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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

Continuation of Feeling the Heat   


By Buzz Bissinger
Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author of two highly acclaimed books, “Friday Night Lights” and, most recently, “A Prayer for the City.”     

San Francisco
3,155 Miles

If you're going to end a trip like this, it seems to me there is no better way to do it than with bluster, iconoclasm, outrage and a promise to fight to the last drop of blood even when you know you're probably screwed.

I had come to San Francisco to see Bruce Brugmann of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the dean of alternative weekly publishers. He did not disappoint, nor did the ambiance of the office on Hampshire Street--a little fish tank at the corner of the reception desk; old Guardian promotional posters spouting such slogans as "Protecting your right to fight City Hall" and "Protecting your right to sunbathe naked;" a man walking around in what appeared to be a mumu that had once been worn by Mama Cass; an executive editor with a streak of gray hair not all the way to his derriere, but impressively close.

In other words everything an alternative weekly should be--unorthodox, unrestrained, mad as hell and worried that the very mission of such papers in America, "to print the news and raise hell" as the motto on the Guardian masthead puts it, is being tamped into mush.

In person, Brugmann looked more like a book editor than a flamethrower. He is tall, with a close-cropped white beard, and he was wearing suspenders and black wingtips. He is originally from Iowa, which isn't his fault but has resulted in that maddening Midwest combination of talking all the time and taking a very, very, very long time to do it, as if each word has its own planting season. For some reason, he reminded me a bit of Burl Ives after a weight-loss program.

But Brugmann is no idle commentator. For nearly 35 years, he has been in the face of just about every mayor and bloated politician and fatcat utility in San Francisco. It's no accident that the following statement from the current mayor, Willie Brown, hangs on his office door: "I'd recommend first you don't read the Guardian. Because there's absolutely nothing accurate on any page of that particular newspaper." It's no accident that when he talked to me about the two daily papers in town (by the time you're reading this there may be only one), the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, he called them "conservative papers in the last stages of arterial sclerosis."

And it certainly is no accident that legal bills for various public records-access suits lay on the desk of his wife, Jean Dibble, the associate publisher. There was one for $25,472, and another one for $828, and when Dibble, who handles the business side of the Guardian, picked them up and looked through them, she could only sigh. But for her husband, these suits, and the costs of filing them, form the sweet music of what makes an alternative weekly an alternative weekly, beholden to nothing and no one with the sole exception of that masthead motto.

"We can sue," says Brugmann. "We can threaten. We can make statements. If you can't sue the bastards, you condemn the bastards."

That kind of hellfire contempt extends beyond politicians to include the city's daily papers--to poke at them and prod at them and constantly challenge their potential monopoly on the news. Which is why Brugmann could only shake his head in dismay when the Hartford Courant, a subsidiary of Times Mirror, stepped in earlier this year and bought the alternative weekly in Hartford. Brugmann says the very image of the same corporate parent owning these two products sickened him. He railed against the sale in print and hoped that the Justice Department would block it because of antitrust violations that, in Brugmann's estimation, were blatant and obvious. But the Justice Department didn't see it that way. The sale whistled through, and Brugmann now sees it as a barometer of things to come in the alternative weekly business. "Times Mirror is leading the way," he says. "These are just toxic viruses that are being set loose."

From a business standpoint, the Courant's purchase of the Hartford Advocate was a no-brainer. For years, metro dailies have tried to woo young readers, and for years they have failed. In the meantime, the sleepy little alternatives seized on the 18-to-45-year-old market with a vengeance. Readership increased, particularly when publishers stopped playing air guitar to "Stairway to Heaven," found corporate religion and realized that the most effective way to get an alternative weekly into the hands of those young and hip readers was to give it away. As readership increased, so did advertising lineage, and if you go to any major city today you're bound to find at least one alternative weekly as thick as a phone book, and maybe two.

The dailies, of course, could only sit back and shed self-pitying tears at the loss of another sector of the market. Until last April, when the Courant basically said to hell with it and figured out that the only effective way to compete with the alternative weekly in Hartford was to buy it, along with four sister publications in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. For a huge corporation like Times Mirror, the amount of that purchase, about $18 million, was the equivalent of petty cash. But from an editorial standpoint, it created a nightmare.

When Janet Reynolds, editor of the Advocate, first heard the news of the sale, she literally started screaming "No! No! Not the Courant! No!" Five months later, sitting in the offices of the Advocate in downtown Hartford, she was still feeling the effects of what had taken place. "With the exception of being sold to the Journal Register Co., which is the evil empire, this is the worst thing that could have happened," she says.

