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The Great West Coast Newspaper War

Seized delivery vans, murderous editors, allegations of insanity, and more than $21 million on the line -- the crazy alt-weekly war in San Francisco has it all.

This article was first published in The Stranger.

San Francisco in 2010 is a strange place for an old-school newspaper war. This is the city where the dot-com industry started, where Yelp is the way to make dinner plans, where Digg is headquartered, where Apple just unveiled its new tablet computer, where Google employees awaken in fancy condos and then roll to the Googleplex in Mountain View inside company-provided, wireless-equipped vans. This center of the new, paperless world order has now become ground zero in a seemingly endless battle to the death between two struggling print publications, SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It's a war straight out of the last century in its ruthlessness and its destructive potential, and it continues to escalate even as, all around them, the entire words-on-paper industry is in a state of collapse. They're like dinosaurs, fighting over the rotting bones of a soon-to-be-extinct animal.

On one side there's Michael G. Lacey, 61, the executive editor and a co-owner of Village Voice Media, a self-described "prick" who comes complete with "spiky gray hair, watery pale-blue eyes, and spreading shanty-Irish honker," as New York magazine memorably put it. On the other side is Bruce B. Brugmann, 74, editor and co-owner of the Bay Guardian, a classic San Francisco lefty who likens his civic role to that of a Revolutionary War pamphleteer and has made his own bearded visage a kind of logo for his business.

These two men have hated each other for decades, but with increasing venom since 1995, when Lacey showed up in San Francisco in cowboy boots to announce that he and his partners had just purchased the tiny SF Weekly and planned to make a huge success of it. Brugmann welcomed them by saying, as quoted in 1996 in the San Francisco Examiner, that Lacey and company would find his city to be "their Afghanistan." (On cross-examination at a trial that became the center of their feud, Brugmann clarified that he'd really meant it would be their Vietnam. "My point is always Vietnam," Brugmann said. "That's the best analogy that I use.") Lacey has responded that "Brugmann and his collaborators" represent a venal foe that needs to be dealt with harshly and wants only "to run us out of town."

In fact, it's Lacey's company that was recently found guilty of trying to run Brugmann's business out of town. After a six-week trial in 2008, a jury found that SF Weekly and its parent company had sold ads below cost, had done this with intent to harm the Bay Guardian, and had caused financial injury to the Bay Guardian in the process. The amount that jurors and the court decided SF Weekly's parent company owed the struggling Bay Guardian: $16 million, payable immediately or subject to interest charges. SF Weekly and its parent company have appealed the decision.

So much is riding on the outcome of this war -- including more than $21 million (those interest charges add up quickly), the manner in which people are allowed to do business in the state of California, and the reputations of two of the alternative-newsweekly industry's most stubborn personalities -- that the winner is bound to profoundly wound the loser, possibly mortally.

If its parent company's appeals are not successful, SF Weekly could end up shuttered, leaving San Francisco with one less editorial perspective and many fewer employed journalists. Its parent company -- which under the leadership of Lacey and his majority co-owner, Jim Larkin, has become the largest alt-weekly chain in the United States, publisher of the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Seattle Weekly, and 11 other papers -- could end up in bankruptcy; or be forced to sell off some of its papers to pay the multimillion-dollar judgment; or have its assets seized by its largest creditor, Bank of Montreal, to which it currently owes $80 million; or, in the worst-case scenario, all of the above. (Lacey wouldn't comment for this story, but Andy Van De Voorde, VVM's executive associate editor, agreed to be interviewed one day before this article went to press. He dismissed all of the above as "legally ludicrous doomsday scenarios." An attorney for the Bay Guardian countered, "Those are all potential outcomes," and noted that the Bank of Montreal actually just declared VVM in default on that $80 million loan.) If, on the other hand, the appeals on the SF Weekly's behalf are successful, the Bay Guardian -- which has no parent company to absorb its out-of-pocket legal expenses and has cast this as a fight for survival -- could go out of business, ending a long and storied run by a San Francisco institution and, of course, sending a different batch of working journalists into the ranks of the unemployed.