Neither Bronstein Nor Reilly Fear A SF Newspaper Company Monopoly


Though newspaper magnate Todd Vogt and the SF Newspaper Company said they’d be announcing the acquisition of a local publication during the third week in December, that announcement has yet to occur. In the void left by any official word, questions, speculation, and rumors continue to swirl in local media circles. Which publication has Vogt bought? What changes will this cause for the two newsrooms already under his control? Are there any issues with three San Francisco publications being owned by the same person?

Though no one with direct knowledge of any deals would speak with The Appeal on the record, rumored acquisition target the East Bay Express announced last month that they were not for sale.

In a blog post on December 21, Express co-editor Robert Gammon suggests that it’s Voice Media Group-owned San Francisco Weekly that might soon fall under the SFNC umbrella.

“The SF Weekly, which is owned by the Village Voice Media [sic] chain, has been rumored to be up for sale since last spring, when the Examiner’s owners bought the San Francisco Bay Guardian,” Gammon wrote.

However, no one wants to talk on the record about the possibility of a Weekly sale. The Weekly’s local management has not returned any phone calls or email messages from The Appeal. Scott Tobias, CEO of Voice Media Group, also did not return calls and email messages. Vogt did not return email messages requesting comment for this story.

But, rumors persist — and if Vogt and the SFNC acquire the Weekly, it would mean that three of four printed widely circulated English-language newspapers in San Francisco would be under their control. Could they, as past owners of SF newspapers have, face anti-trust issues?

In 2000, anti-trust questions were the apparent cause of one citizen’s challenge of the Hearst Corporation’s purchase of the San Francisco Chronicle. Clint Reilly, a real estate investor and politically connected socialite, filed a suit attempting to block then then-owners of the SF Examiner from also buying the competing daily.

In 2000 Reilly won the case against the Hearst Corp. Sort of. While Hearst eventually bought the Chronicle, as part of the deal, Hearst divested the Examiner to the influential Fang family, with a substantial subsidy to keep the paper afloat. The divestiture deal left many asking questions about how much political horse trading occurred.

At the time of the acquisition, executive chair of the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting Phil Bronstein was the Executive Editor of the Examiner. Post-acquisition, he was editor of the SF Chronicle, for a total of 17 years at the helms of those papers.

Bronstein doubted the validity of an anti-trust argument then and continues to do so now.

“Even then [12 years ago] I’m not sure the anti-trust argument was a realistic one, in terms of the ability of anyone to have a monopoly,” he told The Appeal.

At the moment an anti-trust argument is even more bizarre, Bronstein says, as he believes that the proliferation of online, local news outlets would prevent a monopoly in practice.

“12 years later [after the Chronicle sale to Hearst Corp.] things moved so drastically, and so fast that it’s hard to imagine anyone having a media monopoly, especially locally,” he said.

“I think it’s a silly argument in today’s media world.”

“The Guardian was failing, and probably the Weekly was failing. Separately all three would fail…”Interestingly enough, one-time rivals Bronstein and Reilly agree that Vogt’s acquisitive behavior is not a problem.

“We ought to be giving Todd awards for public service because he’s helping keep the dialectic alive in San Francisco,” Reilly told The Appeal.

He went on to praise Vogt’s Examiner purchase saying, “The Examiner provides an alternative news outlet to the Chronicle. It’s a net positive for San Francisco.”

Reilly also has some backhanded praise for the Chronicle, saying “Given the abject condition of American newspapers, The Hearst Corporation is doing everyone a favor, to lose money and put out a relatively responsible daily newspaper.”

Reilly raises an interesting point: many American newspapers are in dire financial straits, for example, the Chronicle is losing a reported million dollars a week. If three local newspapers are under one roof, and that roof collapses, what does that mean for San Francisco?

Bronstein dismisses those fears, saying “The Guardian was failing, and probably the Weekly was failing. Separately all three would fail, if together they don’t fail have you gained anything or lost anything?”

Though Reilly has lost the fire in his belly over local media consolidation, others in the Bay Area continued to express concerns as recently as last year. In Steven Jones’ San Francisco Bay Guardian article “Compressing the Press,” Jones expressed concerns over the Bay Citizen’s merger with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Two months after the publication of the piece, the Guardian, itself, was acquired by the SFNC. (Jones wouldn’t comment to the Appeal about the article – he is on vacation – and pointed us to Guardian Editor and Publisher Tim Redmond, who didn’t return email messages requesting comment.)

Some of the concerns Jones raised in his piece revolved around the possibility of private, wealthy interests compromising “investigative scrutiny” at publications like a merged CIR/Bay Citizen.

“First of all Steve should have called me about that [the claim]. The reality is we get a great deal of funding for general support.” Bronstein told the Appeal.

According to Bronstein, even in situations where foundations donate funds for specific topics, “…arrangements preclude the ability to direct the nature of the story. They may pick the topic that they want to fund. They do not get involved in the editorial process.”

Vogt, too, told the Appeal in December that he does not allow his own ideology to influence the editorial process of the newspapers under his control ‘at least “… often anyways.”

That, at least, must be encouraging news for the newsrooms of publications waiting to hear if they will be the next to join the SFNC family.

Photo of Vogt: Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner

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