Why I’m still with the Bay Guardian...for now

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During the tumultuous week since my longtime boss and mentor Tim Redmond suddenly left the Bay Guardian, I’ve been repeateadly reminded of the old journalism adage “Show don’t tell.” That’s what we tried to do in our widely circulated story this week about Tim and our new corporate overlords, and it’s the standard that I’ll apply to their public assurances that the Guardian will remain a progressive, independent voice.

I’m glad that owner Todd Vogt and new Publisher Stephen Buel said it, and now I will wait and see whether they show it through their actions. I think that Guardian readers should do the same thing, reserve judgment for now, and delay any plans to abandon or boycott the Guardian.

First, there are a few things I want to tell you all. As the senior progressive political journalist still working for a newspaper in San Francisco, I hope that you’ll trust me to test our independence and speak honestly to you about whether the Guardian’s integrity remains intact (either here or through other media if that becomes necessary).  

As tempting as it has been for all of us to just follow Tim out the door and refuse to give the new Guardian management any cover or credibility, it’s not clear to me how that would help San Francisco or the Guardian’s readers and community. The city needs the Guardian more than ever, given the arbitrary and exploitive exercises of corporate power now plaguing this great city, but nobody needs a Guardian that has been coopted by those same forces.

At this point, I’m willing to risk my job for the sake of truth and transparency, as I did with the long story I wrote with my courageous colleague Rebecca Bowe this week (and the support of another trusted ally, Guardian Interim Editor Marke B), and which I’m probably doing with this post as well.

So let me continue what we started by offering a bit of backstory and updating you on the latest developments before closing with some thoughts on the possible endgame to all of this. As we talked over the weekend following Tim’s sudden departure, a bit traumatized by how it all went down, Rebecca and I both seriously considered not returning to work on Monday.

Ultimately, we decided to come in to write a story on what happened, as Buel had invited the Guardian to do late Friday afternoon, his first official act as our new publisher. Initially wary that writing a full and truthful account of what happened might get us fired, we decided that was the only thing that we could do.

Consistent with longstanding Guardian editorial policy that sources may not preview news stories, we planned to refuse any requests by Buel or Vogt to read our story before it went to the press, and to their credit, they didn’t ask. When I interviewed each of them that day, I thanked them for letting us do the story and told them how important I thought it was to our community and the Guardian’s credibility.

Our noon press deadline passed without incident and we thought we were in the clear until around 3pm when we were called into CFO Pat Brown’s office and we saw him, Vogt, and Buel each holding copies of our article, clearly displeased with what they were reading. Executive VP David Ceccarelli, who oversees the company’s printing press, had seen the article and sent them copies, delaying the Guardian’s press run until Vogt gave the okay.

It was a tense but fairly measured conversation, and we made our case that the article was fair, straightforward, and accurate, even though it went beyond the scope of what they expected and may have sometimes cast them in an unflattering light. In fact, we told them this article was the only way that the Guardian would have any credibility with its readers.  

Buel said that he didn’t see any incorrect facts in the article, but he took issue with the article’s emphasis and context, casting it as an example of how the Guardian isn’t “realistic” in its approach. Vogt’s main concern was that the article was what he repeatedly called a “fuck you,” a parting shot by three employees who planned to resign.

As someone who has written many “fuck you” polemics over the years, I assured him that this wasn’t one, and that I considered it a fair article that I was proud of. Still, he wanted our assurances that we planned to stick around, telling us he wouldn’t print the article if this was to be our final act as Guardian employees.

Writing the article was a cathartic experience for us, giving us some hope that the Guardian might still be worth fighting for. So we each told Vogt that we still want to know what the plan is for the Guardian -- something we’ve been seeking for months -- but that we’re willing to stick around for now to assess that plan and our roles in it.

Vogt told us that if we were lying to him that he would hunt us down to “burn down your houses” -- a threat that he seemed to mostly mean as a joke, we hope -- and then he told Ceccarelli by phone that he could roll the presses with our article. Within the hour, we then posted a longer version of the article on the Guardian website, which generated 218 comments and 684 Facebook shares within 48 hours.

Frankly, we’re still concerned about the comments from Buel and Vogt that the Guardian’s editorial tone and focus need to change, which they’re only been able to describe in vague terms so far. And we were all disturbed the next day when Buel told Marke that he will begin proofing Guardian stories after they are laid out and before they go to press (he hasn’t yet asked to preview blog posts like this one), ostensibly to catch typos and examples of our flawed tone.

While that is probably his perogative as our new publisher (to preview content without directing what we cover and how), it could also portend an unacceptable incursion into the newspaper’s independence and integrity by someone who has been critical of the Guardian and its progressive voice, and who often doesn’t seem to share our values and worldview.

But we meant what we said about giving the new Guardian a chance, and we’ve all found Buel to be an honest, straight-shooting person and experienced journalist who wants the Guardian to succeed. And we believe Vogt’s explanations that it doesn’t make financial sense to shutter the Guardian, and that he’s committed to its long-term viability.

Time will tell whether Buel’s input seems constructive and designed to elevate the Guardian as a forum for progressive-minded Bay Area residents (hopefully improving our business model along the way), or whether he intends to strip away what we all love about the Guardian and turn it into just another bland, centrist publication.

We’re trying to keep an open mind, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. No matter what happens, we will continue to communicate with our community, the people who rely on the Guardian almost as much as we do, strategizing ways to help San Francisco realize its potential.

These have been tough days for us at the Guardian, a sad reflection of the struggles that many of us face as we grapple with economic insecurity, erosion of civil liberties, and exploitation by wealthy corporations and individuals.

But we’ve been sensing and chronicling a renewed progressive spirit in San Francisco, from the small victories of tenants groups to the organizing against Plan Bay Area to the growing recognition that economic development needs to be tempered with protection of this city’s cultural and economic diversity.

So for now, in the absence of Tim’s leadership, I’m taking my tenure at the Guardian one day at a time. "All I'm saying is keep reading and see if we live up to what I'm saying,” Buel said of the Guardian’s independent, progressive approach, which he promised would continue.

I’ll monitor that from the inside, you all can monitor it from the outside, and we’ll see what happens. Deal?