Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Observation/Opinion — San Francisco Periodicals Just Before The Digital Revolution

San Francisco print publications have a rich and complicated history.  It’s almost enough to say the Hearsts, accused of starting wars to increase circulation for example, were major players in the long, dramatic battle of the San Francisco dailies.  They owned the evening paper, The San Francisco Examiner.  The San Francisco Chronicle, owned by the brothers de Young, had heir own drama. One of them shot a mayoral candidate after the candidate and the owner-editor cast aspersions on each other’s character and was, in turn, shot to death by the mayor’s son.  The two papers spent decades battling to gain the upper hand, stealing popular columnists from each other along the way.  It was the kind of battle that played out in major cities across the country — morning paper battling evening paper, only more viscerally than most.

In most cases, it was the morning papers that survived.  In this case, in a complicated and bizarre transaction that kept the courts busy for a few years, the Chronicle, the prize, blinked and Hearst bought it, getting the prime a.m. spot it desired and needed to survive.  The Examiner, which was of questionable worth even before the bargaining, was subsequently sold to the politically powerful Fang family who also had newspaper interests (the then popular Asian Week among them). However, in my view, the relaunch of the doomed Examiner under the Fangs went worse than expected. The new Examiner, was perceived as error-ridden and was largely ignored even though or because it was free.  In those days, advertisers wanted paid circulation numbers to support ad buys. And readers, I suspect, doubted its credibility.  Soon, The Examiner was for sale again.

This was good news for wealthy conservative businessman Phillip Anschutz who seemed to be setting up a national network of small, free dailies. Wisely anticipating the inevitability of the Internet and the dotcom explosion he obtained a copyright on the word “Examiner” and purchased various Internet domains with big city names followed by examiner.com.  Who could ask for more —twenty or thirty major city dailies with one owner and inter-connected web sites? Go to examiner.com and pick your city was the logic. When he bought The San Francisco Examiner from the Fangs, he added it to his other prizes, The Washington Examiner and The Baltimore Examiner. I thought that was pretty forward thinking at the time.   He would have a powerful medium to deliver his message. He would have the singular ability to deliver ads to every major metropolitan area in the country with an economy of time and cost. He was, it seemed, on his way to a media empire.

METRO: Alive and well in the '80s
However, given the nature of San Francisco, choosing the city by the bay wasn’t smart, especially to be among the first cities to join what was to be a stable of Examiners — a more effectively localized U.S.A Today. Unfortunately for him, San Francisco was more like Waterloo. The heavy-handed right-wing editorial stance, emanating from what must have been a kind of Anschutz central, was certainly no way to win friends in places like Haight Ashbury and North Beach. Worse, the editorials were amateurishly written and occupied a disproportionate amount of space in the paper.  So it was even doubtful he’d find allies in such places as the moderately Republican, but well-educated Pacific Heights.  He sold the paper. The new and ambitious  buyer, Todd Vogt, an owner of a Canadian publishing conglomerate stopped the endless, mindless diatribes against Obama . He didn’t stop there.  Forming an entity called The San Francisco News paper Company, he promptly gobbled up both of the city’s alternative weeklies, The Bay Guardian and the Guardian’s mortal enemy, the Johnny-Come-later, formerly corporate chain-owned “alternative,” SF Weekly.  What’s the plan?   It’s not quite clear, other than all of the major free distribution newspapers are now under the control of the current, well-heeled media conglomerate owners of The Examiner, and en masse, are the Chronicle’s only real print competitor in the city.  

San Francisco also has many colorful, fascinating neighborhoods. Most of them have monthlies, and  many of them are quite good.  The Noe Valley Voice and The Marina Times are exceptional servants of their respective communities.  My favorite is The New Fillmore, though small and promotional in nature, the writing is solid and the design exquisite.  It has a more difficult task than most: provide balanced coverage of an area with multiple, often overlapping borders and very different identities.

There are also two city magazines — the older San Francisco and the now well-established 7X7. Both are well-designed glossy pubs competing for the attention of the young and the restlessly trendy.  Restaurants, interior design and fashion dominate.  Because I’m linguistically limited, I won’t attempt to speak for papers specifically targeting the significant Asian and Latino populations of the city —about a third of the city’s population each.  The Bay View positions itself a “National Black Paper,“ and was one of the first to switch its primary focus from print to web. It does however print a print monthly edition, many of them distributed in the Bay Area.

