Jeannette Etheredge, photographed in 2007 for a profile in these pages—the kind of artful exploration the Bay Area deserves.
Putting out a decent magazine is simple, really. Talk directly to the reader, using both words and images, and artfully tell the best story you’ve got, with the purest attitude you have about it.
So my story is that I am leaving this magazine after 11 years, and leaving California after a lifetime. And my attitude about it is that you’re going to have to drag me off this playground.
I grew up in the Bay Area and have long been obsessed with it and with California—as a student, road-tripper, journalist, and worried citizen. Now I’ve blown up my life and my family’s by changing jobs and moving to someplace called Connecticut. We don’t know when or if we’ll ever be back. You can imagine how discombobulated I am. Indulge me, then. I’ll try not to make this too painful.
My subject may seem small, but it’s not small to me and shouldn’t be to you. It is this preposterously dynamic region and how my trade of storytelling is capturing the moment.
We can all agree on a few things that distinguish this place and time: The food is good, the creativity high, the aesthetic DIY, the constitutional crisis serious. Beyond that, though, understanding comes very hard. This is an epic region, critical to the world yet often blind to itself. Do you really have a complete picture of your 7 million neighbors (much less your 39 million fellow Californians), their deepest motives, and how those connect with yours? Even the most seriousminded
citizen cannot keep up.
Documentarians, bloggers, authors, artists, and other editors and writers still occasionally crack the marketplace of ideas with a piece that beautifully or shockingly illuminates some corner of this place. But the supply of exceptional, deep-dive local storytelling badly fails to match the demand. Every month at San Francisco, we try to bridge that gap. My, how we try.
Online, you can look at the last few years’ worth of our covers (go to sanfranmag.com, click on the digital edition, then on “archives”). What you see leaves a striking impression of the region’s big issues: tech rising (and falling and rising), eco-this and progressive that, bold cooking, massive redevelopments, and ambitious, world-changing solutions. (Not to mention all the fashion, architecture, and travel.) And inside those covers lie the poignant little bits of magazine making I will never forget. The portrait taken by David Waldorf of Jeannette Etheredge holding a cigarette in her office at Tosca, with a photo of Robert Mitchum, holding a cigarette at exactly the same angle, in the background. The headline of Diana Kapp’s dissection of the campaign to pass Proposition 71 back in 2005: “The $3 Billion Cell Job.” The photo in Click of a middle-aged man on a ledge in Chinatown and a cop up there with him, trying to talk him down.
In shepherding all this into a passable product, I’ve learned a few things about the Bay Area. One: People with infl uence and power here are thinner-skinned than you can imagine; they simply can’t believe that their city magazine would report their foibles, even fairly and gently, and they react to it like stuck pigs.
However: Civic conscience never goes out of style here. Being a lifestyle oracle may be the magazine’s bread and butter, but whenever we’ve pulled back the curtain on the big institutions and big injustices, we’ve always been paid back with interest—yours.
And: For me, a native who knew Silicon Valley back when it was solidly Republican, and who watched the town where he went to high school become America’s murder capital, skepticism about the benevolent, idyllic Bay Area comes naturally. But for newcomers—that is, most residents—there’s a certain panache here that too quickly induces them to drink the Kool-Aid and declare their chosen home superior. It is, and yet it is so not. Better for all of us to recognize how the Kool-Aid smells, and then put it aside.
I use the Jonestown reference deliberately, as the grand metaphor of a region that drew a prophetic leader into its fold, gave him permission and power, and ended up racked with grief. This truly is a place of boom and bust, of bubble and burst, in all the ways those images have meaning. In Connecticut, I can already tell, they get that life will not end well; here, against all evidence, we still believe in good endings. It’s a delusion that spawns much optimism and creativity, but it also makes the Bay Area less introspective—and more in need of deep, probing journalism—than we are willing to admit.
May this magazine, then, always fight its way upstream to talk directly to you—with words and images—about the deepest possible Bay Area we can discover. Thanks for giving me this space to do it in for so many years. I’m off to a new role, helping ESPN The Magazine tell big stories and grow. Thanks, Steven, for hiring me three booms and two busts ago. Thanks, colleagues, for working so hard for me. And now I’ll go.