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An Unholy Union?
Ron Russell | Photo: Jesse Lenz | February 25, 2013
What to make of would-be media mogul Todd Vogt’s audacious run on three San Francisco newspapers.
If it seems unclear why Vogt should be an enthusiastic buyer of newspapers at a time when the industry is hemorrhaging red ink, the answer may lie in the business model he has cultivated. The modus operandi of the community-newspaper operation he ran in Canada was to buy newspapers on the cheap, slash and burn staff, and make money by running the most bare-bones operation possible, say several sources familiar with Vogt. Vogt’s presumed chief benefactor in the San Francisco papers, David Black, whose Black Press claims 170 publications scattered across western Canada and beyond, has long been known for a similar philosophy. Black seldom talks to the press, but he owes his reputation to being a shrewd businessman, not a purveyor of great journalism.
Vogt’s earlier associations also raise some questions about his journalistic integrity. As a former executive with Hollinger International, he once worked under disgraced media baron Conrad Black—no relation to David Black—and as a protégé of company president David Radler. Once the fourth-largest media company in the world, Hollinger imploded when Conrad Black and Radler were sent to prison after being accused of defrauding shareholders, in part through a separate company, Horizon Publications, that they controlled. The CEO of Horizon Publications was none other than Todd Vogt.
Vogt was never charged with a crime, and, to the amazement of some in the press who covered Conrad Black’s 2007 trial in Chicago, nor was he called to testify. But a 500-page internal investigation of the Hollinger mess was less than flattering to Vogt. Among other things, that report details how the Canadian government in 2001 ordered Hollinger to divest one of two newspapers it owned in Kelowna, a city in the Okanagan Valley east of Vancouver, to an “arm’s length” purchaser. As it turns out, the group that ended up with the Kelowna Capital News included Vogt’s stepfather, Darryl Laurent, a career civil servant with no background in newspapers. Two years later, Laurent and the other investors sold the paper to David Black’s company for an $8.1 million profit.
“You could never figure out who owned what when it came to Todd Vogt,” says a Kelowna journalist who asked that his name not be used. “There were always too many of those ridiculous onion-skin layers of ownership to peel back.”
Some who know Vogt question whether he and the other Canadians will even keep the Examiner and the alt weeklies for long if they’re unable to sustain a profit. One former Examiner staffer, recalling an early David Black visit to the paper, says, “He immediately told people he wasn’t a billionaire like Philip Anschutz, who could keep a newspaper as a toy, and that they were going to cut costs to survive.” Not surprisingly, Black’s words presaged layoffs and salary reductions.
So far, Vogt’s attempts to win over the city’s power brokers remain problematic. Former staffers cite two “coming out” receptions at the Asian Art Museum last spring to which almost no one of importance RSVPed. The events were canceled at the last minute—which was “humiliating” to the paper, one staffer said. Vogt’s Twitter fusillade demanding that Nancy Pelosi resign, which began just two weeks after she was reelected for a 14th term by a whopping 85 percent of the vote, didn’t help either. Vogt was suggesting that she resign for no discernible reason other than his belief that she’s been in Washington too long.
But Vogt is unapologetic, and perhaps even unintentionally prescient, about the uphill challenge that he and his newspapers face. “I doubt that she even noticed,” he says of Pelosi. “And if she did, I doubt that she cares.”