Yet another city magazine, this one in San Francisco, fights for its life

The November issue of San Francisco magazine will feature a 6,000-word true crime piece about a kidnapping in Mountain View, California, a profile of Bennet Omalu, the doctor who pioneered research on traumatic brain injury in the NFL, and a ten-page spread ranking the Bay Area’s 101 best cities. (Spoiler alert: San Francisco doesn’t win.)

For the first time ever, November’s issue will also contain a “must-run” story from San Francisco’s parent company, Modern Luxury, which owns and publishes 83 other city, design, and bridal magazines: a two-page spread on travel in the Dominican Republic, which coincides with a recent advertisement by the DR’s tourism ministry in the magazine’s online newsletter. It’s the sort of editorial-advertising wall-crossing that San Francisco has historically avoided, according to Articles Editor Ian Stewart, and “the last thing on earth we would ever assign ourselves.”

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But these are not normal times at San Francisco, which is feeling the effects of moves by Modern Luxury to shrink the monthly magazine’s budget. Modern Luxury is pulling back design functions to a consolidated creative hub in Chicago and instituting shared or repurposed content—unprecedented at San Francisco but common in other Modern Luxury publications. (Last month, Modern Luxury mags from Miami to Dallas to DC all featured a story on the actor Kyle Chandler. “Gentleman… Charmer… Star Next Door,” their covers identically proclaimed.) Modern Luxury representatives say they have no plans to change San Francisco’s journalistic character, but staffers are worried. “They would never give orders to stop producing good content,” Stewart explains. “They’re just going to squeeze resources so much that it will be a necessity.”

That’s why, after closing the November book last week, Stewart and all but two members of San Francisco’s editorial team quit or gave notice of their intent to leave the magazine soon. “The name will be the same, but in every way imaginable it seems it will be a different and lesser magazine moving forward,” Stewart, who gave notice, adds.

Founded in 1955, San Francisco has long been home to meaty narrative and investigative journalism with strong northern California roots, according to the magazine’s former editor-in-chief, Jon Steinberg. The formerly independent outfit was acquired by Modern Luxury in 2005 but, unlike many of the conglomerate’s publications, remained editorially autonomous and an essential part of the local media landscape even as other Bay Area newspapers and alt-weeklies have grown threadbare or closed shop. The magazine’s full-time editorial staff fell to nine people, from 12, over the previous two years, but the team nevertheless managed to win a National Magazine Award this year for General Excellence.

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San Francisco magazine’s November 2018 cover.

Real trouble began after Modern Luxury acquired a major competitor, GreenGale Publishing, last spring. The move increased Modern Luxury’s magazine portfolio by 25 percent but brought with it financial difficulties, as the companies struggled to combine staffs and accounting systems. Within months, Steinberg felt the impact of the parent company’s woes: Payments to regular contractors and freelancers became inordinately late, and this spring San Francisco was forced to reduce its per-issue freelance budget, which funds most of its longform content, from $30,000 to $20,000. This summer, Modern Luxury signaled that deeper cuts to the magazine’s budget were likely imminent, leading Steinberg to resign. “You can’t put out an awards-caliber publication with just three or four full-time editorial staffers,” he says. “The idea of it is pretty laughable.”

Stephanie Davis Smith, Modern Luxury’s editorial director, defends budget cuts as common sense and something hitting magazines across the country. She suggests, for example, that San Francisco might decrease its monthly allotment of longform content from three to two pieces, and that it should seek opportunities for “synergies” when content from other markets might make sense in the Bay Area. The aim is not to make San Francisco a carbon copy of other publications: “It will all make sense and feel local,” Smith tells CJR. She disputes reports that that Modern Luxury was planning layoffs at San Francisco.

But magazine staffers had received much different signals from San Francisco’s publisher, Paul Reulbach, according to multiple sources. Such confusion was no surprise, though, according to Stewart, as communication from both Modern Luxury and Reulbach was slim throughout the summer. Following Steinberg’s resignation, for example, Stewart says Reulbach assured staff that hard-hitting journalism would remain central to San Francisco’s mission. Modern Luxury ultimately named Jason Sheeler as editor, which didn’t exactly calm the staff unease. Sheeler formerly served as the style director at Departures, a luxury magazine published for American Express Platinum and Centurion cardholders. Sheeler didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Reulbach declined.

Laura Fraser, a longtime contributor to San Francisco, is skeptical of the magazine’s journalistic integrity moving forward. Fraser is among the many freelancers and contractors who went unpaid for their work as Modern Luxury struggled to get its accounting in order. In September, with payment for an article outstanding for four months, Fraser sent an email directly to Modern Luxury’s CEO, cc’ing 120 writers in the Bay Area: “In what world do you think it’s okay to stiff writers this way? . . . I am going to make as big a fuss as I need to make to get my due, and believe me, after 30 years in the business, I know how to make a very widely publicized fuss,” she wrote. Many freelancers might have been intimidated at the prospect of burning a bridge, but Fraser was undeterred. “The reason I was able to be so direct is I don’t give a fuck,” she tells CJR. “I’m 57. I don’t need San Francisco magazine.”

Meanwhile, at the San Francisco office, the mood has resembled “a Viking funeral,” in the words of Senior Editor Scott Lucas, who started as a fact checker in 2012 and will depart following the completion of the December issue. Lucas intends to stay in the Bay Area and would like to remain in journalism. He recalls with pride the old San Francisco covers, framed on shop and restaurant walls around town. “San Francisco really did have a deep intellectual lineage in this area,” Lucas says. “Like all the regional magazines that are going away, that’s probably not the case anymore.”

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.