The Great West Coast Newspaper War

Seized delivery vans, murderous editors, irate blog posts, allegations of insanity, connections to the Church of Satan, illegal predatory-pricing schemes, and more than $21 million on the lineā€”the crazy alt-weekly war in San Francisco has it all.

Comments

1
tl;dr

Just kidding, good job.
2
San Franciscans are great, but their pretense at being where dot-com came from is really annoying. Digg is not a particularly big deal. Google and Apple are, and they're in Silicon Valley, 50 miles south. All those "new media" companies in SF went bankrupt, didn't they? The internet's not as big a deal in SF as the Federal Reserve is.
3
Today in You Can't Make This Shit Up. Well done.
4
One question jumps out at me every time I read a story about this legal battle: how is what the SF Weekly is said to have done different from what my local supermarket does when it has loss-leader sales? Or the local restaurant with a promotion offering a product at below cost? Or a mail-in rebate which makes a product free or close to it?

In these examples and the advertising sales that are the center of the lawsuit, a commercial entity is selling a product at below cost, to get more customers -- and thereby get customers away from their competitors? Are all these things illegal under California law? If not, what's different here?
5
Hi Fnarf! Many if not most of the people who work on the peninsula (in the nebulous area known as Silicon Valley) live in San Francisco. Which also houses Adobe, Dolby, Sega of America, UbiSoft, Cisco Systems, and literally hundreds of other tech firms. So sue us if we take some of our dot-com boom pride back home to San Francisco (where we are picked up from and dropped off to in our fancy, wi-fi enabled busses).
6
Don't have time to read this just yet. Just wanted to say Yamasaki brung it.
7
As someone quoted in the story, I think Eli did a great job.

Thing is, the vulnerabilities Mike Lacey saw in the Bay Guardian were/are real. Even in my days at the pre-New Times version of SF Weekly -- which was cash-poor, but not as "tiny" as the story suggests -- we had drawn within striking distance of the Guardian by positioning ourselves a little younger & hipper (which is definitely not the New Times way).

Despite Lacey's professed desire to kill me, I feel no ill will toward the guy. Whatever it was he thinks I once said about SF and the Weekly just demonstrates his tragic flaw -- an arrogant, humorless certainty about the *right* kind of journalism, which brooks no disagreement.
8
I moved up here to Seattle from San Francisco in late 07. I spent most of my life in San Francisco and loved the Bay Guardian. I tried reading the SF Weekly, but couldn't. The tone of the reporting just didn't speak to me. So I stopped reading it.

I'm finding out I'm in the same situation here in Seattle, I only read the Stranger. It helps that Dan Savage is the editor (I fracking LOVE that guy and his writing!!!).
9
Ah, this brought back grand memories of Dallas's own experiences with New Times. After buying out the "Dallas Observer", New Times promptly got rid of all of the existing talent, replacing it with Peter "You, Of Course, Know Who I Am, Don't You?" Elkind's 40,000-word bitter whinings about the Dallas Morning News and Robert "The James Lipton of Fandom" Wilonsky's equally dull 40,000-word blatherings about comic books and "Star Trek". The former staffers went to "The Met" and the "Fort Worth Weekly", the former was bought outright in 2000 and shut down and the other turned into a typical New Times weekend guide with delusions of grandeur. (Full disclosure: I worked at "The Met" between 1994 and 1996, when we were informed nearly weekly that New Times had been trying to buy the paper in order to shut it down. I didn't find out until later that the publisher didn't sell only because New Times didn't meet his price, and he only sold for $2 million in 2000, with no warning to its staffers, because nobody else was willing to buy what was being nicknamed "The Paper By SMU Brats For SMU Brats".)

I had friends at the "Fort Worth Weekly" when New Times bought it, and one related almost the same exact tale as related about "SF Weekly". In his case, he noted that New Times had major issues with "local color" (i.e., features that couldn't be packaged up and syndicated through the chain), but was perfectly willing to hang onto existing staffers if they were sufficiently sycophantic. That definition was definitely mutable, as New Times waited until the editor was on his honeymoon in Europe before firing him long-distance. (No love lost with Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex weekly readers, I'll tell you.)

