After one local weekly newspaper triumphed over the other in court last week, speculation abounds regarding the future of both entities. Will the loser close up shop? Will the winner devote its resources to making local hires and increasing its coverage? What would you, oh Bay Area news consumer, like to see happen?
In what appears to be the end of a long and messy case, last week the CA State Supreme Court refused to review lower-court rulings ordering SF Weekly and its parent company, Village Voice Media, to pay $21 million in damages to its locally owned and operated competition, the SF Bay Guardian.
The beef? Predatory pricing. As Guardian Editor Tim Redmond noted in a blog post last week, the Appeals court noted that “(w)e have before us the case of an ongoing, comprehensive, below-cost pricing scheme,” behavior barred by California’s Unfair Practices Act, which was, Redmond says, designed to protect small business from big chains.
But it’s not like VVM’s messengering a $21 million check over to Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann today: According to the Chron,”(t)he outcome of the case could still be determined by settlement negotiations, which are ongoing.”
Former SF Weekly staffer Ron Russell wonders how tough VVM can really be in those negotiations, saying that last week’s “outcome is a blow to VVM’s already weakened negotiating position. The Weekly has been ordered to fork over up to half its income to the Guardian, its delivery vans were confiscated, and the paper has been forced to sub-lease half of its Mission Bay office space to help make end’s meet.”
Nonetheless, the Weekly appears to be hunkering down and planning on staying — in a statement posted to VVM’s site, they say “we have no intention of leaving San Francisco. We choose instead to stay, and to continue competing.”
The statement also quotes VVM’s executive editor Mike Lacey as saying “as journalists, we will continue the fight in San Francisco” even as, the Chronicle pointed out Friday, the statement’s author practices some rather dubious journalism himself, saying that “Brugmann certainly has been treated like royalty by the city’s elected judges, who function as the legal arm of the local Democratic machine.”
The ‘Democratic machine’ reference could do with some fact-checking. The judge who presided over the trial in San Francisco Superior Court, and more than doubled the jury’s damage award against the Weekly, was Marla Miller — appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The appeals court justice who wrote the ruling upholding the verdict was Robert Dondero — first appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, and named to the appeals court by Schwarzenegger. And of the six Supreme Court justices who voted to deny a hearing on the Weekly’s appeal, five were appointed by Republican governors.
In the words of the SF Peninsula Press Club, “Oops.”
In keeping with their statement’s sentiments, the Weekly reportedly continues to be looking for candidates to fill jobs like the recently vacated Managing Editor role, even as commenters speculate that they will be closing up shop any day now.
Other commenters wonder if a settlement means the Guardian will increase its paid staff or expand its coverage.
One local freelancer asks the Appeal “with its hard-won money, will the Bay Guardian hire more staff, produce more content, or otherwise fill the void left by a crippled or nonexistent Weekly? Even if the Weekly continues to exist, will the Guardian expand and use some of the $21 million to hire some of the many, well-qualified, under-employed local journalists in the Bay Area?”
Which I think is an excellent question! The Weekly’s known in media circles for paying freelancers very fairly. This includes freelancers to their blogs, who, from all accounts, get paid better than pretty much any other local market bloggers (several of whom, I should note, also contribute to the Appeal, where they are paid far, far less).
This focus on online might be why, according to VVM’s statement, SF Weekly had 452,473 unique visitors in August, compared to what they say were 63,774 uniques for the Guardian’s site. So, arguably, the Weekly provides not just a service to over 450K online readers a month (in addition to a print circulation they claim is 535,259) but a source of revenue to a number of local freelancers.
While spokespeople from both news orgs have yet to respond to the Appeal’s request for comment (which is understandable, given the holidays), it’s certainly interesting to speculate. Now that this case appears to have ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper, what do you think will happen? Go ahead and leave your best guess in the comments.