Culture war

Last year’s New Times–Village Voice media merger pitted two kinds of journalism against each other. Guess who won?
March 2, 2007 5:45:13 PM


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.

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.”

Not that he dislikes Hoffman personally, Robson quickly adds: “He’s 30 years old, he’s leaping at a chance for a nice promotion — I certainly don’t begrudge him this.” Even so, he continues, “Practically everyone on our staff has more experience at City Pages than he had at his paper in Cleveland, and is older than he is. And to a person, no one was consulted about Steve’s replacement — they just announced it. It’s very clear that the intent was to repudiate what we were doing. To see it any other way, I think, is being naive.” (Asked about his lack of local knowledge, Hoffman had this to say: “My wife and I love the Twin Cities, and we plan on being here long-term. . . . You move into a place, you do your best to respect local customs, you learn as much as you can as quickly as you can, and you make yourself an asset to the community. And I’m blessed here to have a strong, veteran staff that’s been doing good journalism in the Twin Cities for quite a few years now.”)

But that’s just part of the story. Robson also left because he became convinced the New Times mindset would guide the new VVM, and that City Pages would suffer as a result. When Andy Van De Voorde, VVM’s executive associate editor, introduced Hoffman to his new employees, Robson recalls, “he did it by saying, ‘This guy was kicking our ass for the competition, so we figured it was a good idea to hire him to go kick other people’s asses.’ That’s emblematic of how they do things. It’s this kind of cheapskate-tough-guy swagger.”

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A note from a Twin Cities native and Village Voice editor: Kevin Hoffman is the right guy for City Pages. That paper, which I've been reading for 20 years (and for which I worked long ago) needs his kind of energy and verve. Chuck Strouse editor Miami New Times

POSTED BY strouse AT 03/01/07 9:48 AM
With good press like this, it’s no wonder we have so many talented daily newspaper people asking to work for us at VVM. A workload of ten stories in an entire year? And a focus on investigative reporting, rather than pushing some editor’s tired political agenda? And the first thing VVM does, in a city like Nashville, is add full-time, salaried positions rather than rely on an army of unpaid interns? Thanks a lot, Phoenix. Now our pile of resumes will only grow even larger. Tony Ortega, editor New Times Broward-Palm Beach

POSTED BY Tony Ortega AT 03/01/07 10:27 AM
Hey Adam: I have no beef with your story. Looks like you got to a lot of people and did your best to distill a he-said/she-said culture clash. The only thing I thought was off was the "victim" element. I've been with New Times for six years and I run these stories by the pound. (The latest: // I think the difference is we don't try to write essay No. 765,982 on Why Bush Sucks, or Corporations are Bad, or that kind of generic screaming into the wind that's been done so many times before. It's not a political decision. In a way, it's just an aversion to writerly self-importance. The cool thing about the New Times ethic, at least to me, is that it's more respectful of the reader. The whole game is built to engage people -- meaning you have to report, ammo up with a fresh story and a fresh take -- because their time is precious and their allegiance doesn't come easy. You gotta make yourself worthy. I think the old Village Voice method too often put politics above engagement. The stories often seemed to assume that the reader naturally agreed with your viewpoint, naturally agreed that this was an Important Subject, instead of working to convince them of both. It lead to a lot of stuff that should have simply been headlined, "Holy Christ, Look at How Smart I Am." Having sadly spent much of my early career practicing this same kind of journalism, I found that it was great for getting back-slaps from my buddies at the bar, but made virtually no impact on the larger audience. Obviously, there are a lot of personality collisions taking place here. But at the end of the day, it's really just an argument over the best way to keep alt-weeklies thriving in the future. -pete kotz, alleged editor, New Times Empire-Cleveland Bureau

POSTED BY pete kotz AT 03/01/07 2:27 PM
wow nt editors step up for the team. you guys are lame. but andy loves you. see you clowns in portland!

