Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Goodbye to the Bay Guardian

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The San Francisco Bay Guardian

Kevin Smith once observed that the San Francisco Bay Guardian was “the Village Voice of the West Coast.” I know this, because he said it to me. At the time, I was twenty-one and working for the summer as the Bay Guardian’s film intern, writing up short capsule reviews and occasional longer pieces for its arts section. Smith was in town to promote Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was how I ended up seated across from him in his hotel room with a tape recorder and notebook, trying very hard not to embarrass myself. Even at the time, though, I knew that I was lucky to be there. Years before, in high school, I’d often pick up a thick copy of the alternative weekly in the lobby of the UC Theater in Berkeley and leaf through those very same reviews while waiting for a double feature to start, and I was tickled by the prospect of writing a few of them myself. And now that word comes that the Bay Guardian has published its last issue, silencing an enormously important progressive voice at a critical time for San Francisco, I feel as if I’ve lost a tiny part of myself, just as I did over a decade ago when I heard that the UC Theater had been shuttered.

In fact, it was in my job interview over the phone with Cheryl Eddy, who was then the paper’s calendar editor, that I first learned that the theater had closed. I’d contacted the Bay Guardian about their intern program toward the close of my junior year in college, when I suddenly realized that most of my friends were acquiring internships of their own and that my own summer plans of hanging out to tinker with a novel didn’t seem especially productive. By then, I’d been writing online movie reviews for a couple of years for a startup that had gone out of business long before it was fashionable, and when I was offered the film intern position, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. Early on, I realized that most of the other interns would be lucky to get in the paper at all before the summer was over, but I had a byline or two in every issue, as I attended preview screenings throughout the city and wrote up a hundred words or so for each. It wasn’t a great year for cinema—Jurassic Park III was probably the high point—and I mostly ended up with the quirky indie films that the staff critics didn’t feel like covering. But I did what I could with what I had, and I even saw a few quotes from my reviews taken out of context in the ads that ran the following week.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian

The offices of the Bay Guardian sat in the middle of nowhere off the Montgomery Street stop on the BART train, and the interns were relegated to a corner of the newsroom with a handful of computers that were antiquated even by the standards of that era. We spent most mornings sorting the stacks of spam faxes that the paper received every day, which is a time capsule in itself, sifting through the event notices and concert announcements and filing them away to be read and, usually, discarded by the relevant reporters. The interns came from a range of ages and backgrounds, but most of them looked a lot like me, young, liberal, and hoping somehow to carve out careers as writers. As endearingly shabby as the Bay Guardian’s offices may have been, they looked a lot like the lives we wanted for ourselves, and although I haven’t kept in touch with any of the other interns in my cohort, I sometimes find myself wondering where they are now. (One intern I do remember is Annalee Newitz, whose name came right after mine on the masthead. I’m not sure if we ever met, because we came in on different days, but I remember being impressed when I saw her surface again as the editor of io9.)

As it turns out, I went back to the Bay Guardian only once after graduation, to ask if they’d be willing to serve as a reference as I headed out to New York. I’d like to think that if I’d wanted to work there, they would have given me a shot, and of all my many roads not traveled, this is one of the more intriguing. In the end, the call of New York was too great, and although I don’t regret the choice, I do sometimes wonder what that other life would have been like. Thanks to my wife, I’ve been a secondhand witness to many of the recent upheavals in the newspaper industry, and judging from the fact that the Bay Guardian had been struggling financially for years, the atmosphere in the newsroom wouldn’t always have been a happy one. After decades of independent ownership, the paper was acquired two years ago by the media conglomerate that publishes the Examiner and longtime rival SF Weekly, and after what seems to have been a hard transition, it’s finally closing down. I hope it will survive in some other form, but the conditions that allowed it and other independent weeklies to exist in cities across the country have already changed. However you spin it, it’s a tremendous loss. The Bay Guardian touched my life and those of many writers and readers, and I don’t think we’ll ever see its like again.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2014 at 9:36 am

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