Last Days of the Tenderloin Times

Historical Essay

by Lisa Margonelli, 1994

Originally published in the April/May 1994 issue of Mediafile, the publication of Media Alliance, under the title “Hard Times in the Tenderloin: The Tenderloin Times Reinvents Itself Again”

Tenderloin Times, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 1986
At dusk, Turk Street is alive with the homeward trajectories of mothers. Loaded down with handbags and backpacks and pink plastic sacks of bok choy, they tow their children by the hand. The people who hang out on the street step back, into doorways, waiting for them to pass.

Upstairs in Hospitality House's Turk Street building, at the Tuesday night staff meeting of the Tenderloin Times, Bert, a new writer, is trying to figure out how to get the street down on paper. “Here in the Tenderloin,” he says, “I have feelings that no one has anyplace else. How do I talk about the street at five o'clock?”

His editor, Tom Puleo, offers some advice: “Know your audience,” he says. And then Puleo outlines the paper's new editorial policy: “We're committed to publishing everyone who wants to be published,” as long as they live in the Tenderloin.

The laid-back atmosphere here is quite a change from the hectic glory days of the Tenderloin Times. At its height, the monthly community newspaper was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was the first paper in the country to go quadralingual to serve the needs of its diverse readership. It was once a visionary community paper that connected the homeless to the New York Times, welfare hotels to City Hall and the street corners of the Tenderloin to the dirt paths of the Cambodian-Thai border. Is the Times’ new “anything goes” editorial policy really what's become of what San Francisco Chronicle reporter Katy Butler has described as “the: first paper to write about homelessness” and “a tip sheet to the major media?”

Under the new slogan “Your District—Your Ideas—Your Paper,” the most recent edition the Times featured artwork, poems and interviews by local residents, as well as the Vietnamese and Cambodian pages. While many of the works comment on Tenderloin issues—a poem about crack babies, a paintinf of an arsonist responding to social injustice, for example—they are a far cry from the articles that brought the City’s attention to Tenderloin problems like pedestrian deaths and heatless hotels

What happened?

The short answer is a 90 percent drop in funding. A cash crunch at Hospitality House (the paper's publisher), coupled with the loss grant money, has reduced the staff from 10 full-time positions to four part-timers, the number of pages from 24 to 12, and forced the paper to survive on ad revenue—bringing its once $300,000 yearly budget to less than $30,000.

At the same time, the Tenderloin Times is, according to publisher and Hospitality House Director Robert Tobin, moving back to its original purpose of “neighborhood self-expression.” Aside from the money issue, says Tobin, the paper felt the need to change its course because "we’ve almost become victims of our own success in that everyone is convinced that life is shitty in the Tenderloin. But the real news is what's good about the Tenderloin: People working to get new schools, the arts… The stories are in the solutions, not, the problems.”

Yet underneath the budget cuts and the change in editorial policy lies a more complicated morality play about the stress of success and the peril of accepting grant money, all set in the shifting sands of Tenderloin politics. What’s more, there is the question of what makes a good community newspaper—one that is about the community, and brilliants so—or one that is from the community? (Bert would definitely agree with the latter: “Having a forum gives you the wherewithal to produce,” he says at the writers meeting.)

The Tenderloin Times literally sprang from the basement loins (and mimeograph machine).of Hospitality House in 1977. Started by several shelter residents, the then two-page newsletter began with a promise: "To publish news that directly affects the residents of this area.” Meanwhile, it emphasized its autonomy from its funder, Hospitality House. From the start, the Times worked in an activist tradition. “The Tenderloin Times was part and parcel of the late '70s and early '80s community organizing movement," says Rob Waters, who edited the paper from 1982 to 1987.

The '80s were good years for getting grants, too. By 1984, the paper's budget had 'grown to $50,000. Before the decade was out it would be six times that: “There was always an attempt to be self-sufficient (from grants),” remembers Waters, but it was never in the cards. The Tenderloin is not affluent enough to support an investigative paper.” Because it seemed that the grant money would never run dry, hustling for ads was not a priority.

News was. Waters, and later editor Sara Colm, focused their energies on building a base of investigative and community reporting. Longtime investigative journalist Raul Ramirez, now news director at KQED radio (temporarily on leave at Harvard), used to volunteer his time to teach reporter’s workshops. “It takes a lot of time and work to develop the skills to be a journalist,” says Ramirez, “but in a neighborhood like the Tenderloin, where you have marginal populations, what it takes is a knowledge of the neighborhood. There was also an element of getting the people in the neighborhood to trust you and an element of getting bureaucrats to give you access to information. You have to establish yourself—which the Tenderloin Times did.

And for a time, the paper rode high. With the funding it received, the Times hired three English-language editors and launched complicated month-long investigations, such as the yearly tally of homeless deaths (which would become a staple in both the local and national media). With donated computers and a large grant, the paper began to publish in Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Lao (which was later dropped). It won numerous awards, including one from the Smithsonian in 1991 for innovative use of computers, and Media Alliance's Meritorious Achievement Award for Community Journalism in 1983. In 1989,the New York Times picked up their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

The vision of the Times’ early editors enabled it to become a voice not only in affairs in the Tenderloin but in city politics as well. “The Tenderloin did well when the Tenderloin Times was doing well,” reflects Leroy Looper, chairman of the Mayor’s Task Force on the Tenderloin and long-time Tenderloin activist.

