Alt-weekly veterans try for repeat success
Steve May and his wife Cherry Fisher May are picking a fight where other publishers might fear to tread, readying themselves for head-to-head competition with corporate powerhouse Gannett Co., Inc.
The arena is Lafayette, La., a metro area of about 386,000 people in the heart of the state’s Cajun Country. Gannett owns Lafayette’s daily newspaper, The Daily Advertiser, and, in an unusual twist, its 23-year-old weekly, The Times of Acadiana.
The Mays used to own The Times, and their anger over what it has become is fueling their launch of a competing alternative newsweekly, which they have pointedly named The Independent.
“Gannett has destroyed The Times,” Steve May says. “These guys are Sears managers who have a one- size-fits-all approach to local publishing.”
To pave the way for the new weekly, the Mays and longtime partner Odie Terry in June purchased Lifestyle Lafayette, a free monthly with circulation of 22,000. They’ve shuttered the monthly –- its last issue hit stands in July –- but they plan to use its advertising base to start The Independent, which will publish its first issue on Friday (Aug. 15) and then publish weekly on Wednesdays starting Sept. 17.
“We don’t have to do this,” says Cherry Fisher May, who will act as co-publisher with her husband. “We want to do this. I’m 49, Steve’s 54. We’re young enough to have a repeat performance.”
The First Time Around
The couple will likely fund their new paper with more than a shoestring budget. The Mays have never disclosed what they received when they sold the Times in 1998 to The Thomson Corp., but news reports at the time put the price at $14.9 million for The Times and two zoned want-ad newspapers called The Quik Quarters.
At the time of the sale, Thomson, a Canadian-based company, owned The Daily Advertiser. Thomson’s corporate strategy was to pursue regional dominance –- critics called them monopolies — wherever possible. Bringing the weekly paper into its stable, even at a high price, increased Thomson’s dominance of the print market in Lafayette.
Or at least it did until Thomson decided to get out of the daily newspaper business altogether. Less than two years after buying The Times, Thomson said it would abandon newspapers in order to focus on its more lucrative proprietary database business. The company put all but one of its newspapers on the auction block.
That’s when Gannett entered the picture. In June 2000, Gannett announced it would buy 21 daily newspapers in five states from Thomson, for a purchase price of $1.125 billion. In the press release announcing the deal, Gannett didn’t mention The Times, though it did say that “numerous weeklies and niche publications” were part of the deal.
The Times seemed to lose its spark to “homogenization” under the management of daily newspapers, says Dr. Robert Buckman, a journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. And there didn’t seem to be much difference whether the corporate parent was Thomson or Gannett.
“I don’t think it was ever a good situation having The Times owned by the Advertiser,” Buckman says.
The daily-weekly alliance stood in sharp contrast to the glory days of The Times of Acadiana. In 1985, the paper burst onto the national radar by reporting the case of Gilbert Gauthe, a Catholic priest who was arrested and eventually served 10 years for molesting children. The case is now considered to be the first of a wave that washed over the church, culminating in the resignation last year of Boston’s archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law. The New York Times recently credited The Times of Acadiana as one of the first newspapers to cover the sex abuse scandals.
Today, people in Lafayette still recall the controversy, Buckman says, especially how The Times reported the story long before The Daily Advertiser did. For a time, the daily newspaper ignored the story to avoid upsetting its readers in the predominantly Catholic community, Buckman says.
“That was definitely the Advertiser’s low point,” he adds. “That would never happen under the current leadership.”
Corporate managers from outside the area who arrived at the Advertiser since the mid ‘80s have helped improved the daily’s content, Buckman says.
During the Gauthe case, the daily newspaper urged on a punishing advertiser boycott of The Times, Steve May says. The competition against the daily, then owned by Thomson, was so difficult then that it made the idea of competing with Gannett today seem doable, he says.
“There is nothing that Gannett has ever done to anybody that Thomson didn’t do to us,” May claims. “They left no stone unturned in their effort to destroy us. We’re very well-versed in that and prepared for that kind of battle.”
Criticism from AAN peers
More than 10 years after Gilbert Gauthe went to jail, the Mays sold The Times to its daily rival. The deciding factors were the high price Thomson offered and personal concerns, including a 2-year- old child and a sick parent, Cherry May says.
Since then, the Mays have lived in Pensacola, Fla., and managed a variety of business interests, including an Atlanta sports and fitness magazine. A two-year noncompete agreement for the Lafayette market expired in 2000, but the sale of the fitness magazine in April made the time seem right to return to Lafayette, she says.
