Many years ago, my Aunt Rita decided to return to her childhood neighborhood in Brooklyn. Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again — but, really, sometimes you just shouldn’t.
At that time, New Lots Avenue wasn’t looking very new. Any number of the erstwhile mom ‘n’ pop shops had crumbled into disrepair. Vagrants had taken over many of them, which were illuminated from within by trash-can fires.
It was a profoundly dispiriting sight.
In related news, SF Weekly’s owners on Friday announced they are pulling the plug on the paper indefinitely. San Francisco, a realm of unfettered inequality and obliviousness and corruption — perhaps the city that most needs a robust and functional alt-weekly newspaper — will now have exactly zero.
We live in a profoundly dispiriting place. But we’re not alone: Alt-weeklies are melting away like polar ice across the country, and in Canada, too. Every time another one disappears, it’s a Kurt Cobain moment: You’re shocked, but not surprised.
And, of course, you’re dispirited. But what’s perhaps even more dispiriting than the death of yet another alt-weekly was its painful demise. The edifice had become hollowed out, and glowed from within. But what was burning wasn’t trash, but the paper’s legacy and its overworked talent.
Let’s be clear: The decline and fall of SF Weekly was not due to the shortcomings of the writers and editors who worked there. The publication punched above its weight even when its staffing numbers began to less mirror those of a newspaper and more closely resemble some manner of cruel and punitive experiment regarding workforce exhaustion, depletion and burnout.
When your humble narrator was a contributing SF Weekly writer in 2007 — prior to serving as a staff writer from 2008-15 — the printed paper managed to frequently crack 100 pages, a plateau soon only possible for a yearly “Best of SF” edition (when reporters were told to, for a week, stop being critical). But, even then, it was clear that the 1990s to early-to-mid 2000s Golden Era of SF Weekly, before Craigslist et al. vivisected this and every newspaper’s profitability, was like a train: You could see it getting smaller as it pulled away.
And yet, the edition was an inch thick damn-near every week, the masthead was chock-full of seasoned writers and editors and contributors being paid living wages, and classified-ad revenue continued to flow like comped Peroni at a Christmas party.
In my time at SF Weekly, writers faced increasing privations and were increasingly unable to focus on the lengthy, exhaustively reported cover stories that were SF Weekly’s stock and trade — or were out doing the reporting on evenings after a day chasing their blog quota in the office. Layoffs and attrition hollowed out the paper; the general demise of print media reduced it from a hefty tome to something resembling the book order forms those of a certain age remember being handed in first grade. We were, with every cutback, told to do more with less.
As Rocky would put it, that trick never works.
Your humble narrator worked at SF Weekly under three ownership regimes (but not the present owners). I can tell you that it is profoundly dispiriting for journalists trained to ferret out horse shit from public officials to be fed horse shit by their managers — regarding the paper’s editorial direction and finances.
In my tenure there, writers grew younger, because older (read: more experienced, more costly) workers were jettisoned. Increasing demands made of a depleted workforce were not, to put it mildly, family friendly. Staff and freelance payments didn’t just fail to keep up with inflation, they flat-out dropped, and significantly. Quality journalists decamped for better paychecks or a more stable work atmosphere.
And yet writers continued to show up. And many of them did good work, because journalists can be held hostage by their ideals and aspirations and dreams. And management knew this.
So, we are all poorer for not having a functional alt-weekly in town. And not merely because more professional journalists and more credible outlets is better than fewer. But because alt-weeklies, specifically, best understood how a city worked — or did not work. That’s not to say that reporters working at dailies don’t know these things, but it was only at alt-weeklies that reporters were granted the editorial freedom to print the most unvarnished and deeply reported articles about city life, culture, government, etc. We were not, for lack of a better term, beholden to “newspaper-ese.”
Reporters elsewhere often share the real story with their colleagues over a drink after work. At an alt-weekly, the real story was the story in the paper. This was a deeply, deeply satisfying way of working and far less common than you’d hope for.
Alt-weekly reporters, as I told the Chronicle, do not play by the “niceties of daily journalism.”
The second half of that quote was, “you don’t give equal time to bullshit.” Now, I think this was a good article written by a talented reporter; don’t get me wrong. But the second half of the quote not being included in the daily newspaper of record definitely underscores the point.
In much the same way that podcasters are now producing serial fiction podcasts — which, a century ago, used to just be called “radio shows” — other publications have belatedly “rediscovered” the long-form, narrative, deeply reported style that, again, was an alt-weekly’s stock and trade.
That’s great. But SF Weekly produced these sorts of stories not as a special occasion or a one-off, but on a weekly basis. San Francisco is not only not being reported on with anything near the vigor it was in the past, it isn’t being covered as thoroughly or by reporters with the institutional memories of their forebears.
So, that’s gone. And that’s a shame. San Francisco remains a deeply corrupt and dysfunctional place. But also a profoundly ephemeral one, in which residents, confronted with this city’s bizarre, established practices, no longer have an easy means of learning that the same problems and predicaments — often involving the very same people — are longstanding.
It is, increasingly, a struggle to merely tread water in this town. Nobody has time to take a breath anymore. Including, in the end, the journalists.
And it’s a shame that young journalists won’t even be able to read alt-weekly papers anymore, let alone work at one. There is no substitute for the editorial freedom accorded an alt-weekly reporter; there is no substitute for the emphasis placed on to-the-point truth-telling, deep reportage, and writing with panache.
Not only will young people not be afforded this incomparable training ground, they won’t even know this type of reporting existed. Journalism, already too much the province of people who can work badly paid (or unpaid) internships and spend a fortune for a graduate school degree — for which a few years at an alt-weekly was a far more economical substitution — will grow ever more exclusive.
I do not have to like the decision made by SF Weekly’s present owners, but I do understand it. The present state of the paper was not of their making. They have assured the public they’re redoubling their efforts to revive the Examiner — and have, indeed, made many new hires. They have said they will not let the Weekly’s archives disappear down the memory hole, which would be a travesty.
Locally, we’ve reached yet another journalistic nadir. But while we may be dispirited and diminished, we’re not done. Not yet. This and other publications appreciate your readership and support.
Because, while you may not be able to go home again, some of us never left.