Either way, it's really funny to watch what happened. Apparently, New Times figured that killing "The Met" and castrating the "Weekly" would magically funnel readers to the "Observer", no matter how bad the content. Instead, NT discovered that having three separate and independent weeklies in town actually goosed the circulations of the other two, and when they were removed from the Dallas market, people just stopped reading the "Observer" outright. These days, the paper is so abused that it's now saddle-stapled to keep it from falling apart. The paper still publishes important articles from time to time, but even Jim Schultze's regular columns can't make up for decades of utter contempt held by writers and editors toward the paper's readers. It might survive for another couple of years, but deadpools as to when the paper dies aren't even interesting any more. The only thing we're waiting for, these days, is for Village Voice Media to cut its losses and realize that between declining circulation and libel suits against the paper for restaurant coverage, the paper is doomed.
10
Thank you for helping to rip the corporate veil off of Larkin and Lacey's smug mugs. Like the Wizard of Oz, making thunderous noise from behind a flimsy screen, it turns out Larkin and Lacey are really just front men for a foreign bank. The millions they poured into illegally undercutting a locally owned business with the aim of driving a competitor out of business... all that firepower was just a loan. Ooooops. Talk about trading on borrowed time. Well now the gig's up. It's time to pay the piper. If the Bank of Montreal is ultimately the party who underwrote the SF Weekly's predatory practices than it's only fair they should surrender half of their takings. The great tragedy is that the legacy of the Village Voice got sucked up in Larkin and Lacey's Canadian funded follies.
11
Ah, this brought back grand memories of Dallas's own experiences with New Times. After buying out the "Dallas Observer", New Times promptly got rid of all of the existing talent, replacing it with Peter "You, Of Course, Know Who I Am, Don't You?" Elkind's 40,000-word bitter whinings about the Dallas Morning News and Robert "The James Lipton of Fandom" Wilonsky's equally dull 40,000-word blatherings about comic books and "Star Trek". The former staffers went to "The Met" and the "Fort Worth Weekly", the former was bought outright in 2000 and shut down and the other turned into a typical New Times weekend guide with delusions of grandeur. (Full disclosure: I worked at "The Met" between 1994 and 1996, when we were informed nearly weekly that New Times had been trying to buy the paper in order to shut it down. I didn't find out until later that the publisher didn't sell only because New Times didn't meet his price, and he only sold for $2 million in 2000, with no warning to its staffers, because nobody else was willing to buy what was being nicknamed "The Paper By SMU Brats For SMU Brats".)

I had friends at the "Fort Worth Weekly" when New Times bought it, and one related almost the same exact tale as related about "SF Weekly". In his case, he noted that New Times had major issues with "local color" (i.e., features that couldn't be packaged up and syndicated through the chain), but was perfectly willing to hang onto existing staffers if they were sufficiently sycophantic. That definition was definitely mutable, as New Times waited until the editor was on his honeymoon in Europe before firing him long-distance. (No love lost with Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex weekly readers, I'll tell you.)

