It is a striking confluence: amidst reports that the San Francisco Bay Guardian (SFBG) will soon be sold, Ross Mirkarimi, its favorite politician, is desperately trying to save his Sheriff’s job. Both have caused their own problems. The SFBG never successfully transformed itself for the Internet era, failing to hire staff that understood new media and could grow online readership and revenue. It is stuck in the past technologically, ideologically and substantively, acting as this were the 1970’s and 1980’s and the SFBG was still the voice of a developing local progressive movement. Mirkarimi’s actions toward his wife caused his initial problems, which he then compounded by a counter-productive media strategy that he still pursues. Had Mirkarimi come clean about his conduct right from the outset, he would have retained his Sheriff’s job and avoided the soap opera that has engulfed his life.
Opponents of progressive causes are enjoying the problems facing the SFBG and Ross Mirkarimi, and some on the left have an “I told you so” view of their decline. Yet the deepest wounds in both cases were not caused by political opponents or a cabal of “downtown interests,” but were instead self-inflicted.
The SFBG’s Decline
In the fading days of the late 1990’s pre-Internet era, the SFBG approached the size of a phonebook. It has since shrunk dramatically, reflecting the difficulties faced by paper weeklies in today’s new media world. Now the SFBG is on the verge of being sold, with a reported price tag of only $1million. Whoever buys it will not be following Bruce Brugmann’s idiosyncratic and often sectarian editorial line, and new owners will bolster the paper’s online presence.
The SFBG’s core problem was that it was led by old media guys who never brought in a top editor who understood new media. And by “understood” I mean someone who knew how to sufficiently increase readership and revenue to sustain the paper’s future.
Contrast the SFBG’s trajectory with that of Daily Kos
, which since 2002 has become among the nation’s leading online progressive sites. Its founder, Markos Moulitsas, is a tech-savvy guy. He has surrounded himself with writers who combine an activist sensibility, strong news instincts, and an understanding of the online news world.
Moulitsas launched his site with nowhere near the resources of SFBG owner Bruce Brugmann. But he had a vision for the future of progressive online news. Daily Kos soon grew to where Moulitsas was able to pay fulltime salaries, defying conventional wisom that online progressive political publications could not make money.
Moulitsas recognized that the Internet had dramatically speeded up news cycles and that skilled newshounds providing fresh material could attract repeat readers throughout the day. In contrast to the SFBG, Moulitsas prioritized news over powerfully issued opinions. He recognized that while opinions about issues can be found everywhere online, news that affects progressives is always in demand.
The SFBG went the other direction. It cut back on the frontline reporting from public hearings that made the paper indispensable in the pre-Internet era. The SFBG never adjusted to San Francisco’s increased wealth and changing racial and ethnic demographics, and was particularly disconnected from the city’s growing Chinese-American community.
The SFBG has recently focused more on entertainment (long an advertising staple), sex, nudity, and cultural programming. It now runs the type of silly single-themed issues – “Is Oakland Cooler than San Francisco” on April 10 – that used to be the exclusive province of the SF Weekly.
Because the SFBG’s current model is financially unsustainable, it makes sense for Brugmann to cash out while he can. But regardless of what any new owner says, the SFBG that we used to rush to pick up when it hit the streets on Wednesday is long gone, a victim of its inability to compete in the new media world.
Ross Mirkarimi has long prided himself on his media skills. He was the press contact for a number of SFBG-backed political campaigns in addition to others, and handled his own media contacts as Supervisor.
Yet observing Mirkarimi’s handling of the domestic violence charges and their aftermath, one would think he had no understanding of how to use the media to secure public support.
Had Ross immediately taken responsibility for his actions and acknowledged his need for counseling, he would be living with his family today and not be in jeopardy of losing his job. But instead of following that well accepted media strategy, Mirkarimi stonewalled.
And even worse, he sought through his attorneys to blame others for his situation. He even questioned the motives of neighbor Ivory Madison.
Last week, Mirkarimi remarkably claimed
that he was finally getting a chance to reveal “a story that has been eating at me for nearly four months that I haven't been able to tell.” He then told his story in “exclusive” interviews with the Bay Citizen, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Michael Krasny’s Forum show on KQED.
Who prevented Mirkarimi from telling this story back in December? Would the SFBG, which has gone all out for their political ally, not have printed anything he wanted to reveal exactly in his preferred form?
From the time he described his conduct toward his wife as a “private matter,” the more Mirkarimi talks, the worse his case gets. He has turned what could have been seen as a deeply regrettable mistake into a personal and family catastrophe, and has only himself to blame.