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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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Arts + CultureCultureA farewell to SF Weekly

A farewell to SF Weekly

Editing San Francisco's last alt-weekly paper was probably the most fun I will ever have in my life.

When I was hired as SF Weekly’s arts editor in March 2015, pretty much the entire staff had departed over a six-week period, beginning with the surprise termination of editor Brandon Reynolds. “It’ll be gone in three months,” said an embittered ex-staffer who had quit a week before and routinely takes 500 words to get to the point. I figured, “Well, it’ll be a fun three months, then. Can somebody tell me what I’m supposed to be doing?” 

This was six-and-a-half years ago. Now, the paper has been placed on “indefinite hiatus” by its new owners.

That meshugass came mere months after SF Media Company had bought SF Weekly and torpedoed its Manichean archnemesis, the SF Bay Guardian—which, of course, still lives on with its annual political endorsements, Best of the Bay, and a book imprint. Print is dead, but it’s also immortal.

I had been brought on because I had freelanced for Anna Roth, the savvy and warmhearted food editor, who, very rationally, peaced out when her colleagues got laid off and her workload doubled. To me, the reward for having to do everything was getting to do everything. I wrote about whatever I could, often filling the book with an excessive amount of my own work. When faced with endless budget cutbacks, it seemed preferable to push myself to the limit than to accede to a slimmer product or, worse, cut the freelance rates. That was comically arrogant and ultimately futile, but let me tell you, that paper stayed 64 pages in length way longer than it could have. Within two years, I was running the show. We were the same age, 36 at the time.

I reviewed restaurants. I wrote about electoral politics. I interviewed Salman Rushdie and Grace Jones. I wrote long culture pieces. I wrote satire. I wrote a love letter to huffing amyl nitrate, all because we had a level of editorial autonomy that was almost unheard of. I got away with this headline and also this one, and above all, this one. My Twitter handle was @wannacyber and no one ever said not to do that.

When I say I did “everything,” I don’t mean everything-everything; you can’t sustain that kind of thing without many exceptional colleagues bearing up the world alongside you. They don’t need my flattery, but I got to work with many outstanding writers, like Chris Roberts, Julia Carrie Wong, Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart, Katy St. Clair, and (for the briefest of moments) Emma Silvers. I’m proudest of a core staff that lasted unusually long: Nuala Sawyer, Ida Mojadad, Eric Pratt, and eventually Sophia Valdes. This is not to diminish incredible freelancers like Zack Ruskin or Sherilyn Connelly or Jonathan Curiel or Adrian Spinelli, or our colleagues at the Examiner, even if I was a little cranky when we got squashed into the same room. These people help make the news the news. Many of them are my friends. Some of them are the smartest people I ever met.

Yes, there were problems—among them a functioning archive. You might as well dig for cuneiform tablets in the Euphrates. Multiple moves and a few changes of ownership mean nothing before 1995 seems to exist anywhere, and the hard-to-find online version is incomplete before the mid-aughts. Plenty of juicy lore can’t be confirmed, either, like the one about the sidewalk-facing window where sex workers would discreetly pay for their ads in cash. Former editor-in-chief Andrew O’Hehir wrote a fascinating look into the Weekly’s middle years for Salon, and I learned more from reading it than from working there.

SF Weekly was fun, and it was also a brutal place during a time of industry-wide contraction. Good journalists were kicked aside, some by management, others by the chillingly evil Canadians who were our bosses’ bosses. Most of the other print properties that Black Press Group owns serve rural communities in interior British Columbia. They’re important resources, but tiny. The company didn’t understand why the Weekly needed more than one full-time staffer, or the Examiner more than three. It was frustrating to turn away terrific writers and cover more stories.

But it wasn’t those myopic men who killed SF Weekly. Locals did that. An independent media company, not a foreign-owned corporation, did that.

The end came two years after I stepped down to become another freelance contributor. The price of getting to do everything is having to do everything, and that level of hustle was self-defeating. The New Yorker puts out 47 issues a year and SNL airs 21 shows a season, but 52 issues a year without enough resources or any redundancy in the system is grueling. I made innumerable mistakes, large and small, three of which I carry with me now and probably always will. Not having even one dedicated food or music writer to bounce ideas off of was probably the most destructive obstacle, vis-à-vis my personal output. That strange isolation could get me a little paranoid. I used to be a pretty prolific writer, but around 2019 that reservoir started drying up on me and never fully recovered. 