POSTED BY Philip Dawdy AT 03/01/07 3:20 PM
Geez, where do I start? As an on-and-off resident of Arizona, I've been reading the Phoenix New Times for twenty-five years in print and online. Lacey doesn't allow "victim" stories? Give me a break! Just go to the Phoenix New Times' website and do a search for the word "victimized." Victimized by Sheriff "Joke" Arpaio; victimized by John McCain's wife Cindy; victimized by the substandard mental health contractors; victimized by rogue police officers.... you get the picture, I hope. The Phoenix New Times is one of the BEST resources to read the real story behind the Arizona Republic's two paragraph coverage of a famed jazz musician who was homeless and found dead from heat exposure. The New Times there has always kept politicians and fatheads on their toes. And is imitated by the Tribune and the Republic with their tepid weeklies. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I am from originally, the daily newspaper, privately owned, is a 44% investor in a downtown hotel and convention center project. Thus far, they have succeeded in lulling the populace into believing that it was just fine to demolish,save the facade, a former department store that was on the National Register of Historic Places. Lancaster countians have been sold a bill of goods that they "need" a convention center to revive the downtown... never mind the creeping millions and statistically proven present demise of such projects in other towns. Oh how Lancaster could have used a "New Times" before the demolition started. With the only newspaper in town being a major investor in this doomed project, the editor has taken it upon himself to ridicule, in his columns, dissenters and opposers. This same newspaper has five unindicted co-conspirator writers who illegally used the county coroner's password to access sensitive and confidential information at the law enforcement website. The coroner was arrested; the five writers are still working for the paper. If ever a city needed a New Times, it sure does. Some of the best and most needed investigative reporting I've ever read was in the Phoenix New Times. They were the ones who have uncovered so many glitches in the system and laws have been changed because of the things that they've uncovered. About the only negative thing I could say is that they made a big mistake when they stopped the "Worst of Phoenix" annual issue. I mean, where else can you read about a guy who takes his shotgun to a saguaro cactus and it retaliates by falling on the idiot and killing him?

POSTED BY maryis AT 03/02/07 1:37 AM
I'm a noncombatant alt weekly editor (from the Chicago Reader), and I congratulate Reilly for an insightful piece. You can say a lot of things about the NT-VVM guys -- I've said a lot of them myself -- but two things you can't say is that they don't care about the little guy or that they're not committed to good journalism. I think Swaim is right on when he talks about their attachment to process. It can seem extreme, but if you were trying to run 17 papers you might rely a lot on process too.

POSTED BY Mike Lenehan AT 03/02/07 12:02 PM
<a href="//" target="_blank">This</a> is the cover story of this week's Phoenix New Times. Good reporting, and a hell of a story. Will Sawin's comment in this piece is perfect, as is Britt Robson's. These are issues I encountered myself as music editor of the Phoenix paper (though unlike those guys, I completely fell apart and got shown the door). The big issue is that there are any of five people a writer could conceivably call boss -- Mike Lacey, Andy van de Voorde, the editor, the managing editor and the associate editor. Creates a situation where you're never sure who to listen to or who to trust or where stuff is coming from. You also never know where you stand until you get attacked -- and even then, you end up confusing the messeneger with the perpetrator. I guess it comes to whether you got the NT knack or not. If you do, great. If you don't, bye bye. FWIW, I'm attending law school in the fall, and I suppose that'll be only slightly less fucked up. Makes for good preparation. :-)

POSTED BY O'Connor AT 03/02/07 1:13 PM
OC Weekly lost two more this week: managing editor Ellen Griley and staff writer Dave Wielenga. That leaves three news reporters, one in features, the calendar guy, and two editors. What's amazing to me is that the New Times suits can't just come in and be nice. I personally had been planning to stay, and was freaking out trying to figure out how I'd pretty much singlehandedly put out the paper--knowing exactly how many people were eventually gonna get gone--but when I met with New Times, they made it clear they didn't care for my staying. My political column--liberal ranting--is exactly the kind of thing they're often quoted as loathing. It also won this year's Ass'n of Alt. Weeklies award. But even after a quarter of our staff had left, they kept hassling the rest with petty micromanaging and because-we-said-so. I'll steal from one of my correspondents: they're like the president, caring more about swinging their dicks than about any actual success. One last note: I think Adam or an editor misstated the writing quota--it's not to my knowledge 22 pieces a year, but more likely a cover a month plus a story a week. In my eleven years at OC Weekly, I averaged almost 200 pieces a year while also editing. You certainly couldn't call us inefficient.

POSTED BY rebecca AT 03/02/07 1:35 PM
Haven't heard the president analogy before. I always tell people to consult literature on being an adult child of an alcoholic if you want to truly understand the culture of the New Times (and I say that only half-jokingly, as I myself am an ACOA). You believe in Dad, and then Dad stomps on your heart.

POSTED BY O'Connor AT 03/02/07 2:07 PM
I would argue that writing critically and insightfully about the Bush administration hardly makes one "ideological." If not the alternative press, who?

POSTED BY Jen Sorensen AT 03/04/07 7:51 PM

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