In May, at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Memphis, a motion was made to revoke the Advocate's membership because it could no longer be considered independent. But Reynolds cautioned her fellow brethren not to get too righteous, given the likelihood that other metro dailies might imitate the Times Mirror purchase in their own markets. What she actually told them was, "The cancer is in the bloodstream." She asked that the Advocate get a grace period, and the motion was tabled until next May.

When the sale was consummated, Reynolds told Courant executives that she would publicly scream bloody murder at the slightest show of editorial influence on the Advocate. She hasn't done that, because in her view there has been no editorial influence. As a result, her initial revulsion has given way to a wary cautiousness that maybe, just maybe, this bizarre pairing of longtime enemies can somehow work. "I feel as good as I can about it," she says, "given that I basically think it's a bad idea... Would I apply to the alternative weekly that is owned by Times Mirror? I don't think so."

Because even if there has been no editorial interference, there is the still the power of perception, the fact that some readers will never again see the Advocate as an independent voice but as the Courant Junior.

But she is still there, and so is Fran Zankowski, who was recently made publisher of the entire five-publication operation under the umbrella of a separate company called New Mass Media. Zankowski is convinced that there can be a firewall between his operation and that of the Courant. His company is completely separate, to the degree that his employees are not even eligible for the Times Mirror health plan. He does go over to the offices of the Courant once a week to meet with executives, but so far at least the extent of their involvement has been to standardize financial reporting, insist on budgeting in April instead of September, and Y2K compliance. In other words, the talk is almost purely about business and making sure that the Advocate papers, whatever the hell they do, just keep on doing it. "In a static market, it was a way [for the Courant] to grow," says Zankowski. "The other reason was, we were profitable. They were looking to gain market share at a pretty reasonable risk."

As for poking and prodding the Courant, the Advocate received a laurel in a recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review for disclosing that the city of Hartford has lost more than $2 million in revenues by allowing companies, in particular the Courant, to rent municipal land for parking lots at rates well below the market.

When I reported to Bruce Brugmann these various views from the Advocate front line--that autonomy is still intact--he gave a kind of pitying smile. And then the smile ceased, and a moody cloud creased over him, as if what Reynolds and Zankowski were saying wasn't simply self-delusional but the journalistic equivalent of spitting in his face.

"I sure as hell wouldn't want them working for me."

At first I thought it was just another Brugmann line of bluster, said for the verbal pugilism of being a left-of-center tough guy in wingtips and suspenders. But then I detected something else: a genuine sense of hurt, maybe even fear, that all he has worked for as a journalist, all he believes in when it comes to maintaining independence, is about to come crashing down.

"I've spent my entire life doing this," he says. "I'll be goddamned if I'll sell to..any of these chains. I've put too much into it."

I found myself rooting for him when he said that any self-respecting newspaper should have two public-access suits and two libel suits pending at all times. I found myself rooting for him when he said of the Times Mirror purchase, "It's sad there's no antitrust. It's sad there is not more opposition." I found myself rooting for him when he said, "The people who wrote the First Amendment were not writing it for Gannett and Knight Ridder and for the big boys to get bigger."

But after 3,155 miles on the road in search of the American weekly, I also realized that rooting for someone, however it soothes the troubled soul, is just a momentary respite. Along the path of interstates and farm roads and mountain curves, I had encountered all sorts of delights--honor, feistiness, locally grown products that were stunning. But my head was also crammed with terms that I had never encountered before: clustering, consolidation, contiguous markets, chaining up, economic synergies, volume discount pricing, economies of scale.

As a journalist, I appreciate the newfound knowledge of those terms, because I had learned something. But as a journalist, I could hear the tap-tap-tap of another nail in the coffin, as if the words, and the reporting, and the quotes, the stuffing that makes a weekly paper a weekly paper, were about to become little more than tinsel and blinking lights in the corporate Christmas tree of new profits and new markets. The voices of independence are still out there in the American weekly, out there in the fields of Iowa, out there in the prairie of South Dakota, out there in the mountains of Wyoming, out there in the sexual sizzle of San Francisco. I found inspiration and solace in the men and women who put out these weekly papers, who believe in their communities and love them and give back to them because they live in them. They are as close to the First Amendment as you can get, its most dedicated protectors and practitioners. But for all their nobility, my heart also tells me they are nothing more than the last survivors.


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