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

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.

Despite their liberal, anti-establishment pedigree, alternative weeklies such as New Times and Village Voice long ago became big business. They are free and stuffed with music and arts coverage, they rake in piles of cash from entertainment ads and personal classifieds. Village Voice Media is owned by a consortium of investment banks that beat out New Times five years ago.

"Perfectly good journalism is commercially viable," Lacey says. "You have to give them well-written, well-reported stories. We don't need focus groups. We knew damn well that good stories sell, not people doing raving opinion pieces about how outraged they are. Blogs have made it completely unnecessary to have alternative newspapers fulfilling that role."

No cash will change hands because the deal is structured as a merger, with New Times getting 62 percent of the equity (plus a 5-4 edge on the company's board) and Village Voice 38 percent. Jim Larkin, the chief executive of New Times, says the negotiations took 15 months and that the only job cuts he envisions are on the corporate staff. "Village Voice makes money," he says. "These are both plump companies."

Lacey founded Phoenix New Times with Larkin in 1970, when he was a college dropout who had to give blood to make ends meet. He says the chain -- which also owns papers in Houston, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis and Kansas City -- boosts the budgets of the weeklies it acquires, though he would not rule out job cuts at the Voice papers in an effort to boost profit margins.

New Times has won a slew of journalism awards. Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for the Boston Phoenix, wrote recently that the company is "known for being non-ideological." But Lacey concedes that the planned takeover will produce a "culture clash" at the Voice, "because people will resent someone coming in from the outside. It's always very disturbing." What's more, New Times is a non-union shop, while the Voice and L.A. Weekly have noisy unions.

In terms of sheer feistiness, the papers may not be that far apart. A Voice writer recently slammed President Bush's "cluster of neocons and religious nuts and military industrialists," adding: "We need to investigate Wampumgate, Kazakhgate, the oil-for-slush scandal, Plamegate, and all the rest -- we need to do it for the sake of our own democracy."

Phoenix New Times, meanwhile, was calling the Maricopa County sheriff "a modern-day J. Edgar Hoover . . . without the penchant for women's underwear" and accusing local media outlets of the journalistic equivalent of sexually servicing him.

To skeptics, a large company that serves both the 1.1 million readers of New Times and the 800,000 of Village Voice Media -- which also has papers in Seattle, Minneapolis, Orange County and Nashville -- is a giant step toward the corporatization of the alternative news world. But Lacey argues that "media concentration at our end of the business is a good thing because it allows us to compete effectively," and says he hopes to restore the Voice "to its glory days."

That may or may not happen. But the bastion of Greenwich Village liberalism was once owned by Rupert Murdoch for six years. "The joke was we were Poland and Murdoch was Russia," says Schneiderman, a 27-year Voice veteran. "The only question was when he would invade."

Miller Fights Back

Judith Miller is officially in a war of words with Bill Keller.

Responding to a Friday memo in which the New York Times editor accused her of misleading the paper and Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman about her role in the Valerie Plame leak case, Miller told the Times that Keller's criticism was "seriously inaccurate. . . . I certainly never meant to mislead Phil, nor did I mislead him."

Miller said she was unaware of "a deliberate, concerted disinformation campaign" against Plame's husband when she discussed the matter two years ago with vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. "As for your reference to my 'entanglement' with Mr. Libby," she told Keller, "I had no personal, social, or other relationship with him except as a source."

Maureen Dowd, meanwhile, became the first Times columnist to slam Miller in print, saying she had engaged in "deception," that she accepted "bogus stories" from then-Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, and that it does not seem "credible" that Miller doesn't remember which source told her about the woman whose name she recorded as Valerie Flame. Dowd also questioned "whether her stint in the Alexandria jail was in part a career rehabilitation project" and said the Times would be in "danger" if Miller returns to the newsroom.

The headline: "Woman of Mass Destruction."

Media Morsels

Nada Behziz, a reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, quoted a 10-year-old girl for a piece on teenage smoking -- and the quote happened to be a verbatim reproduction of what a 4-year-old girl had said in a study on smoking. Editor Mike Jenner, saying he is "embarrassed," fired Behziz after learning that four paragraphs were lifted from a decade-old San Francisco Examiner piece, and that the existence of two named sources could not be verified. Behziz insists this was merely unintentional "sloppy journalism."

Sinclair Broadcasting is still going after Jonathan Leiberman, the former Washington bureau chief who quit last year to protest the company's plan to air a documentary on an anti-John Kerry film. Sinclair, according to the Maryland Daily Record, has sued Leiberman for violating his contract by talking about the company's internal affairs.

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