Either way, it's really funny to watch what happened. Apparently, New Times figured that killing "The Met" and castrating the "Weekly" would magically funnel readers to the "Observer", no matter how bad the content. Instead, NT discovered that having three separate and independent weeklies in town actually goosed the circulations of the other two, and when they were removed from the Dallas market, people just stopped reading the "Observer" outright. These days, the paper is so abused that it's now saddle-stapled to keep it from falling apart. The paper still publishes important articles from time to time, but even Jim Schultze's regular columns can't make up for decades of utter contempt held by writers and editors toward the paper's readers. It might survive for another couple of years, but deadpools as to when the paper dies aren't even interesting any more. The only thing we're waiting for, these days, is for Village Voice Media to cut its losses and realize that between declining circulation and libel suits against the paper for restaurant coverage, the paper is doomed.
12
@4 curious reader. This is not comparable to the loss leaders in the weekly add of a supermarket. The law in question deals with a situation where a chain store moves into your neighborhood where you have a grocery store and reduces all their prices, all the time, in that particular store and only that store until you go broke. It is predatory pricing for the purpose of putting you out of business. Most states have some version of this law but they have been weakened over time and are not rigorously enforced. I don't know the exact status of the California Law but it used to be one of the strongest in country and may still be.
13
It's strange to hear Andrew O'Herir talk about the online "model" of journalism squashing print. His online journal Salon.com has never earned a penny of profit--it has been subsidized from day one by a Wall Street investment banker named Hambrecht. And Salon (which I enjoy reading, and have written for) has long functioned as a propaganda arm of the Democractic Party. Print is not dead--and I do agree with Lacey about one thing: newspapers should not endorse political candidates. They also should not run ads--that is a model that truly does not work, never has, never will.
14
PIECE OF SHEET,broadly.

Wow. Good job Eli. Damn thorough.
The piece of sheet Strangler actually trying to be a journalistic endeavor for once.
A very rare occurrence for such a piece of sheet masquerading as a journalism endeavor.
How about a few more stories of such breadth and depth-this thing called investigative reporting?
Or back to the old pandering well, cuz you pander so well Mssrs. Savage and Keck?
16
This is the best, most comprehensive piece on this subject so far. Congratulations, Eli, on this incredibly thorough work.
I was one of the people in the room in 1994 when the cowboys came. I now finally understand the time line and players in this battle. It took YOU to explain it all. Nicely done.
17
Great story, Eli. I had no idea where all the previous stories on SLOG were going with this, so I'd just stopped reading them. This thorough wrap-up held me at every line. Keep reporting on this. Best wishes.
18
Thanks for this great story -- I live in SF and read both papers and this is the first time I've fully understood the story.

Both publications serve a purpose here, so I would hate either to go out of business. That said, the bit about the Bay Guardian's brand of "crusading West Coast liberalism" is dead on, as is the tiredness of their campaign for public power. Both papers are liberal, but the Weekly is far more moderate and balanced (which in this town, brands you a neocon).
19
I've already said it to your face but this piece is just great, Eli. It's interesting the Bay Guardian successfully rallied against urban density (by way of condos). Is that why rent in SF is so astronomically high?
20
eleven thousand words and i still wanted more of them. great job, comprehensive and never dry.
21
one thing that confused me--

"In response to this and other developments, the Bank of Montreal declared SF Weekly's parent company, VVM, to be in default on its $80 million loan and filed suit against the Bay Guardian in Delaware (where SF Weekly is registered as a company)."

why has the BoM filed suit against the guardian? did you mean the weekly? are they trying to get at the vvm dough that the guardian's collecting from the weekly advertisers?
22
Not much new but a nice rehash of what's already been on the record and reported. You should have explained the BoM's strategy, however; the move clearly was made to aid SFW, in addition to protecting its lendee's revenue flow; SFW is delighted to see the bank call its loan, and likely colluded with the Canadians to do so; by demanding first position, BoM can help SFW thwart the Guarian's collection efforts.
23
@21: Thanks, and yes, it's the Guardian that Bank of Montreal filed suit against in Delaware. This Delaware suit is a part of the bank's overall effort to step firmly in front of the Guardian in the collections queue.
24
I'm reminded of a phrase a friend of mine one used in a completely different context (the merger of two old-line internet companies that nobody here has likely ever heard of):

"Like watching two drowning men try to get to the surface by climbing up each other."
25
quite thorough, much more so than the East Bay Express' limp-dick reporting on the same subject. maybe the Express' proximity--and their former status as a New Times outpost--prevented them from actually reporting deeper into a subject they know quite well.
26
"So that if it were facing a situation where someone could spend as much money as they wanted to produce a product that was as good or even better maybe than the Bay Guardian's, and sell it for a price that was less than the Bay Guardian's, they could take that market away."

