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The Village Voice's No-Alternative News: Corporate Takeover

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2005

The nation's two largest alternative newspaper chains plan to announce a merger today, a long-rumored combination that champions of quirky, iconoclastic, locally controlled papers have been sniping at for months.

New Times, the Phoenix-based publisher with 11 newspapers from Miami to San Francisco, is acquiring the Village Voice, the storied New York weekly co-founded by Norman Mailer, and five other papers owned by the Voice.

New Times will export its brand of "desert libertarianism on the rocks, with sprigs of neocon politics," writes Bruce Brugmann, publisher of the rival San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Hogwash, says Michael Lacey, New Times's executive editor, insisting that "individual editors in individual cities determine the content of their papers week to week. . . . I wish there were more conservative writers at the papers. There aren't. There isn't anything imposed about the editorial viewpoint from Phoenix."

Reaction is likely to be chilly among many staffers at the notoriously fractious Voice, where columnist Cynthia Cotts described a 2000 acquisition attempt by New Times as a "hostile takeover" by a company whose media purchases produced a "signature bloodbath."

But David Schneiderman, chief executive of Village Voice Media, says the merger will give his papers a "national platform," particularly on the Web, an operation that he will oversee. While his staff will go through "a period of trepidation," Schneiderman says, "the resources of the combined company will strengthen us editorially." New Times executives, he says, "invest in editorial. This is what they're about. It's quite refreshing."

As for the notion that the fabled counterculture papers of yore are becoming more corporate, Schneiderman says: "The issue is, what's in the newspaper? I would challenge anyone who's critical of this to point to anything in our papers or the New Times papers that's establishment. It's flat-out not true."

Lacey says the merger of assets requires no cash. The 2000 deal had a purchase price of about $150 million, according to a source cited by the New York Times.

The planned acquisition will require Justice Department approval on antitrust grounds, since the combined company would control about 14 percent of the circulation of the major alternative weeklies nationwide. The department has clashed with both companies before. In 2002, New Times agreed to close its Los Angeles paper, which competed with Village Voice Media's L.A. Weekly, in exchange for the Voice shutting down its Cleveland paper, which did battle with New Times's Cleveland Scene.

Justice accused the companies of trying "to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets, thereby guaranteeing each other a monopoly." The firms agreed in a consent decree to notify the department before any merger or shutdown. "We got bad legal advice," Lacey says.

That was not the only allegation of corporate excess; Brugmann's Bay Guardian has sued New Times on charges of predatory practices.

Alternative papers provide an outlet for colorful writing and muckraking local reporting -- as when Portland's Willamette Week revealed last year that former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt had sex with a 14-year-old girl three decades ago and paid $250,000 to hush it up. The 50-year-old Village Voice, which has had such prominent contributors as Jules Feiffer, Jack Newfield and Nat Hentoff, has won three Pulitzers, most recently in 2000 for coverage of AIDS in Africa.


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