New Twist in Bay Guardian vs. SF Weekly Lawsuit

by Randy Shaw on January 25, 2008

In the three years since the San Francisco Bay Guardian filed an antitrust lawsuit against the SF Weekly (now Village Voice Media), the national chain has routinely belittled the case. Abundant examples of this are proudly featured in the current edition of SF Weekly. When the case was filed, the SF Weekly insisted “the lawsuit essentially regurgitated the same claims already disproven.” The paper has gone on to consistently make fun of Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann and Editor Tim Redmond, and ascribed various wrongful motives to the lawsuit. Last week, the case was assigned to trial. Finally, the SF Weekly would get a chance to expose and defeat the Guardian’s alleged “shakedown,” right? Not so fast.

With the daily media ignoring the Guardian-SF Weekly trial, it has been left to each of the parties to describe the goings on in their publications. While the Guardian has been remarkably restrained in covering its own case, the SF Weekly “celebrated” the start of the trial with an article showing a sleeping Bruce Brugmann and a chronology of its prior articles about the case.

This latter information has proved extremely helpful. It saves me from having to prove to readers how the SF Weekly has consistently mocked the Guardian’s lawsuit, as you can read for yourself by clicking on the above link.

During my own 25-year legal career, I have found that frivolous state court lawsuits either get dismissed via summary judgment or through a trial verdict. Anyone who has been the victim of such unmerited legal actions looks forward to vindicating themselves at the earliest opportunity.

Trial began before Judge Marla Miller on January 16, 2008. This should have been a great day for the SF Weekly, as the company finally had its day in court and could dispose of Brugmann’s claims. While the national chain failed to dispose of the case via summary judgment, nothing now stood in the way of its securing complete vindication against the Guardian’s allegations that it had engaged in predatory pricing.

But now that it has its day in court, the SF Weekly appears to have gotten cold feet. Instead of pushing the case forward for a prompt verdict, the paper made an unexpected decision to seek a 90-day trial continuance.

This sure does not look like the actions of a party who is holding a winning hand.

And since the Guardian’s allegations were based on “claims already disproven,” how the SF Weekly would not be prepared to defend itself 3 years after the action was filed is a mystery.

Or maybe it is not a mystery.

Maybe the SF Weekly assumed that it could get a judge to bar the Guardian’s chief evidence, which appears to show that the national chain sold ads at below-cost in order to drive the Guardian out of business. Or that it assumed a court would bar testimony from the Guardian’s damages expert, a ruling that went against the SF Weekly last week and may have precipitated their continuance request.

But regardless of the suit’s outcome, the national chain’s request for a continuance after trial has commenced shows that the paper fears it could lose this case. And that, regardless of the final outcome, the Guardian’s suit has much more merit than one would have assumed from reading the SF Weekly’s coverage.

For all of Bruce Brugmann’ s outsized personality, and the changes in the news industry that have put politically alternative weeklies at risk, the Guardian-SF Weekly case involves far more than these two parties. Rather, it has national implications for the future of local journalism.

If a large chain, whether it be Wal-Mart, the Gannet Corp., or the smaller Village Voice Media, can drive competitors out of business by selling ads at below-cost, then local newpapers, radio stations and other media have no future. And this is not a good thing.

We’ll do our best to keep readers posted on this trial as it proceeds.

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