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San Francisco Bay Guardian shutting down; publisher open to sale

S.F. Bay Guardian says it'll fold after 48 years; homepage says it 'leaves San Francisco a better city'

The San Francisco Bay Guardian is ceasing publication this week, but the Guardian's editor says the staff is looking for a buyer and its publisher says he is open to selling the 48-year-old publication.

The Bay Area weekly, started in 1966, will publish its final issue Wednesday, according to an announcement posted on the newspaper’s homepage. The paper has seven full-time editorial staff members.

“As a company, we are proud of the SF Bay Guardian's legacy as a community watchdog, a publication with stellar reporting and its passion to push for a better city. It gave voice to many in the city who might have been otherwise shut out of the corridors of power, kept countless city leaders honest and inspired a new breed of journalism across the nations,” the statement read. “The Guardian leaves San Francisco a better city for the role it has played in shaping it these last decades.”

The San Francisco Media Co., which publishes the Bay Guardian, also owns the San Francisco Examiner and SF Weekly.

In an email to employees, publisher Glenn Zuehls said the decision was financial. "The Bay Guardian is not a viable business and has not been for many years," he wrote, adding that when the company took over the publication, it had hoped the Bay Guardian could "rise out of the red."

"The amount of money that the Bay Guardian loses each week is causing damage to the heart of the company and cannot justify its continued publication," Zuehls wrote, calling it the "hardest decision that I have had to make" in his 20-year career in newspapers.

Zuehls told the Los Angeles Times that the Bay Guardian, which is free, simply didn't have enough advertisers to support its budget.

Steven Jones, who has edited the paper since July 2013, said staff members were told Monday about a mandatory staff meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Right before the meeting was set to begin, editors began to get notifications that their email, Twitter and Facebook accounts had been deactivated, Jones said.

Jones said he and his staff were shocked when Zuehls told the newsroom that Wednesday’s paper would be their last under San Francisco Media Co.

“We were aware that the overall company was having some financial problems, but we were surprised,” Jones told The Times by phone from the publication’s newsroom Tuesday, where he and other staff members were packing up their belongings. “We thought we’d sort of dodged that bullet, and that there was a solution in the offing that would allow the Guardian to continue on.”

Editors have since regained control of the Bay Guardian’s Twitter account, and tweeted Tuesday morning that the company “has just pulled its funding” from the newspaper.

The seven staff members are being laid off immediately, but the paper’s ultimate fate is still uncertain.

Jones said the publisher encouraged staff members to come forward with potential buyers, which staffers said they hope to do. Jones says staff members are in continuing talks with community members who have expressed interest in buying the Guardian, but did not reveal who the potential buyers are.

“We’re happy that they’ve kept us operating these last couple of years, and we’re really hoping for a split that is amicable and that we can find a way to keep the Guardian going,” Jones told The Times.

In the meantime, Bay Guardian staff members are working with the publisher in hopes that they can restore the publication’s digital coverage of the upcoming election and its last issue -- the well-known 2014 Best of the Bay edition. The staff also wants the newspaper’s digital archives to be restored.

“All those decades of content, they’re now basically holding hostage to see how we respond to what they’ve done,” Jones said. “We’re trying to be measured in our response.”

Reached by phone, Zuehls said the company shut down the site as a "precaution," and that he is discussing with his own staff whether and when it can be restored.

"It's a fluid situation, and we want to make sure that we take precautions for everyone moving forward," Zuehls told The Times. "There's no such thing as taking things hostage, but we've got to make all the right moves with our property."

The Bay Guardian was launched in 1966 by Bruce Brugmann and his wife, Jean Dibble. The alternative weekly, whose motto was “Raising Hell Since 1966” has a circulation of 50,000, according to the Assn. of Alternative Newsmedia.

Brugmann sold the newspaper to the San Francisco Media Co. in 2012. Zuehls was named publisher in July.

"We put out a hell of a paper for 48 years," Brugmann told The Times in a phone interview. "It's just a sad moment for us, for the staff that is still there, and for all the people who have labored through years and years of blood, sweat and tears at the Guardian."

"What we showed was the power of an independent, locally owned alternative newspaper in a big city."

Brugmann said he's concerned that the paper's closure could be a blow to San Francisco's progressive community, but he isn't involved in talks to buy the Bay Guardian. "I'll help them all I can, but I'm not going back into the newspaper business. I'm 79 years old," he said.

Zuehls reiterated his call for interested buyers: "No one has contacted me, but my phone line is open," he said. "We've loved the product that the Bay Guardian has produced for 48 years. We love what it's done for San Francisco. It has heart. If someone wants to fund that, I'd be more than happy to talk them."

For more breaking news, follow me @cmaiduc on Twitter.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

3:03 p.m.: This post was updated to include excerpts from an email from Zuehls to employees and to add an interview with the paper's founder, Bruce Brugmann.

1:50 p.m. This post was updated throughout with interviews with the publisher and editor.

The first version of this post was published at 11:52 a.m.

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