East Bay Express publisher’s return met with scorn

Today, there are no more full-time staff writers at the East Bay Express, the George Polk Award–winning alt-weekly launched in 1978.

On January 13, a note from East Bay Express editor Robert Gammon announced the paper’s switch “to a freelance-reporting model.” An appellate court had recently ruled that the Express, under previous ownership, had illegally denied overtime to a former marketing director who is asking for $750,000 in damages, which the Express must now pay, in addition to his legal fees. Gammon wrote that Stephen Buel—owner of Express parent company Telegraph Media, and a former Express publisher who resigned in 2018 amid several scandals—would return as publisher, while Gammon would stay on as editor. That arrangement held for a few weeks, before Gammon announced his own departure from journalism:

“Journalists are really important,” Gammon tells CJR. “But with an advertising-based news model, the advertising staff are more important. It is counterintuitive, but without revenue journalists can’t get paid at all.”

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An online photo editor works across Telegraph Media’s five properties; two associate editors (one part-time and one full-time) handle calendar listings, the website, and social media. The paper’s coverage is now performed entirely by freelancers; Buel and his wife, Judith Gallman, handle the rest. Buel, who says that he works on the Express seven days a week, remains upbeat about rehiring staff for the Express, though he did not share his timeline or specific plans with CJR. Meanwhile, at least one former staffer is calling for a boycott of the paper. Roughly half of the Express’s interns quit when they learned Buel would return, and several former interns expressed to CJR that they would not freelance for the Express anytime soon.

Azucena Rasilla, a former Express associate editor, shared news of the Express layoffs just days before the “freelance-reporting model” announcement. “Whatever happens to The Express, it’s going to be a big bummer,” Rasilla says.

Last year, Rasilla temporarily left the paper after a conflict with Buel during which, several staff members say, he used the n-word and called Rasilla’s coverage “racist against white people.” Rasilla posted an account of the incident to the website of journalist Gustavo Arellano, after which Buel apologized on July 13 via the Express. (Arellano has contributed to CJR.) Then, former Express Publisher Jody Colley shared an account of Buel kissing her without her consent at a work event in 2009, after which Buel received a written warning about his behavior. On July 14, Buel announced his resignation. (Asked about these incidents, Buel tells CJR, “Don’t believe everything you read on social media.”)

Rasilla, who returned to the Express after Buel promised he would not be involved with the paper’s operations, recently called for a boycott of the Express on Twitter. She says that many of the paper’s former contributors and staff members won’t work for the paper.

“Sure, The Express is there,” she says. “But not really, because none of the stories that the former staff writers would write are gonna be part of it.”

Another former staff writer, Janelle Bitker, said on Twitter that “Buel exhibited so much misogynist and racist behavior at EBX that I often left work in tears. That is unacceptable.” In the same thread, she termed Buel’s return and the Express’s switch to a freelance publication a “disaster.”

The paper, if judged by its cover alone, appears exactly the same. A closer look suggests a need for greater scrutiny. The most recent news feature on the cover actually came out earlier last month in another of Buel’s properties, Oakland Magazine. Bitker, who now works at the San Francisco Chronicle, tells CJR that the paper is now a lot thinner, with fewer sections. “On one hand, I think that he’s going to be careful,” Bitker says of Buel. On the other, Bitker worries coverage will be less diverse. “A lot of the stories that have been printed recently were assigned already, so I’ll be curious to see if the stories he assigns reflect the diversity of Oakland or are more reflective of what I think his view is, which is whiter and older.”

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The workflow is certainly very different. Buel tells CJR that he edits and handles administrative tasks ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Mondays and Tuesdays are mostly for production. On Tuesday afternoons, he assigns content; on Wednesdays, he assigns cover stories. On Thursdays and Fridays, Buel and Gallman edit coverage. Buel says he makes assignments primarily via email, and speaks with writers “as needed to shape the angle and whatnot.”

Although several people resigned on the business side when the layoffs happened, Buel says he believes in “a bright future for smart, local print journalism.” He has rehired staff for those business positions and, on March 4, brought on Anne Artoux, who Buel says was the de facto publisher from 2001 to 2004, as the new publisher. The plan now is to stay lean, he says, until the Express can generate sufficient revenue toward rehire editorial staff. “Working for a company such as ours is not for the faint of heart,” Buel says.

Buel recently established a freelance partnership with Steven Tavares, who has run his own politics-focused website, the East Bay Citizen, for the past 10 years. On a good day, Tavares says he aims to crank out around three articles, maybe four if he’s lucky.

Tavares is a perma-lancer for the Express; he works out of the office, but isn’t full-time staff. He basically does what he did before, independently, but now is paid to publish the same work he puts out on his own website at the Express as well. The days are long, says Tavares, but finding stories is easy because there’s rarely another reporter at the local meetings he covers.

“There’s nobody here,” Tavares says. “Unless it’s something really big, and the TV people are there, its very very routine that I’m the only one with the notebook, pen, and laptop at these meetings.”

The Express used to serve as a training ground for Bay Area journalists, including those from the journalism school at UC Berkeley. Whether it will continue to do so is unclear. Meg Shutzer, a student at Berkeley, briefly interned for the Express last month, but quit the day Gammon left. “I know people have taken a stance and quit because of Steve in the past and I stand by their reasons for doing so,” Shutzer writes to CJR. “Working for Steve would be undermining their efforts.”

Nuria Martinez, another journalism student at Berkeley, covered the rapidly decreasing availability of hospital care in the East Bay for the Express last summer as an intern. “I can’t think of any other place in the Bay area that would take a story like that,” Martinez says, referring to her hospital coverage. “Maybe the Chronicle, but to devote that much space and time—and, honestly, to trust a young reporter who had never done a story that big and complicated before to do it—is something that I don’t think many other places would do.”

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Gabe Schneider writes about California politics and policy. He is a co-founder of UC San Diego's The Triton, where he served as news editor and editor-in-chief. Find him on Twitter @gabemschneider.