Crisis in newspaper business creates strange bedfellows

By Jon Funabiki

“NSS” – Newspapers are Sick Syndrome – can sure lead to some strange and ironic survival plans. The latest is the San Francisco Examiner’s plan to take over the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Given their histories, who would have predicted this “Odd Couple” marriage?

First there’s the Examiner, which traces its history back to 1863 as a pro-Confederacy newspaper and was for a considerable time the flagship of Hearst newspapers (remember Rosebud?). Then, in 1965, when economic times for newspapers got rough, the Examiner survived as the city’s only afternoon daily by entering into a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with the morning San Francisco Chronicle, which allowed them to share printing presses, advertising and other back-office operations.

The JOA lasted for 35 years until 2000, when Hearst bought the Chronicle and dumped the Examiner. That led to a revolving door of owners. First, there was the politically connected Fang family, which turned it into a free newspaper (we called them “throwaways” in those days). Then the Fangs sold the Examiner to Philip Anschutz, a conservative billionaire from Denver, who tried to build a new chain of print-and-web operations across the country. I remember meeting the newspaper’s publisher and editor at the time who described their editorial philosophy as “independent, but we are pro-business.”

That lasted until 2011 when a new group of investors led by Todd Vogt bought the Examiner and bent the political compass to the left—or at least left of the mainstream Chronicle.

On the other side of the aisle is the Bay Guardian. For 45 years, there has been no question whoowns it and runs it: founder/publisher Bruce Brugmann and his wife Jean Dibble. They have defined the Bay Guardian as the city’s progressive, hell-raising alternative newspaper. Frequent targets included PG&E, Chevron and other big corporations and powerbrokers. On the other hand, the Bay Guardian often caught flack for its heavy reliance on advertising from massage parlors and similar sex-related businesses.

The irony is that Brugmann was a vociferous critic of the Examiner and Chronicle’s JOA, which was made possible by a 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act. The law exempted competing newspapers in a city from some anti-trust regulations in an effort to keep them alive. But Brugmann argued that the JOA essentially created an Examiner-Chronicle monopoly that strangled the Bay Guardian and other newspapers.

Now, under the Examiner-Bay Guardian deal, the two newspapers will likely share production, advertising and editorial operations. The Bay Guardian announced on April 24 that the new owners have pledged to allow the Guardian “to remain the voice of progressive politics and alternative culture in San Francisco.” Whether the Examiner and Guardian can maintain distinct and independent editorial content and policies remains to be seen.

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