It would not quite match the AOL–Time Warner combo or get Viacom executives to break out in a cold sweat. But the much-discussed — and widely anticipated — merger between two dominant but very different alternative-weekly newspaper chains could dramatically reshape the competitive balance of power in that industry.
The possible deal, which has not been confirmed by either party, has been mentioned in various media accounts but reported most aggressively in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It would marry the two biggest chains in the alt-weekly universe — Village Voice Media, with its six papers, and New Times Media with its 11.
The new company would represent almost 14 percent of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ membership and would publish papers in major markets ranging from San Francisco to New York, from Miami to Seattle. And because a merger could put New Times’s national-ad-sales firm — the Ruxton Group — in a dominant position, it could have a significant effect on the revenue stream flowing to alternative papers.
Moreover, in an era in which media conglomeration has run rampant in the mainstream press — creating such bottom-line-oriented corporate giants as Gannett, Knight Ridder, and the Tribune Company — some critics say a Voice–New Times deal would bring the same ills to a culture that has prided itself on its anti-establishment image.
"It’s the Gannett-ization of the alternative press," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and an opponent of media consolidation. "It’s very ironic, but not surprising, given that advertising is the business model. The same kind of forces of media conglomeration and monopolization are reshaping the alternative press."
The most recent news about a potential merger came from a Bay Guardian piece based on what it said was a May 2005 draft of an agreement between Village Voice Media and the New Times. The story reported that the New Times would control five of the nine seats on the board of directors and have 62 percent of the equity in the new operation. It also revealed that the documents mentioned a November closing date for the transaction, but indicated that regulatory issues could delay that.
The Bay Guardian — which competes with the New Times’s SF Weekly and East Bay Express — is not a neutral party. It recently editorialized against a merger arguing, among other things, that it "would move the alternative press industry a giant step closer to the daily newspaper chain model that has effectively eliminated daily competition in American cities." The paper is also suing New Times for predatory pricing practices with its ad sales.
Officials at Village Voice Media declined comment, and New Times executives did not return calls seeking comment on reports of a deal. One Village Voice staffer did say the Bay Guardian story "kind of confirms everything we’ve heard."
The two companies do have a history. New Times was in the running in 2000 when the Voice papers were sold to a team including current CEO David Schneiderman and the venture-capital firm of Weiss, Peck & Greer. A story by Village Voice media critic Cynthia Cotts described New Times’s effort to get control of the Voice at that time as a "hostile takeover."
In 2002, New Times and Village Voice Media struck a deal in which the Voice agreed to shut down its Cleveland paper, which was competing with the New Times’s Cleveland Scene, and New Times agreed to discontinue its Los Angeles paper, which was battling the Voice’s LA Weekly.
An angry US Department of Justice accused the companies of choosing "to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets." And a consent decree now mandates that the parties alert the department before attempting "any merger or joint venture involving ... any of its Alternative Newsweeklies or national advertising networks" for a period of five years.
CREATING A MONSTER
The New Times chain was founded in Phoenix, in 1970, and expanded into an empire that includes papers in Denver, Southern Florida, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Cleveland. Its acquisitive and expansive nature gained the company something of a reputation for corporate arrogance.
The chain, which focuses on strong local and investigative reporting, eschews what it calls an "agenda-driven approach to news." And in an industry that grew up on liberal anti-war politics, it is known for being non-ideological.
"I think they’re committed to uncovering wrongdoing," says Jane Levine, a former publisher and current board member of the independent alt-weekly Chicago Reader. "It is generally accepted that they don’t have a political position. But I think it’s pretty clear that they’re bulldogs about uncovering corporate or governmental malfeasance. That’s alternative. I don’t know whether it’s Republican or Democratic."
San Francisco Bay Guardian editor and publisher Bruce Brugmann, a fierce critic, calls New Times’s editorial philosophy "libertarianism on the rocks with giant stocks of neo-con politics."
Village Voice Media — which publishes papers in Seattle, Los Angeles, Nashville, Minneapolis, and Orange County, California — is home to the most famous name in alternative journalism, the Manhattan-based Village Voice. Founded 50 years ago by a group that included Norman Mailer, the paper has won three Pulitzer Prizes and has been a lion of liberal alternative journalism, covering city, state, and national politics aggressively.
Alex Jones, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and a former New York Times media reporter, believes the Voice has recently lost some of its "huge interest in politics." But, he adds, "it’s certainly a player in terms of culture, particularly in terms of pop culture, art, and music."
The Voice — which is a union shop — has an internal culture that’s famously feisty and fractious. When the company recently announced it was cutting writers’ pay, senior editor Robert Christgau wrote a letter posted on a popular media Web site vowing, "We at the Voice are not taking this lying down." Christgau also noted, "Many believe this is an attempt by management to render the paper more salable."
If such a sale should go through, one big question would concern the fate of the Village Voice.
"I don’t see how you can avoid some radical change," says writer and noted civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, who has been at the Voice since 1958. Noting that the New Times is neither unionized nor "anti-establishment," Hentoff adds: "That is, to understate things, troubling."
Michael Tomasky, executive editor of The American Prospect and a former Voice staffer, hopes that any new owner would "leave it alone. The Voice is the Voice. Rupert Murdoch owned the Voice at one time and Rupert didn’t try to change it politically," he says. "To mess with it would be a shock to the system of the place and to its readers."
Issue Date: September 2 - 8, 2005
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