SF Weekly Cover Stories and the Dread of "Indefinite Hiatus"
There's nothing quite like having a cover story in your city's newsweekly. Both times my work landed the cover of the SF Weekly, I hurried to the corner of Lee and Ocean Avenues in San Francisco's Ingleside neighborhood on the day my story dropped. On that corner, in front of a dive bar called Randy's Place, was the closest SF Weekly bin to my house. And on those two days, that beat up red bin was filled by a stack of pulpy tabloids with my story and byline emblazoned across its front page.
"CREATURE FEATURES HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. BY BOB CALHOUN."
"LONG LIVE THE FARCE! Before the Clones... before the prequels... There was Hardware Wars. BY BOB CALHOUN."
It was even more of a trip to head downtown and see my Hardware Wars or Creature Features stories looking back at me from newspaper bins up and down Market Street. Both times this happened--in 2015 and again in 2018--I couldn't escape the feeling that I'd just come in under the wire in checking this off of my bucket list. I'd been pitching the weeklies stories for years, but never landed anything until I was already pushing 50. When I fist started pitching stories to
SF Weekly, it used to have its own building in China Basin. A whole building! But by the time I wrote for it in the later half of the teens, it had maybe one floor of a building on Market Street, and I think it shared that with the Examiner. So the paper always seemed like it was on life support when I was grinding out crime stories and other weirdness for them. There was always the hope that ads for legalized weed dispensaries would save it, but that sadly hasn't been the case.
On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Broke-Ass Stuart reported that SF Weekly was being shut down for an "indefinite hiatus." How ominous is that? It might as well be infinite hiatus. No more cover stories for me. No more cover stories for anybody. Former SF Weekly editor, now exec editor at Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir had a pretty good piece a few years ago about how the alt newsweekly biz got in this mess, and pal Joe Kukura has a solid rundown of WTF just happened in SFist. As Joe points out, this shuttering comes just shy of the paper's 40th anniversary.
But beyond my pair of cover stories, my "Yesterday's Crimes" column in SF Weekly was where I developed the bulk of the material that makes up The Murders That Made Us. After a while all those little crime stories added up into a whole bloody history of the Bay Area (with a lot of extra work filling in the gaps in the timeline and creating some connecting tissue). Along the way, I had four editors who believed in me and encouraged me to keep probing the city's sordid past--Jeremy, Chris, Peter and Nuala. I hope they're as proud of the book as I am.
With almost all of my true crime columns being web only, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that preserving my work in a more permanent form was a major motivator for pursuing a publishing deal for MTMU. The longevity of SFW's online archives has always been in question, even when the hopes for salvation by cannabis cash were high. According to the Chron, SFW's website and its archives "will remain intact," but I wouldn't take that check to the bank and try to cash it.
If you want to relive my alt newsweekly cover story glory, you'd better click on those links quick and print them out or save them to your hard drive, like I'm going to do. For a lot of my crime stories (not all by far), you can score a copy of the The Murders That Made Us or check it out from your local library. If you're in San Francisco, you can take some solace that SFPL has SF Weekly on microfilm from 1989 through December 2018. The paper's publication gets a little spotty after that, so I'm not sure if the library will add the more recent years to their collection --or even if such a thing is even possible.
But preserving the past, doesn't address the present. While SF Weekly may have been slimmed down during the time I contributed to it, its reporters were never diminished, and my colleagues pursued stories that would have gone ignored otherwise. Chris Roberts covered the economic and political side of the cannabis industry when that was still an outré concept; Nuala Bishari brought attention the region's homeless and displaced people and won a California News Publishers Association award for one of her cover stories; and Ida Mojadad's reporting on the problems facing Seton Medical Center shined a light on big issues facing the communities on San Francisco's southern border that are so often neglected by the city's legacy news outlets.
My cover stories on late-night monster mashes and obscure short film auteurs seem trite by comparison, but SF Weekly gave me the chance to delve deeply into these niche subjects while it was still possible to do so. There are editors I can still pitch these kinds of stories to, but they'll want 700 words at the most from me on Bay Area TV weirdness or forgotten martial arts feuds. I wrote close to 4,000 words on the histories of Hardware Wars and Creature Features and I had intensive editorial attention along the way. I might've groaned at all the rewrite requests Peter-Astrid Kane put me through while I was trying to put the damned Creature Features story to bed, but I have to admit all those edits made it a way better story--maybe my best.
And that's what's really lost here with SF Weekly on its indefinite hiatus. The stories we do read will be a lot shorter, and written with a lot less editorial guidance. And so many more stories won't be written at all.