You could be forgiven for not noticing, but over the last 30 months San Francisco played host to a daily newspaper battle, an inkfight that pitted an independent startup against a corporate interloper: the San Francisco Daily, owned and operated by locals, and The City Star*, owned and operated by a Denver-based mega-corporation.

That fight ended with a whimper last week, when after weeks of vanishing newspaper boxes, The City Star ceased publication as an independent product, , some months after the SF Daily (now Daily Post) cried uncle and retreated to the Peninsula.

So who won? Well, nobody.

The background: The San Francisco Daily was founded by Dvae Price and Jim Pavelich, who pioneered the “give it away free, stuff it full of ads, run only short, concise stories, and be intimate with your advertisers” newspaper model with the Palo Alto Daily, a model shamelessly (and wisely, for it is financially viable) copied by The San Francisco Examiner. The Examiner is the former Hearst organ purchased in 2004 by Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz from the Fang family (who, in the minds of many city residents, still own the damn thing).

The Daily and its blue boxes began appearing in May 2006 on street corners already featuring The Examiner and its red boxes. Rather than beef up its already-existing product or revel in an old-school print media fight, the Examiner apparently sought to quash its upstart competitor by introducing The City Star, which began publication later that fall.
From the get-go, it was obvious that The City Star existed only to eliminate the Daily, as the Daily’s owners readily told other media.

“They took two of our ad guys, but they offered everybody at our paper jobs — key employees,” Pavelich told The Appeal on Tuesday. “They copied our look, they copied our distribution, they tried to sell only to our advertisers.”

“They copied everything we ever did.”

One might think squeezing out the competition would be easy, given Anschutz’s bottomless pockets. But it wasn’t: The City Star’s first general manager left after only a month on the job, and even after The City Star hired away some of the Daily’s advertising staff and redesigned its front page to copy The Daily Post’s, ad revenue (which one can glean by looking at page counts) wasn’t quite there. Turnover plagued the paper, and circulation never grew beyond 6,000.

So The City Star settled with a win by default, when The Post yielded San Francisco to The City Star, opting instead to focus on Palo Alto and Peninsula news (though keeping some SF advertising clients on board, such as very notable name Barbegelata Real Estate). The Post stopped stocking its blue boxes in SF some months ago, but continued to grow and indeed thrive in Palo Alto: they added videotaping jailbird and free speech hero Josh Wolf last year, and circulation grew to 20,000 copies a day.

But rather than bask in its victory or press its advantage home as the lone wolf in its market, the City Star’s handlers let the paper wither away slowly: after page counts went from 24 to 12 over the course of a year, The City Star in late March stopped publishing locally-produced content and went with all wire content (its last issue featured cover stories on DMX’s release from prison and the razing of the “Slumdog Millionaire” child star’s home in India; photo spreads from Athletics away games and White House fetes were regular features in the “neighborhood” paper), and on Friday broke the news that The City Star would cease as an independently-distributed publication altogether, existing as an eight-page, twice-a-week insert inside The Examiner’s Wednesday and Friday editions.

One might think this would be cause for Price and Pavelich to gloat: that their corporate imitators at The Examiner continued to throw money into a product that ultimately died. But Pavelich, reached by cell phone in Vail, Colorado, where he first began publishing papers in the early 1980s and where he rolled out the Vail Mountaineer last year, said that The City Star “was such a weak effort, it doesn’t really deserve a lot of comment.”

“Most businesses are started to make a profit, but the City Star never really seemed to have a purpose [aside from squeezing out The Daily],” said Pavelich, who noted that the battle between the two papers never became a game of journalism one-upsmanship such as the struggle between, say, the SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian. “Now there you have two papers fighting it out [with stories]. I never saw The City Star do anything interesting.”

Examiner publisher John Wilcox refuted Pavelich’s copycat claims. Only one advertising worker was hired directly away from The Daily, and the notion that every worker was offered employment at The City Star is “false,” he added.

Wilcox told The Appeal that the “serious recession” forced The City Star’s hand, and that tapping into the “small neighborhood market… that newspapers have tended to ignore in the past” was the purpose of the paper.

“We wanted to be involved in that, and possibly even grow The City Star beyond the neighborhood where it was, to other neighborhoods in the Bay Area,” he said. “That’s the reason why we’re keeping The City Star alive in some form — we want to be able to bring it back when the recession goes away.”

Any similarities between the two paper’s designs was purely coincidental, added Wilcox, who said he was not involved in any design changes (that task fell to Executive Editor Jim Pimentel, whom The Appeal has not yet been able to contact). As for The City Star’s admittedly not local content: well, that’s due to the recession, too. At some point Wilcox hopes to hire writers and photographers to create local content; until then The City Star will be an Associated Press/Bay City News wire service insert.

So a corporate organ went to great lengths to defeat a local and independent competitor in a turf battle, and then said, “Eh, fuck it” with the turf it won and walked away, slowly, hemorrhaging cash as it went.

What’s the lesson here? Aside from “money wins again!” there might not be one, except this chilling thought: what does Anschutz plan to do with The Examiner when/if The Chronicle finally strikes the tent? Could San Francisco become a no newspaper town by this time next year? While perhaps unthinkable and, one would hope, unlikely, it is neither impossible nor implausible.

And all your fault, Price and Pavelich, you who could not slay the corporate dragon.

*Full disclosure: the author of this piece was employed at The City Star from February 2008 to March 2009, and upon his release, signed a severance agreement promising one week’s pay (long since spent) in return for never, ever revealing any of the company’s deep, dark secrets. The author hopes he has not (mostly because he never knew any of them, anyway).

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