Culture war

Last year’s New Times–Village Voice media merger pitted two kinds of journalism against each other. Guess who won?
By ADAM REILLY  |  March 2, 2007

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One media outlet swallows another, jobs are lost and egos bruised, and allegations of bad faith fly. It’s a classic pattern — and it’s played out with unusual piquancy since last year’s merger of New Times, the Phoenix-based chain of alternative weeklies, with New York–based Village Voice Media.

Thus far, the New Times–Village Voice union hasn’t garnered the same level of attention as the Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times-Mirror in 2000 or the New York Times Company’s 1993 purchase of the Boston Globe, two other deals that have generated plenty of ill feeling. (Among other things, the financial scale is smaller: the Tribune paid a whopping $8.3 billion for the Times Mirror, but the joint value of the New Times–Village Voice love child is reportedly a mere $400 million.) But the alt-weeklies merger has led to the spewing of just as much vitriol. One year on, the Village Voice Media name remains, but the Voice and its sister papers — LA Weekly, OC Weekly, Seattle Weekly, City Pages in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the Nashville Scene — are being aggressively recast in the New Times mold.

It’s no surprise that the ex–New Times brass who now lead VVM — including CEO Jim Larkin and, as executive editor, the famously irascible Mike Lacey — want the Voice and its fellow papers to conform to their standardized, apolitical, SunBelt–baked vision of what alternative journalism should be. What is striking, though, is how quickly and decisively defenders of the old left-leaning, decentralized VVM ethos have been routed. The battle just began — and it’s already over.

RIP
The roster of casualties since VVM’s reinvention includes some of alternative journalism’s biggest names. Start with the Voice itself, which already boasts an array of post-merger firings (Robert Christgau, founder of the paper’s Pazz & Jop poll; music editor Chuck Eddy; Washington, DC, correspondent James Ridgeway) and resignations (media columnist Syd Schanberg; investigative reporter and 2001 Livingston Award winner Jennifer Gonnerman). The LA Weekly ditched columnist-at-large Harold Meyerson, news editor Alan Mittelstaedt, and co-managing editor Tim Ericson. Will Swaim, who founded OC Weekly and served as its publisher and editor, quit that paper earlier this year, followed by political columnist Rebecca Schoenkopf. In Seattle, editor-in-chief Knute Berger, managing editor Chuck Taylor, columnist Geov Parrish, and investigative reporter Philip Dawdy (among others) all walked away from the Weekly. And in Minneapolis, Steve Perry — who helped the paper win a storied battle with the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader — quit as editor; staff writer Britt Robson also resigned; and music columnist Jim Walsh got the axe. (The Nashville Scene, meanwhile, has been strikingly tranquil; more on that later.)

Why would anyone abandon a good job in today’s media market, especially if they don’t have anything else lined up? For starters, consider the case of City Pages. Perry, the recently departed editor, declined comment for this story. But Britt Robson spoke with the Phoenix at length about his decision to quit.

The big catalysts, Robson said, were Perry’s departure and the hiring of Kevin Hoffman as his replacement. Since Robson considers Perry a good friend, he might have balked at whoever took over as editor. But Hoffman — a 30-year-old who’d been managing editor of Cleveland Scene, one of the old New Times papers, and who had no previous knowledge of the Twin Cities — was the worst kind of successor. “Somebody in Denver hired somebody in Cleveland to run a paper in Minneapolis,” Robson says. “That says everything about their attitude toward local control and idiosyncrasy.”

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Man and machine
When LAObserved.com speculated that Mike Lacey was keeping LA Weekly editor Laurie Ochoa around only because she’s married to star restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, Lacey offered this retort: “Frankly, this is the sort of conspiratorial brilliance I’d expect from someone pushing a shopping cart loaded with all their worldly possessions.”

Sensitive he ain’t, but say this for Lacey: he’s been a very shrewd newspaperman. The company formerly known as New Times started in 1970 as an alternative student paper at Arizona State University; the Arizona Times subsequently became Phoenix New Times. In 1983, the acquisition of Denver’s Westword marked the start of an aggressive nationwide expansion: after picking up papers in Miami (1987), Dallas (1991), Houston (1993), Los Angeles (1996), and several other markets in subsequent years, New Times owned eleven alt-weeklies heading into the 2006 merger with Village Voice Media. Now Lacey’s chain boasts 17 papers nationwide, and reaches up to a quarter of the nation’s alt-weekly readers. Pretty heady stuff for the son of a construction worker from Binghamton, New York.

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