The Longform Goodbye

When alternative publications shutter, their staffs don’t go so easily.

SFBG Closed
The Bay Guardian isn’t the only ideological publication whose staffers were unwilling to let the good times end.

Doctor Popular/Flickr and closed sign by iStock.

Though it had been in free-fall for months, it was still a shock when the San Francisco Bay Guardian finally hit the ground. The alternative weekly newspaper, which maintained a stridently progressive editorial line even as the city it served became less interested in social disruption than in tech disruption, had experienced declining revenues and editorial layoffs before its founding editor sold the paper to the San Francisco Media Company in 2012. But the paper’s salvation was short-lived: In 2013, SFMC also purchased the rival SF Weekly, and there’s no reason to own two alt-weeklies in the same market. One of the papers was always going to go, and, in the end, it wasn’t the more mainstream Weekly. In October 2014, after 48 years in business, the Guardian published its last issue.

Make that its next-to-last issue. A week after the paper went kaput, executive editor Marke Bieschke and a group of former staffers launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $25,000 to produce a one-off final edition that would commemorate the newspaper’s history and “give the Guardianistas a chance to wrap up that history and say what our closure means.” With luck, the project might also inspire discussions about the future of the alternative press in San Francisco. The campaign raised $26,281 from 372 donors. The issue was published last week. (It’s available online via Gumroad.)

The commemorative edition is the very definition of a labor of love. Self-congratulatory, defiant, and morose, the issue remembers some of the Guardian’s greatest hits over the years, its habit of “printing the news and raising hell.” There is some arts coverage, some food coverage. There are horoscopes. My favorite piece in is one by Krissy Eliot lamenting the decline in “alternative, radical sex writing,” and commenting on the Bay Area’s shifting sexual mores. “San Francisco used to be the place that you came to pursue sexuality, and now it’s the place you come to pursue a job in tech,” one longtime pornography reviewer told Eliot. “And now the papers are catering more to that sort of identity.”

This wistfulness runs throughout the issue, which is primarily a eulogy—not just for a vanished newspaper, but for an industry and a city that no longer seemed able or willing to support it. “Who killed the Bay Guardian?” one story asks, naming various suspects—tech executives, neoliberal politicians, the Internet. The paper’s corporate owners deserve a fair share of the blame. The Guardian’s longtime editor, Tim Redmond, writes about learning of the paper’s death and rushing to its offices, only to be ejected by the SFMC’s chief financial officer, who told him that it wasn’t personal, it was just business. “And that was that,” Redmond writes, “and this is this, the final issue of the Bay Guardian—where everything was personal, and it was never just business.”

That attitude explains both why the paper died and why its former employees are so eager to keep its memory alive. From a corporate standpoint, it makes financial sense to shutter underperforming news outlets. But very few journalists get into the news business because they’re fond of making decisions that make financial sense. This is especially true with alternative newspapers and magazines, which attract the sort of truculent people who know that they could be doing something more financially lucrative with their lives. They just don’t want to. And when their passion projects abruptly disappear, they often find it hard to say goodbye.

The Bay Guardian isn’t the only ideological publication whose staffers were unwilling to let the good times end. In 2012, GOOD magazine abruptly informed its editorial staffers that it was no longer a magazine but a “platform,” and that their talents had been rendered expendable. But the GOOD staffers weren’t quite ready to move on, and several of them got together to produce a one-shot magazine called Tomorrow—“about (and for) the people who are working out what’s next.” (My Slate colleague Amanda Hess was among them.) On Kickstarter, the founders promised that “we won’t be afraid to publish things that are complicated or sexy or weird … the kinds of things that might just get you fired. (We’ve been there.)” They raised $45,452, produced a single issue of Tomorrow, and then all went their separate ways. 

In 2013, the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix suddenly closed its doors in the face of declining profits. “It didn’t seem fair,” assistant music editor Liz Pelly would later write. “Was ‘the spirit of alt weeklies’ just fucking dead? Could it be resurrected? This literally kept me up at night.” Eventually—perhaps after finally getting some sleep—Pelly and former colleague Faye Orlove decided to take that alt-weekly spirit into their own hands, launching an online publication called The Media intended to fill some of the void left by the Phoenix’s departure. “This might work, it might not,” wrote Pelly in the lead story of the first issue. (Headline: “FVCK THE MEDIA: Defining and saving the spirit of alt-weeklies.”) “For now it doesn’t matter because regardless of whether anyone ever makes a cent off of this website, we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if we weren’t trying to do it.” Though Pelly has since moved to Brooklyn, the website continues to publish new issues.

Last year, when the Knoxville, Tennessee, Metro Pulse collapsed, several former staffers decided to pursue plans for a successor publication called the Knoxville Mercury. (They did this at great personal cost, rejecting Metro Pulse severance packages that would have required them to sign noncompete agreements.) “Starting a newspaper. In the 21st century. Seriously,” they wrote on their Kickstarter page, in a tacit acknowledgement of their project’s implausibility. Even so, they raised $61,532 to further their quixotic goal. The Mercury has not yet launched.

What is it about these publications that makes their ex-staffers work so hard to keep them alive or commemorate their departure? For all their flaws—they are often dogmatic or callow or reflexively cynical—so-called alternative newspapers and magazines theoretically exist to feature voices from outside the sphere of consensus, and to support deep reporting and intelligent commentary on topics from the margins. When these outlets disappear, those stories and voices are left without institutional homes. There is the Internet, of course, which has empowered a broader array of voices to find audiences. But the online alternative media is generally national in scope, and does not do a great job cultivating and supporting alternative, resolutely local longform and commentary.

There is a persistent myth among media watchers that the alternative press is dead, that there’s no place for it in a world of declining print circulation and expanded free online media options. But often it’s not that alternative media outlets lose money so much as that they just don’t earn enough money to make their continued existence worth the effort for corporate ownership. The Knoxville Metro Pulse, for instance, wasn’t losing money when it ceased operations in October 2014; it just wasn’t making enough for its parent company’s liking.

“Unfortunately, the economic reality is such that the Bay Guardian is not a viable business and has not been for many years,” Glenn Zuehls, an executive at the San Francisco Media Company, wrote in an email upon the paper’s closure. But the Guardian’s executive editor, Marke Bieschke, begged to differ, telling SFist that the paper was “still a very viable business.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Profit margins are declining at print publications around the country, and it’s easier to give up on a struggling newspaper when the paper is just one of many media properties you own. “The amount of money that the Bay Guardian loses each week is causing damage to the heart of the company and cannot justify its continued publication,” Zuehls, who had only recently relocated to San Francisco from Hawaii, wrote in October.

In the commemorative issue, former news editor Rebecca Bowe digs digs into the corporate structure of the San Francisco Media Company and unearths a link to David Black, a Canadian newspaper executive who, according to the Vancouver Sun, likes to “Buy cheap or distressed properties, ruthlessly cut unnecessary staff, make budgets squeak and consolidate common services such as printing, accounting and human resources in regional centers.” It’s hard to keep a struggling newspaper alive when its executives are resolved to let weak things die—and when those executives are disconnected from the community the paper is trying to serve.

As Bowe puts it in the new issue, “The Guardian was a common thread that wove together a community of individuals who agitated for change, exhibited genuine curiosity and concern about what transpired in their city, and ultimately shaped San Francisco’s distinctive edge.” But without a management based in and committed to that city, that edge will always end up dulled, and publications like the Guardian will continue to die. “The first step is to recognize what we’ve lost—the next step is to do something about it,” the editorial in the commemorative SFBG concludes. “And we’re all still here, waiting with our community to take that next step.” By refusing to go quietly, maybe they already have.