Tenderloin Times, Vol. 2, No. 2, February 1978
Tenderloin Times, Vol. 8, No. 5, June 1984

But with success came tensions. The Times had become something of a farm team for aspiring journalists from outside the Tenderloin, which in turn alienated some area residents. Mike McDermott, a novice freelance Times writer in 1990 and 1991 remembers: “I interviewed a mother on welfare and she really liked the Times. Then she asked me if I lived there, and when I said 'no' she thought it was strange, hypocritical. Then I felt the same way.”

Some local merchants felt left out too. Although he strongly supported the newspaper as a way to turn the neighborhood into a community, Richard Wilkenson of Albatross Books says, “The only thing that I used to complain about was that I didn’t know that the paper reflected the whole community in that they seemed to highlight the victim. You wouldn’t know that there was a business down here. The first thing people think about in the Tenderloin is the nonprofits, but because I live here I know that that’s only about half the story.”

Meanwhile, both the Tenderloin and San Francisco were changing. With Frank Jordan’s election, the city took a turn to the right, becoming less sympathetic to the homeless. And the paper’s aggressive style wasn’t winning it any friends—some of the investigative reporting was directed at other nonprofits. Robert Tobin explains, “It became really hard to figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. They were changing all the time.”

While Hospitality House didn’t interfere in the day-to-day running of the paper, it exerted some subtle pressure. Bill Kisliuk, a Times reporter from 1989 to 1992, remember that “the way that the House conveyed editorial changes it wanted was by suggesting that the paper should do more community-based reporting rather than throwing its weight around as a media organ that might be read at City Hall.”

It took grants running out, the recession, and Sara Colm’s exit in 1991 (to start the Phnom Penh Post) to really change the paper. “After Sarah left there was sort of a vacuum,” remembers Julie Scheff, an editor at the paper from 1989 to 1993. Aside from cuts in funding and staff, the paper moved four times in 18 months as Hospitality House purchased and upgraded its Turk street facility. The paper tried to make up for the lost grants with advertising, but Hospitality House ended up making up the difference when ad revenues fell short. “How do you sell an average [reader] income of $8,000 to advertisers?” asks Scheff.

The former editor remembers thinking that “the writing was on the wall,” and Hospitality House would soon be forced to choose between supporting the paper and providing primary services like food and shelter to Tenderloin clients. Scheff would resign in September, 1993.

Some of the changes had positive results. Facing competition from Vietnamese language weeklies, the Vietnamese pages began to evolve. “We talked to a lot of people, sounding out what they wanted to read,” remembers Boc Hoai Tran, a Times editor since 1991. The feedback resulted in less news in translation and more columns, letters, and photography from the Vietnamese community. A recent edition featured commentary on Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. “For the first time I have the feeling that we’re really becoming a community newspaper,” says Tran.

But the economic problems did not go away; last December Hospitality House found itself in dire financial straits that forced it to cut 25 staff positions.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches loom large in the Times’ final days. Amidst the money problems, the impending staff cuts and the difficulty of putting together the homeless death count for the December issue, these sandwiches took center stage—almost a symbol of the deeper problems of the paper. The November issue of the Times had run an article which offhandedly slurred a prominent nonprofit, saying it had served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Veterans’ Day. The agency complained, saying they had never served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Tobin wanted the paper to print a retraction. Editor Josh Brandon, who had been with the paper for four years, defended the article by saying the author had “a dozen corroborations.” As the production date neared, Brandon turned in his keys. The paper appeared with no editor on the masthead and two retractions.

The remainder of the staff was laid off on December 15, 1994. Currently, a skeleton crew of three (all Tenderloin residents) are working part-time to keep the paper alive and publishing irregularly. For now they are waiting until July, when the House will get a new budget which may include some more funding. “Come July we may take off again,” says Tran hopefully.

The legacy of the old Times is far from dead. It has spawned at least three new newspapers. And when the smoke cleared, Josh Brandon now realizes, “Resigning was one of the best things for me to do.” He’s currently working to get an investigative paper off the ground in the Haight. Samol Tan, still the Cambodian editor at the Times, has started a bilingual Cambodian monthly, the Reasmey Ankor Newsletter. “Personally I feel really bad about the Times,” he says. ‘But working with the paper is fun and there are lots of opportunities.”

On the streets of the Tenderloin, people are not entirely unhappy with the idea of a “new” Tenderloin Times. “There isn’t anyplace else you’ll get reviewed in Cambodian,” says Richard Livingston of the EXITheatre. A volunteer staff, he speculates, may even do a better job of covering the community than a paid staff. Keith Fowler, a recovering addict and formerly homeless Tenderloin writer who got his start at the paper, says that was deeply hurt by the changes at the paper. “But after a while,” he says, “I realized my life is not gonna fall apart. The Tenderloin Times is still there and life must go on. It could bea change from worse to better.”

In the end it’s unlikely the Times will ever again do what it seemed to do so well: connecting the diverse cultures of the Tenderloin into a community, and giving them a city-wide agenda. In the future the voices are more likely to be personal than collective—what writer Bert sees from his skateboard, for example—rather than reports on the neighborhood and its relationship to the rest of the city. And while we will gain a private and spiritual link to the unheard poets and artists of the neighborhood, we may lose the voices of the dead, those who would flit through our consciousness for one brief second each December when the old Times announced the homeless death count, before disappearing forever.