remaining employees in the cause of one final Best of the Bay ad sales haul; I imagine there should be some change leftover after the shitty severance packages have been doled out.)

Or go back to Craigslist’s rise, or the dot-com bust, or the detested Angela Alioto mayoral endorsement back in 2003 that nearly caused an editorial staff riot. Or a series of budget cuts, page trimmings, and staff bloodlettings I had the lovely task of number crunching as managing editor (my last and gloomiest gig at the paper). Or the House of Mirth-style series of decampments from lodging to lodging during a long financial decline, leading up to the paper’s current residence: a Twitter handle and a Facebook page titled Guardian in Exile.

There, the talk—of a buyer stepping forward, of some new iteration of the Guardian—is hopeful, and I want to believe. No surprise—I drank a few Solo cups of the Kool-Aid at holiday parties over the years. I came to the paper in the late 1990s as a baby (of the twentysomething adolescent variety) and grew up on the job—copy editor, copy chief, senior editor, managing editor—which may be why the Guardian’s trajectory has sometimes called to mind slowly losing a parent. I came because it was the only place in town I wanted to work; before getting hired, during my earliest years in San Francisco, I read the paper cover to cover each week, so the city rose up around me the way the Guardian painted it. (Later, I read it cover to cover on a five-person copy desk, a sight I never expect to see again in my professional lifetime.)

This place is littered with people—many of them my colleagues and friends and acquaintances—whose visions of the city were likewise shaped, or transformed, or clarified by what they read in the Guardian’s pages, who grew up on the paper too. But the Guardian hasn’t always adjusted so well to the technological and cultural changes of the last decade. It’s had trouble spiking its political messages in a way that piques the interest or commands the respect of a readership much beyond its base—its devotees and a core group of followers devoted to trolling it. And as the city has flooded with new inhabitants over the years, other, newer publications have won their attention. God knows the paper’s been a breezier front-to-back read of late, given its plummeting page count, but that apparently wasn’t enough to make it irresistible, the way it felt to me when I moved to the Bay Area 25 years ago and picked up my first issue.

Maybe that’s why the visual of that vanished progressive portal, the archived efforts of hundreds of Guardian staffers and freelancers over decades, was such a visceral assault. To me, the paper’s disappearance, online and on the city’s street corners, makes a gaping hole; to a growing chunk of the city, younger and newer and absorbed by disparate other sites of journalism delineating their own visions of this place, it might look more like a piece of news scrolling out of sight. The end, that disputed point in the timeline, might not happen quite like that, the memory hole swallowing the paper up in one hasty gulp. It might look more like a monolith, sturdy, immovable, and maybe, at times, intransigent, growing smaller as the city moves on, receding and receding until it’s just a point in the distance.

 

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