The Mays say The Independent will rely on the formula that did so well for The Times –- hardnosed political reporting, intensely local business reporting, and sophisticated lifestyle and entertainment coverage that includes the occasional fashion spread. It was an unusual mix for a unique city –- Lafayette has close ties to the Gulf of Mexico’s oil-and-gas industry, its Cajun and Zydeco bands outnumber punk rocks outfits, and sophisticated married couples have as much or more cultural clout as club- hopping singles.
The Times’ content mix drew criticism in its day from colleagues in the industry, who said the Times was “not alternative enough,” the Mays say.
“We used to take tremendous grief at the AAN convention on our swimsuit issue,” says Cherry May. “But (The Times) was alternative in the sense of our positions on the issues, on the environment, on civil rights, on women’s rights, on gay rights, on our responsibilities as citizens of the planet.”
Her husband dismisses outside critics more derisively.
“They have no clue, because they’ve not been here and they don’t understand what the real issues are,” he says.
The Mays recruited Jeff Gremillion, a former Times writer who has worked for Media Week and Entertainment Weekly in New York, to return to Lafayette as editor.
Gremillion says The Independent will do its own thing and mine a broad mix of content like the old Times did.
“We don’t have a teeny, tiny niche,” he says. “We have a big role –- it crosses age and demographics.”
Gannett, meanwhile, has been working on a revamp of The Times that staff members say has been in the works before news of The Independent became public.
Ted Power, the publisher of The Daily Advertiser and The Times of Acadiana, signals little worry about The Independent’s launch.
“The First Amendment is an outstanding thing. Whenever there are more voices in the community, the better it is for the community,” he says.
Power arrived in Lafayette in December after working at Gannett’s The Tennessean in Nashville since 1979.
Earlier this year, Power combined the newsroom staffs of the Times and The Daily Advertiser after Hurricane Lili damaged the separate offices of the Times last year.
The newsrooms will continue to work together, according to Power.
“We publish four publications in this market, and we have a large number of employees who are available to help us in a variety ways,” he says.
Nationwide, Gannett hasn’t turned a blind eye to alternative newsweeklies. In two markets where it owns daily newspapers –- Lansing, Mich., and Boise, Idaho –- Gannett last year launched weeklies that go head-to-head against alternative counterparts.
Berl Schwartz, editor and publisher of the two-year- old Lansing City Pulse, has been competing with Gannett’s weekly Noise since October, when Noise started with a major billboard and television marketing campaign.
The fight has been tough, Schwartz says.
“I think they’re finding out what we’re charging, and then they’re charging significantly less,” he says. “If you get into that price cutting thing, they can sustain it longer than we can.
“I cannot imagine that they’re making money on this thing.”
Despite the competition, City Pulse is meeting its financial goals for now, Schwartz says.
Boise Weekly Editor Bingo Barnes says Gannett’s Thrive has slowed the growth of his paper, which Barnes and his wife Sally Barnes purchased in August 2001. Thrive entices daily newspaper advertisers into the weekly by offering deep discounts, and it’s locked in exclusive distribution spots through marketing deals, Barnes says.
“However, in some cases there have been reader backlashes for our clients who have put ads in their product,” Barnes claims via email. “We believe this is because we have made it quite clear to our readers that this is not just an attack on us as a business — to steal our growing market share — but it’s an attack on freedom of speech and the right of small, independent publishers to exist in a fair market.”
“We’ve made an effort to educate our readers and the community, but there is a fine line between educating and whining,” Barnes adds.
At the Web site for The Independent, the new weekly is already taking its shots against The Daily Advertiser and The Times. The site’s homepage is a cartoon showing two readers holding copies of “Daily Twaddle” and “Weekly Twaddle.” “Look,” says one reader, “they spelled Boudreaux with three m’s.”
That suspicion of outsiders in Lafayette is very real, says Ron Gomez, a former Lafayette radio station owner who’s observed the Lafayette publishing scene for decades.
“Practically everyone who has tried to come in and start a cookie-cutter business invariably has failed,” he says. “I don’t know if it goes back to the Acadian or Cajun culture. They carry a lot of independence with them. And the oil and gas people –- they’re gamblers basically, and very independent.”
Of the Mays venture, he says, “I’m excited about it. I think we need an independent voice.”
Angie Drobnic Holan is a freelance writer and a news researcher at The Tampa Tribune. She is a former writer for AAN-member Weekly Alibi, and she worked for a year in 1999 as a reporter at The Daily Advertiser, when it was owned by Thomson.