SF Weekly publisher backs off plan to use cover story to ‘make up’ with advertiser

Score one for editorial independence, at least in one corner of the alt-weekly world. After a report of his newsroom meddling drew notice from journalists around the country, Glenn Zuehls, publisher of SF Weekly, says he won’t be asking his newsroom to blow a big kiss to a major advertiser after all.

Earlier this week, Zuehls was the subject of a report in a Bay Area publication that detailed “a vicious tirade” in which the publisher “reiterated his much-stated belief that there is no separation between the alt-weekly newspaper’s advertising and editorial departments.” According to the story by former SF Weekly reporter Joe Eskenazi, a short, humorous July 29 first-person piece about a reporter counting cards at Graton Casino— and the characters he encountered while turning $60 into $375—didn’t sit well with the gambling house. And after the casino moved to pull tens of thousands of dollars in ad buys, the publisher reportedly demanded that SF Weekly make the advertiser happy again with a favorable cover story, even bypassing top editors to directly assign the task to a reporter.

When Eskenazi exposed the turmoil in an Aug. 3 article for San Francisco Magazine, the story whizzed around journalist Twitter.

Now, in a statement to CJR, Zuehls says he has backed off.

“After talks with Michael Howerton, SFMC’s vice president of editorial, regarding the value of preserving and publishing an independent editorial voice for San Francisco, I have rethought my initial idea of using an SF Weekly cover story to make up for a prior piece that found disfavor with an important advertiser,” he said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “The staff rightly objected to my request to write a positive article about the client.”

That doesn’t mean Zuehls has changed his mind about the casino story. In his view, he says, it “unfairly maligned a key advertising client.” (The story seems fine to me, and described a casino scene that anyone who’s been in a casino will recognize—but read it yourself to decide.)

Zuehls added:

I realize in subsequent discussions with my editorial leadership that there are better ways to try and resolve this situation with an unhappy advertising client. We made a mistake in writing the story and the mistake was compounded by my approach to remedy it. Emotions were high in the office last week, as they always are when a news organization has to deal with editorial layoffs and cost-cutting measures, as we were. We will continue to work together to produce the best possible papers we can.

Zuehls last year became publisher of San Francisco Media Company, which owns The San Francisco Examiner and SF Weekly. Another publication recently owned by the company, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, folded in October 2014.*

Michael Howerton, the vice president of editorial at the company, told me while this isn’t the first time an issue about editorial independence has come up during Zuehls’ tenure, it’s never gone this far before. He wanted to make clear that in the year and half he’s been in his position, SF Weekly has never tried to use coverage to gain favor with an advertiser.

“I think that this was a wake-up call to the publisher that this is not the way to do business,” he said. “I have to say that I’m really proud of the staff who stood up for what’s right and said this was unacceptable.”

* Correction: This paragraph has been revised to note that the San Francisco Bay Guardian ceased publication in 2014.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.