Ah do declare we-ah call that Capitalism, yassuh, a how how how how!
27
This story has at least two major factual errors. First the jury did not award the BG $16M. The jury awarded 1/3 of this and the judge trebled under state law.

Second, the preditory pricing laws (which are correctly known as unfair practices statutes) do not protect consumers, they protect competitors from competition. Just ask the advertisers in both the BG and the SFW who are now paying higher ad rates thanks the injunction the judge granted (and not mentioned in the story). As Huey Long once said, he'd rather have the devil in Louisiana than chain stores. Do you honestly think that your standard of living would be where it is today if there were no chain stores?

I quit reading the BG years ago after (as noted in the article) one two many articles on Brugman's PG&E obsession. In general the paper has been nothing more than a left wing advocacy skreed which does allow inconvenient facts to be reported in its articles or just misrepresents them.
28
stop the lies, first of all, the first "error" you point out is fairly minor--it could be a typo--since the amount of the jury award doesnt change the facts.

the second "error" you point out is simply your opinion, and not factual at all.

both the SFBG and the AFW are both bloated and overwrought, for different reasons. SFW is not clearly the better paper, just the more corporate of the two, sometimes embarrassingly so. the SFBG OTOH, is a shell of its former self and has certainly devolved into cliche. but it's also local.

and that's what's at the core of this dispute. local identity in media is already gone from radio, and all but gone from newspapers. TV hasnt really been local since the 80s.

so even if you think the guardian sucks, at least they suck locally. they may be predictable lefties who cover pet-peeve issues more than presenting perhaps the paper the city actually needs--more culture stories, less political yammering, broader cross-section of local news--but that's better than being thinly-veiled neocons whose political bent is to try to deny that politics exists, except when its controversial.

brugmann's quotes here made more sense than lacey's, and i have to say, having encountered both of them, as well as tom walsh and andy van de voorde, in person, the author's depictions of them were pretty much spot-on.

this is a good article because it tells it like it is. i think it calls out both papers equally as essentially already obsolete, but i could see how a super-conservative ultraright wing type might think it skews toward SFBG.

but my take is it really shows why lacey and BBB are the last of a dying breed, and illustrates their oppositional dichotomy fairly accurately. for all his faults, Bruce is more sympathetic because he's just not as much of an asshole as Lacey is. quirky? yes. quixotic? yes. weird? you betcha. but an asshole of the Lacey variety? not really.
29
Wow. I live on the other side of the world, have not spent more than a week in the US ever, and I still found this story riveting. I was drawn in by the fact that I love The Stranger, but it's the quality of writing - events explained clearly, adjectives chosen judiciously, fact and opinion well delineated.
What is it about The Stranger that allows people to write so well?
30
Always interesting to read the comments that say things like, "The Weekly sucks; I read the Guardian," or "New Times fired everybody in my town," or "Lacey and Larkin are smug assholes" as justification for the outcome of the VVM trial. While all the above may be true, none explore the legitimacy of what went down in the courtroom in 2008. If the Guardian produced a better - or at least meaningfully differentiated - product from the advertisers, then no amount of price-gouging by the Weekly should have had an impact on their bottom line, right? Their contention that the internet had no impact on their sales, and that the Weekly's price structure single-handedly bankrupted them is as ludicrous as it is deluded.
33
I worked for both papers, back before New Times. You got the scene right. Great piece.
34
You might want to take a look at Spokane's Inlander for an Alternative Weekly with some curious management practices.

The local band, Six Foot Swing, has just won their Best Band award for the third year in a row. The only problem with that is that the lead vocalist for Six Foot Swing is Heather O'Brien -- an ad representative for The Inlander.