I also never stopped thinking about the ramifications of an alt-weekly voice. Historically, it’s a very male voice and a very white voice, more Norman Mailer than Roxane Gay. We worked hard to diversify the newsroom, but never adequately enough. Plus, in light of civilization’s epistemological emergency and the intensifying descent of White America into absolute madness, I don’t think of alt-weeklies only as uncomplicated victims who did their plucky best. Yes, the decline of “legacy media” is mostly macroeconomic. But it’s simply true that SF Weekly’s history was replete with examples of provocations for their own sake, hipster racism, and disaffected, above-it-all posturing. Zero of those things have aged well at all, and meanwhile the world is neck-deep in combustible mendacity, and billionaires own space. 

But plenty of the work has endured. Cover stories in particular are what lit me up. I don’t often enjoy breaking news or the pace of daily blogging, and longer-form pieces are my jam. I wrote close to 50 covers myself—three-in-a-row on two separate occasions—on topics ranging from human canines to Impossible Burgers to the Modern Primitives movement, and contributed to at least another 50 group projects about karaoke or the Portola District. 

The satisfaction of seeing your work in sidewalk boxes all over town for a few days at a time was a joy that never dimmed, not even if you walked through Powell BART to see 100 copies strewn on the ground, not even if many of those soon-to-disappear boxes still have “Free Every Wednesday” on them even though SF Weekly has come out on Thursday since approximately 2014, when it still had staples. It’s the most profound connection to San Francisco a writer could have, I think. I’m glad I got my final two covers in under my chosen name, the last of which is one of the better things I’ve ever written for any outlet. 

Infuriatingly, I spent Labor Day weekend writing what I thought would be the first iteration of a new LGBTQ+ column in SF Weekly. Then Nick Veronin, the last editor, the one who shepherded it through COVID, called me to share the news. Can I really complain, though? I got to eat very well for a number of years, and these are the anecdotes I’ll be dining out on forever. Above all else, I am proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished during the last phase of maddening foreshadow, a full quarter-century since Craigslist started chipping away at the business model’s viability. Back then, I think there was even an assistant calendar editor, a luxury as unfathomable now as a newspaper erecting its own Art Deco mid-rise, or staples. 

Last Friday, a bunch of us got smashed at the Lone Palm to commiserate over the news and the vile contemptibility of the phrase “indefinite hiatus.” (Just fucking kill it if you’re gonna kill it.) We would have been drinking at Lucky 13 if Lucky 13 were still around, because that was always the Weekly’s spot. The evening sort of sucked, but we shared a beautiful sentiment of gratitude that something as cool as that was entrusted to us for as long as it was. We did the best we could at it for as long as it lasted. And it lasted such a long time, so much longer than anyone thought.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I am very sorry to see the Weekly go, but I still hold a grudge toward the earlier Weekly. It’s not just the underhanded way it killed the Guardian: its attitude was toward the SFBG was that of the schoolyard bully pantsing the nerd. Ultimately the economical forces that killed both papers were the ones the Guardian fought so hard against, and the ones the Weekly, too cool for oh-so-serious progressive politics, pointedly ignored.
    In its later, lean years, the paper lost its mean attitude, but it felt like it didn’t know what to replace it with. It had good writers, and Kane, with their talent, optimism, and energy, deserves infinite kudos for keeping this enterprise going as long as it did, but every issue in recent years felt like it was still trying to figure out what it wanted to say. I kept hoping it would, and kept being disappointed.
    I have read the Weekly since its first issue under that name, in 1990. A lot of good writers passed through it (Katy St. Clair, Joe Eskenazi, Laurel Wellman, and countless others). Thank you for the millions of words I have enjoyed.

  2. Craig’s List and Match.com killed the local paper business IMO. Classifieds was a big revenue stream that helped even when display ads were lacking.

    As a former SFBG staff member, during the time the SF Weekly was trying to put us out of business, I still mourn for the loss of this weekly.

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