These are grimly predictable days in the newspaper business. Circulation and advertising revenues fall; bureaus and jobs get cut; institutional ambitions diminish; and higher-ups exhort lower-downs to do more with less.
Given this relentlessly bleak status quo, the ongoing feud between the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian and Village Voice Media (VVM) — the 16-paper alternative-weekly chain that owns SF Weekly, the Bay Guardian's primary competitor — offers a bracing dose of vigor and attitude. In October 2004, the Bay Guardian (led by the voluble, swaggering, lefty publisher Bruce Brugmann) brought a predatory-pricing lawsuit against the SF Weekly and its parent company (led by the voluble, swaggering, libertarian executive editor Mike Lacey). The accusation, basically, was that VVM (formerly known as New Times) was trying to put the Bay Guardian out of business by selling advertisements in SF Weekly below cost, and using revenues from elsewhere in the VVM chain to offset the paper's consequent losses. (The suit also alleged predatory pricing at the nearby East Bay Express, which VVM sold off last year.)
This past week, after a five-week trial and more than three days of deliberation, a California jury agreed and awarded the Bay Guardian $6.3 million. But under the terms of the California law in question, which mandates the tripling of some of these damages, the Bay Guardian's take could be $15.6 million or more. Since both the Bay Guardian and SF Weekly are hemorrhaging cash with annual revenues of $6 million each, it's not a stretch to say that the award could give the Bay Guardian a new lease on life while simultaneously jeopardizing SF Weekly's existence. But here's the catch: because VVM plans to seek a new trial and/or appeal the ruling, it could be a long time before the Bay Guardian gets its money — if, in the end, it gets it at all.
A tempest under the radar
Thus far, the Bay Guardian-VVM fight has received minimal interest from the national press. While Editor & Publisher reported on the jury's ruling, neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal deigned to mention it. In fact, as E&P editor-at-large Mark Fitzgerald noted in a recent column, even the San Francisco-area's mainstream media paid precious little attention to the proceedings, a late flurry of coverage notwithstanding.
This is a pity for two reasons. First, the Bay Guardian-VVM affair isn't just a legal battle. It's also a pissing match of epic proportions, in which the combatants clearly loathe each other and are striving, with an almost obsessive zeal, to impart this loathing to their respective readerships.
VVM, for example, dispatched corporate executive associate editor Andy Van De Voorde to San Francisco to cover the proceedings on "the Snitch," SF Weekly's blog. In the period between the closing arguments on February 27 and the jury ruling on March 5, Van De Voorde produced a whopping 10,000-plus words (!) of coverage. Some of it merely reiterated the VVM take on the case — e.g. that Brugmann was a bad businessman trying to make money through litigation because he couldn't make it with his paper. But Van De Voorde also made a point of mocking the physical characteristics and sartorial habits of the Bay Guardian brain trust. Brugmann, for example, was described as a "hirsute" "six-foot-five bully" who moved like "an arthritic elephant," while Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond was nicknamed "Puffy" (for a George Costanza-esque jacket he apparently wore in court) and subjected to various other indignities. (Redmond, incidentally, denies that he owns such a coat.)
For his part, Redmond was slightly less voluble, producing just 5000 words of reportage in the same seven-day period. But he, too, provided plenty of color (earnest where Van De Voorde's was snarky) aimed at making the other side look bad. Van De Voorde, for example, was depicted as a "Denver-based hit man" who trafficked in "vitriolic," "nasty personal attacks" online, but was surprisingly timid in person. Redmond also illustrated his triumphant March 5 post with a picture of Mike Lacey, VVM's famously combative executive editor, standing stone-faced in an elevator whose doors are about to close. The caption: "Shit! Mike Lacey flees the courtroom after losing a huge verdict."
Unless Pinch Sulzberger and Rupert Murdoch decide to use the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to impugn each other's manhood, the much-anticipated New York newspaper war won't be half this entertaining.
But there's more to it
There's more to the Bay Guardian-VVM fight than ill will and purple prose, however. The two sides have predictably divergent takes on the merits of the outcome. But they agree that its legal ramifications go far beyond the Bay Area and the alt-weekly universe.
From Brugmann's point of view, what happened last week was nothing less than a seminal moment in American journalism. "It sets a level playing field," Brugmann tells the Phoenix. "It's a tremendously important victory for small businesses everywhere, particularly small publications — weeklies, alt-weeklies, independents, magazines. Everyone can use our suit as a model and template for any big chain that's coming in and trying to predatory-price them.