Six Foot Swing is an excellent swing band and Heather's a hell of a singer, but people, three years in a row?
35
@34:

Perhaps there's not much competition for SFS in Spokane?
36
Fantastic work. Eli's great.
37

The reporting on this story is first-rate. When I saw the size of the scroll tab to the right, I assumed that it would fail to the tl;dr pile. Wrong. Excellent coverage of the story from front to present, and I commend the writer. Again, well done.
38
Very good. I've read the SLOG coverage on and off, but I never really understood what was going on. Now I understand. Thank you!
39
If the SF Weekly loses, there will be one less Left-wing publication in San Francisco.

But if the San Francisco Bay Guardian loses, there will be one less Left-wing publication in San Francisco.

So what's the problem?
40
Well done, Eli. Extraordinary, in fact--I've forwarded this story to just about everyone I know in print journalism. Has there been any pressure on you or The Stranger regarding coverage, given the links to VVM?
41
And once New Times finished its slash and burn of SF Weekly's local staff, I seem to recall that it debuted its new incarnation with a hard-hitting cover story expose on.... Linda McCartney's frozen vegetarian dinners.

I kid you not.

(http://www.sfweekly.com/content/printVer…)

How's THAT for amazing investigative journalism!

42
Here's that link:

http://www.sfweekly.com/content/
printVersion/303640

(Nice work, Eli, btw.)
45
What is a newspaper?
46
Fantastic reporting. And, though it probably goes unnoticed by most people, props to the Stranger for putting it all on one page rather than breaking it up. Too many online sites are spreading long stories over ten different pages so it looks like they are getting more page views and ad impressions. It is an engrossing story, and as a reader, I very much appreciate not being interrupted.
47
@Sarah: Allow me to play devil's advocate:

Spreading the story across multiple pages doesn't make it "(look) like they are getting more page views and ad impressions," it actually generates more of both. Which generates more revenue. Which allows reporters like Eli to spend a week in San Francisco getting drunk with Brugmann and chasing down legal documents and otherwise executing the "fantastic reporting" you lauded him for.

This shit ain't free, and yet readers block ads, complain about pop ups, bitch about pagination, and more or less kvetch about any attempt by a publication to make money off the stuff those readers are enjoying. I'll never understand that.
48
I remember.

I remember Phoenix New Times, when it was just The New Times. I remember Lacey and Larkin, and I remember their journalism, and I remember that it was good.

I moved away from Phoenix before they changed into this corporate thing. Before The Money somehow became more important than The Story. Part of me wants to put on a Cheech and Chong-era stoner accent and yell "YOU SOLD OUT, MAAAAN," at them.

But honestly, I just want to know what the hell happened to turn two somewhat respectable journalists into such money-grubbing hookers.
49
The only reason I pick up the SF Weekly is to read Savage Love. Then I usually put it back in the stand so as not to help drive up its circulation numbers. There's nothing else in SF Weekly worthwhile at all. I felt this way about it long before there was a lawsuit.

An alternative voice would be useful. There was a period period where the Guardian unabashedly tried to transform Steven T. Jones's partner Alix Rosenthal from a corporate hack to a progressive maven, so she could be elected to local office. In the end, no one fell for it, but it was an example of how literally sleeping with the city editor could get endorsements and favorable press out of the Guardian.

The SF Weekly, however, has never been that alternative voice.
50
Ah, Frisco. And what an interesting tale this is. I've had connections to both publications, prior to moving away at long last. In the 80's, the Bay Guardian was the smug old birkenstock hippie publication which barely spent any ink on the punk scene & related rowdiness. The SF Weekly's arrival was a breath of fresh air, and the Guardian had to become more eclectic and with it. The Weekly was also doing some great political and investigative writing. Then New Times came in and the Weekly became increasingly pro-Establishment. They waved the dot-CON banner wildly as well. I told them to shove it. - GXI
51
mr. eli,great article.there is no question mike lacey is a arrogant prick.you forgot to mention the two major accounts he claimed s f weekly stole from him using this practice catagorically denied brugmann's claim on the stand.if my memory serves me no business took the stand to confirm these allegations.convicted of being a prick?hell i've known that for 61 yrs. junior