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An Unholy Union?

Ron Russell | February 25, 2013 | Story Profiles

To all outward appearances, the fledgling San Francisco Newspaper Company is on a roll. After buying the San Francisco Examiner from Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz in 2011, it completed an unprecedented trifecta, scooping up the city’s two politically disparate and long-feuding alt weeklies—the Bay Guardian and SF Weekly—and bringing them together under the Examiner’s roof at 225 Bush Street. The company is nominally headed by Todd Vogt, a brash, 44-year-old British Columbia native, and its shareholders include Canadian newspaperman David Black and an executive associated with the Vancouver-based Black Press.

If it were anyone other than Vogt coming to town to pluck a trio of money-losing newspapers from the bargain bin, the reaction might be a collective yawn. But Vogt has gone out of his way to make himself notorious. Ever since he arrived in 2011, he has played the part of a media shock jock, mounting a head-scratching one-man Twitter campaign against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and taking constant swipes at the Chronicle and other Bay Area papers, which he bashes as “terrible” and unworthy of the market they serve. “Why do I keep saying it?” he asks me rhetorically. “Frankly, it’s because it’s true.”

As might be expected, Vogt’s actions haven’t endeared him to the area’s competing media overlords. Nor has the confusion about his true status regarding the newspapers’ ownership. Although a Black Press news release states that the Examiner “is owned primarily by David Black...and other Black Press executives,” Vogt curiously (and, according to his critics, characteristically) disputes this. He insists that he and another partner together are majority owners, while declining to reveal that partner or to quantify his personal stake. (David Black did not respond to interview requests.)

But the real question on most people’s minds is how having the Examiner share the same leash with two wildly divergent weeklies will impact the city’s journalism. Vogt insists that the Bay Guardian, long required reading among the city’s progressives, and the less political, more muckraking SF Weekly will maintain their independence and compete as before. But already there are signs that his promise may not be kept.

One of Vogt’s first moves after taking over the Weekly was to assign a single editor to coordinate the online news content of all three publications. (Weekly editor-in-chief Tom Walsh was fired in the process.) Vogt also consolidated the art direction and layout of the alt weeklies. The new regime had already laid off a huge chunk of the Examiner’s production force, and staffers say that everyone is bracing for more drastic cuts.

Of course, the newsrooms of all three publications are already so thin that there may be few places left to cut. “I don’t know of anyone who believes that the Examiner is on the verge of a revival,” says Corey Cook, who teaches political science at the University of San Francisco and who, like many others, has witnessed the newspaper’s long backward slide. “The reporters are nice, and I return their phone calls, but I don’t use the Examiner to keep up with what’s going on in the city.”

Vogt acknowledges that the Examiner is a “work in progress.” He’s even more blunt about the alt weeklies. “They really just lost their voice and their focus,” he says, during the years of bombastic, albeit entertaining, sparring between former Guardian owner Bruce Brugmann and his antagonist Michael Lacey of Village Voice Media, which owned the Weekly. But he is surprisingly mum about how, exactly, he expects to right his new ship.

Perhaps that’s because an upright ship is not his main goal. During his long—and some would say checkered—history as a newspaper executive in Canada and the United States, Vogt, along with his private-investor friends, has shown a willingness to hunt almost anything that moves. In his first few months here, Vogt made it known that he was interested in a few Bay Area newspapers owned by Media-News Group, but they weren’t for sale. He tried to buy the Tracy Press and two smaller titles out of bankruptcy, only to be outbid by a company in Texas. And his group made the final cut to buy the Santa Rosa Press Democrat from Florida–based Halifax Media Group last year before losing out to other investors.

If it seems unclear why Vogt should be an enthusiastic buyer of newspapers at a time when the industry is hemorrhaging red ink, the answer may lie in the business model he has cultivated. The modus operandi of the community-newspaper operation he ran in Canada was to buy newspapers on the cheap, slash and burn staff, and make money by running the most bare-bones operation possible, say several sources familiar with Vogt. Vogt’s presumed chief benefactor in the San Francisco papers, David Black, whose Black Press claims 170 publications scattered across western Canada and beyond, has long been known for a similar philosophy. Black seldom talks to the press, but he owes his reputation to being a shrewd businessman, not a purveyor of great journalism.

Vogt’s earlier associations also raise some questions about his journalistic integrity. As a former executive with Hollinger International, he once worked under disgraced media baron Conrad Black—no relation to David Black—and as a protégé of company president David Radler. Once the fourth-largest media company in the world, Hollinger imploded when Conrad Black and Radler were sent to prison after being accused of defrauding shareholders, in part through a separate company, Horizon Publications, that they controlled. The CEO of Horizon Publications was none other than Todd Vogt.

Vogt was never charged with a crime, and, to the amazement of some in the press who covered Conrad Black’s 2007 trial in Chicago, nor was he called to testify. But a 500-page internal investigation of the Hollinger mess was less than flattering to Vogt. Among other things, that report details how the Canadian government in 2001 ordered Hollinger to divest one of two newspapers it owned in Kelowna, a city in the Okanagan Valley east of Vancouver, to an “arm’s length” purchaser. As it turns out, the group that ended up with the Kelowna Capital News included Vogt’s stepfather, Darryl Laurent, a career civil servant with no background in newspapers. Two years later, Laurent and the other investors sold the paper to David Black’s company for an $8.1 million profit.

“You could never figure out who owned what when it came to Todd Vogt,” says a Kelowna journalist who asked that his name not be used. “There were always too many of those ridiculous onion-skin layers of ownership to peel back.”

Some who know Vogt question whether he and the other Canadians will even keep the Examiner and the alt weeklies for long if they’re unable to sustain a profit. One former Examiner staffer, recalling an early David Black visit to the paper, says, “He immediately told people he wasn’t a billionaire like Philip Anschutz, who could keep a newspaper as a toy, and that they were going to cut costs to survive.” Not surprisingly, Black’s words presaged layoffs and salary reductions.

So far, Vogt’s attempts to win over the city’s power brokers remain problematic. Former staffers cite two “coming out” receptions at the Asian Art Museum last spring to which almost no one of importance RSVPed. The events were canceled at the last minute—which was “humiliating” to the paper, one staffer said. Vogt’s Twitter fusillade demanding that Nancy Pelosi resign, which began just two weeks after she was reelected for a 14th term by a whopping 85 percent of the vote, didn’t help either. Vogt was suggesting that she resign for no discernible reason other than his belief that she’s been in Washington too long.

But Vogt is unapologetic, and perhaps even unintentionally prescient, about the uphill challenge that he and his newspapers face. “I doubt that she even noticed,” he says of Pelosi. “And if she did, I doubt that she cares.”

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco
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