Former editor: “I knew the writing was on the wall.”
Over the past several years, San Francisco Magazine has, consistently, told some of the best-researched, best-written, and most compelling stories in this city. Sadly, its own story appears to be far less compelling — and more sadly typical of all things print media.
Staffers were informed last Thursday that a number of them will soon be laid off. This comes on the heels of the magazine’s freelance budget, in the last year alone, dropping by more than one-third. It will likely soon drop further still.
San Francisco Magazine purportedly spends three times as much money to put out its publication than other titles in the vast Modern Luxury chain do — and management has told local staff that it aims to bring San Francisco’s expenses more in line with the rest of the chain’s products.
Modern Luxury publishes scores of titles across the nation (including Silicon Valley and San Francisco magazines locally). You can peruse its myriad offerings here. And, in doing so, it quickly becomes clear why San Francisco Magazine outspends its sister publications.
The chain’s other city magazines are not news-oriented operations; last month many — if not most of them — featured identical stories about doe-eyed Friday Night Lights heartthrob Kyle Chandler with different photos on the cover. Others featured identical stories about BlacKkKlansman heartthrob John David Washington, with different photos on the cover.
San Francisco Magazine is the outlier. Its October coverboy is the not-quite-doe-eyed Gov. Jerry Brown, and its cover story is a deeply researched and painstakingly fact-checked valediction of Brown’s complex and contradictory legacy. This month’s edition also features deeply researched and painstakingly fact-checked stories about the internecine holy war at Glide Memorial Church; 98-year-old local dance pioneer Anna Halprin; and an analysis of San Francisco’s intricate District 6 supervisorial race.
With no disrespect to Kyle Chandler or John David Washington, these are locally relevant, complicated stories about locally relevant, complicated subjects. Your humble narrator was, from 2015 to 2017, a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine and, I can assure you, the lengthy flowchart depicting the mag’s editorial process resembles the operations manual at a nuclear power plant.
Deep research and painstaking fact-checking take time.
And time is money.
Phone calls to San Francisco Magazine publisher Paul Reulbach and Modern Luxury editorial director Stephanie Davis Smith — the media contact listed on a recent Modern Luxury press release — were not returned as of press time. But even without Modern Luxury management explicitly saying as much, it seems there’s an equation at play which will produce a desired result: Less freelance money + fewer in-house people on an already depleted editorial staff = more content of the Chandler/Washington variety.
Under former editor Jon Steinberg, San Francisco Magazine won national acclaim — and multiple awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The magazine is big and glossy and beautiful and filled with cringe-worthy, high-end advertisements — but, for quite some time now, its news stories have been of the highest caliber, and nobody who deigned to follow San Francisco goings-on could ignore it. Just a few recent highlights: Katia Savchuk on a jailed immigrant’s yearslong incarceration; Walter Thompson’s minute-by-minute recounting of the 1966 Bayview uprising through the eyes and voices of first-hand sources; Gary Kamiya’s masterful reporting on San Francisco’s homeless crisis; and an entire special issue about this city’s injection-drug epidemic — a fantastically difficult and thorough in-house effort (that required the staff to actually procure Mexican black tar heroin. And led them to win a National Magazine Award for it.).
The purpose of last Thursday’s meeting at San Francisco Magazine was to announce the hiring of Steinberg’s successor: Jason Sheeler. He was, until recently, the style director at Departures, “the luxury magazine published exclusively for American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders,” as the aforementioned Modern Luxury press release describes it. Sheeler, the press release continues, “will infuse more of his keen eye for style and design into the publication.”
With, again, no disrespect for Sheeler, the message being imparted here does not make it appear likely that future endeavors for San Francisco Magazine will include subjects like impoverished, jailed immigrants, deep dives into the lives of San Francisco’s oppressed communities of color, or thorough and serious examinations of rampant homelessness and drug use.
Sheeler is slated to start Oct. 8. And best of luck to him. Because even if he desired to do all of the above, he’d have to do it with far less money than even a short while ago, and far fewer staffers. I was, full disclosure, laid off from the magazine in 2017 due to cost considerations; Kamiya was this year jettisoned, also for cost considerations. The current staff consists of about 10 full-time-equivalent employees. Any losses on a staff this small are significant — and the impending departures may be significant indeed.
After six and a half years at San Francisco Magazine, former editor Steinberg left in August to take a creative director position at Epic Digital. Regarding the magazine, he said, “I knew the writing was on the wall in the first part of 2018 when I had to slash our editorial budget by one-third — and that included laying off our executive editor, Gary.”
Steinberg claimed that Modern Luxury management repeatedly informed him that San Francisco Magazine was profitable — but not profitable enough. It was not clearing the margins the chain would have wished.
“I hate to say it — and they can certainly prove me wrong — but I think the days of hard-charging, deeply reported, stylishly written, well-produced magazine journalism are dead in San Francisco,” Steinberg continued. Modern Luxury “doesn’t have a desire to support it. Even if it made them money for many years. And continues to.”
All I know is the magazine is now a piece of wasted paper. All luxury ads and no substance.
A sad story. But there’s a touch of karma in there somewhere. What is now San Francisco magazine came into being when Diablo publications bought San Francisco Focus from KQED in 1996. From the early 1980s, Focus had steadily built a well-earned reputation among city magazines, repeatedly winning reporting and editing awards from the Western Publishing Association and the City and Regional Magazine Association (full disclosure: I was managing editor 1989-1995 and executive editor 1995-1996. Within six months of the purchase, Diablo had let go everyone in the art and editorial departments. It’s a shame that the cycle has come around again; I’ve got great respect for Gary Kamiya and other folks who have been there in recent years.
Surely, there’s someone in the Bay Area (Marc Benioff, who just bought Time) who might be willing to undertake a magazine like SF Magazine when it was at its best.
I love the articles at SF Magazine, but hate the physical act of reading it. It’s too big, too heavy, and too glossy. I hated the shift to Modern Luxury, and miss the old SF Magazine.
Excellent article Joe, thank you. You did however, fail to mention that Cumulus (more specifically the Dickey Brothers) owns Modern Luxury. Cumulus is a very large radio operator who singlehandedly destroyed the ABC/Disney iconic radio stations right after they purchased that group in major markets throughout the country, locally, KGO 810 here in San Francisco. Their stock tanked and they are known throughout the country as one of the worst media companies to work for. The 2 Dickey brothers are not exactly the kindest of men. Look them up, really interesting stories about them including literally leaving a bride at the alter.
Who owns the magazine? Cumulus Media? How about including an email where we can complain? I will admit bias since I have written for the magazine and my brother was the publisher for years. I will miss the magazine’s excellent journalism and would like to at least lodge an objection to turning it into a Modern Luxury cookie-cutter magazine!