SF Confidential: Todd Vogt on Owning Two Alt-Weeklies in the Same City

april 21, 2014  11:00 am
Todd Vogt is a big name in San Francisco. As the co-owner, president, and publisher of the San Francisco Media Company, he oversees three local newspapers: the daily San Francisco Examiner, and alt-weeklies SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

It wasn’t always thus. SF Media Co. acquired the Bay Guardian in 2012, then added SF Weekly to its portfolio in early 2013. Uniting the two alt-weeklies under the same roof was a surprising move to many who had followed their relationship, which included a lengthy lawsuit over ad pricing that resulted in a $21 million jury verdict in favor of the Bay Guardian.

Recently, I sat down with Vogt to talk about the challenges of keeping two free, weekly print publications alive and kicking in a world where almost everyone is “swapping print dollars for digital dimes.” Herewith, a few of the highlights.

Alexa Schirtzinger: As audiences move online, how do you know that your readers still value your print product?
Todd Vogt: If anybody ever doubts the power or reach of a newspaper, all we have to do is write an op-ed piece or run a cover story that’s a little bit controversial….Every day I’m reminded positively and negatively the role that we play and how it’s important to people’s lives…What I love about our products is it doesn’t matter who you are. Whether you’re the CEO of one of the multinationals that’s headquartered here or the homeless person on the street, you can pick up one of our products and find out what’s going on in your community.

Owning two alt-weeklies in the same city, how do you keep them both strong and separate—if that’s the goal?
Oh, it’s absolutely the goal. I didn’t want to buy the Bay Guardian. I respect the Bay Guardian; what [founders] Bruce [Brugmann] and Jean [Dibble] were able to create and build, I respect them immensely….This is a very progressive community, obviously, but the downfall of the Guardian and the reason I didn’t want to buy it is even though it’s still a very progressive community, the progressive nature of San Francisco has changed. The Guardian hadn’t changed at all.

But somebody had to buy the Guardian because the Guardian wasn’t going to survive. And I came to see the Guardian as playing a very important role—it had to be a changed role, but the progressive community needs a voice.

...While we were negotiating to buy the Guardian, I was also negotiating to buy SF Weekly. I really wanted to buy SF Weekly; I saw great synergies between the Examiner and the Weekly. So then, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for: we ended up getting them both. And it’s been—everything that we thought would be easy has been incredibly difficult. All the things we thought would be difficult have been incredibly easy.

What’s an example of that?
I think that people who advertise spend good money to advertise because wherever they’re spending their dollars is effective for them. So we thought, ‘Oh man, we’ve got these two weekly papers that have been around for years that each have this great following with—shockingly—very little duplication in advertising. We’ll just be able to cross-sell: everybody who’s only advertising in the Guardian, boom, right away we’ll just get them to buy both, and vice versa.’ Yeah, not so easy. It’s been a year now, 14 months, and it is still a struggle every day.

Part of it’s internal. I way underestimated how ingrained and indoctrinated the staff were with respect to ‘their’ paper. And I also underestimated the animosity between the two papers. The lawsuit went on between the two papers for nine years...aspects of the sales pitch by SF Weekly reps were like...‘Don’t advertise with the Guardian, the Guardian’s terrible,’ and vice versa: ‘Oh, SF Weekly’s terrible.’ We’re still overcoming that every day.

What about digital strategy?
It’s our big push for 2014. We’re migrating all of the digital assets onto common platforms.

And digital sales?
It really is swapping print dollars for digital dimes—so 2013, we had exponential growth in terms of percentage, but in terms of dollars it’s small…but it’s adding up, and it’s becoming more substantial…And we just know we have to do it. It all goes back to leveraging our content, which again—with all due respect to everybody else, we have THE best local content in the city.

So when you think about the overall pie of your future revenues, where do digital sales come in? In 10 years, I think probably 75 percent of our revenue will be digital. Until we figure out a way to get Macy’s flier delivered to you effectively on your smartphone, there’s still going to be a print product that’s available on the street and delivered to your house; there’s just going to be.

There’s a lot of talk now about “consultative selling”—the idea of selling advertising or marketing packages across several different platforms (print, digital, social, etc.). Is that something you’re considering?
Yes. The majority of our local advertisers have no idea what their online strategy is or what their return on online investment is; they just know that they need to be online. Advertisers are asking for it, so we’ll try to provide a full suite of services to satisfy what the advertisers’ perceived need is.

What about live events—what role do you think they’ll play? Events are the way to go. We’ve got a phenomenal following; we can promote anything; we can put bums in seats or bring people out to rallies or whatever it is. Events are the most underutilized asset for newspapers.

Do you see events as a key revenue component or more of a branding asset?
Both. Hand in hand. We’ve decided to stop trying to do things just for revenue; there has to be a real, tangible branding [component]—not [just] putting a poster up, but actually tying in all the brands to the events. …I want people to feel that not only is SF Media Co. presenting this, but if you want to find out about these events and you want to be invited to these events, we’re the people to come to.

And it’s not revenue-driven, it’s sponsorship-driven. A lot of sponsorships have no revenue attached to them; it’s just for revenue partners, which will then be leveraged later on to extend the relationship and hopefully create advertisers. So yeah, events are the future.

(Other portions of this interview are posted on the John S. Knight Fellowships website.)
Alexa Schirtzinger is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, where she is focusing on innovative business models for local journalism, and the Knight Fellowships Editor-in-Residence. Previously, she was the editor of the alt-weekly Santa Fe Reporter.