A lively Weekly from Francis Ford Coppola
The other major demographic in San Francisco includes gays and lesbians. Many print publications aimed at LGBTQ people have come and gone in the last couple of decades.  The Bay Times, a well-written monthly paper with a broad geographic focus, has survived.  The Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.), a weekly that covers mainly the local gay male culture and its many subcultures continues in business despite the devastation of its profitable classifieds by the Internet and the homogenization or absorption of gays into the larger Bay Area culture.

Far more interesting to me, though, are the one-of-a-kind publications, labors of love in many cases. I’m pretty sure my list isn’t complete. Some had short lives and some never made it beyond the first issue.  City Lights Bookstore used to have a rack of magazines, mimeographed, Xeroxed, even hand-copied issues of peoples' personal periodicals. But here are some publications I remember and one I briefly edited.

Of those who made it at least beyond its premiere issue, my favorite was METRO. Fiction. Photography. Commentary.  Food, The Arts. It was a beautifully designed monthly with a usually elegant magazine-style cover over newsprint in a tabloid format. It was active in the early ‘80s, reflecting the full range of San Francisco’s creative community.  When METRO exited the scene Photo Metro, once an insert that was also beautifully executed, attempted to survive on its own showing the work of local photographers.  If I were younger and this was an earlier century I would try to revive it.

Still alive and well
A weekly to tap into San Francisco‘s irreverent, wonderfully excessive era was a gutsy tabloid-style weekly publication, which appeared to have solid financing and the force of ideas from a recognized auteur — Francis Ford Coppola.  The magazine was called City.  Publishing isn’t an easy business, apparently. It too bit the dust. Rumors abound that its money is no object philosophy regarding production costs turned out to be an object to stumble over.  Never say die though.  Coppola returned later with Zoetrope, dedicated to fiction and art, but reaching well beyond its San Francisco home base.

The city’s well-to-do have always been served.  The dailies used to have society pages, but gradually let them dwindle in favor of expanding news about and for the hinterlands. As I mentioned earlier, San Francisco magazine and later 7X7 courted and continue to court the one percent, but in some ways they didn’t know how to make the elite and those who loved them feel special enough.  And to some extent, they come across as too egalitarian. Snob appeal has its appeal. Here comes The Nob Hill Gazette.

In 1978, sugar fortune heir Gardner Mein founded a tabloid that essentially became the city’s official society pages.  It is delightfully and intentionally snooty. Anybody who is anybody eventually finds a way into the publication.  Anybody who isn’t doesn’t. The rich and famous are photographed at parties, fundraisers, and openings, usually smiling, bejeweled, dressed in designer gowns, holding a glass of champagne or a cocktail.  To appear in the Gazette is a kind of confirmation of your status in the ruling class, or an indication of your arrival there.  The number of pictures in which one finds him- or herself is a measure on the order of the number of bead necklaces one gets at Mardi Gras. Sort of.

Flirted with fame and fortune
The lesson to be learned here and the publication’s saving grace is, besides a sense of humor, that the Gazette knew itself and its audience, and never forgot either.  One of the first threats to its existence came when a former editor, thinking perhaps he’d discovered the secret, decided to compete.  Scene, the upstart new pub was all glossed up, made cool and hip — all the sophistication new money could buy.  It missed he point.  Others, including the Chronicle, also set their sights on unseating the Gazette with shiny new publications to dazzle and seduce the Gazette’s enviable demographic — rich and powerful  people and those who want to be rich and powerful. But “shiny" is a new money kind of thing. The Gazette doesn’t dazzle or tease. They are the official gatekeeper. They confirm. All who sought to unseat them failed.  Today, The Gazette, which I edited in 1982-3 may be found in select neighborhoods, unfazed by other print media‘s attempts on its life. 

Unfortunately, from the point of view of a print guy like me, this post is really a toast to what is already gone or slipping away. Print?  I remember my parents talking about all the programs on radio. There were a few left when I was old enough to appreciate George Burns and Gracie Allen. Lucy was paired with Richard Denning then, not Desi. I remember radio’s passing: the day we got our first television set. I say this as I sit before my large screen Mac, where I e-mail,friends and associates, check Facebook. write books, post on my blog and generally Google my life away. I haven’t picked up a newspaper in quite some time, I am ashamed t say.

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