"One side just said 'we'll yield'"
Call it a merger, call it a sale, call it another tale of two weeklies in a tough market pared down to one.
Independent Weekly and the Spectator, two longtime competitors based in different corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, plan to merge into one paper to be known as the Independent.
The result will be a larger paper with the strongest features of both as well as local ownership and leadership, said Steve Schewel, president of Carolina Independent Publications, Inc., which owns Durham-based Independent Weekly. His company is acquiring the non-AAN Raleigh-based Spectator from Creative Loafing Inc., the Tampa-based group that owns AAN weeklies in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Tampa, Fla., and Sarasota, Fla.
The companies disclosed no financial terms of the transaction. Adam Abram of Omega Management Inc. represented Independent Weekly in the negotiations.
“We’re thrilled to be acquiring the Spectator after nearly two decades of toe-to-toe competition,” said Schewel.
Schewel and Spectator Publisher Neil Skene had held informal talks about the possibility of a sale for several years, the last occurring at the 2001 AAN convention in New Orleans. Until this year, both sides had stood firm on their desire to remain in the market.
“This time, we each pressed a little harder and looked for resolution,” said Skene. “One side just said ‘we’ll yield,’ and it was us.”
“One of us ultimately had to give in to create a single financially successful paper, and we yielded to local ownership,” said Ben Eason, CEO of Creative Loafing Inc.
Skene said the money from the sale will enable Creative Loafing to beef up its other papers.
In the past 12 months, similar acquisitions have closed alternative newsweeklies in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y.
The two owners have signed a letter of intent and expect to conclude the merger by October. Both will continue to publish separately until that time.
Eason cautioned that it is always possible something could interfere with the completion of the merger and said the Spectator will compete vigorously and maintain its strong editorial content until the merger is completed.
“Our goal has always been to serve our readers with excellent judgment about arts and entertainment as well as politics in the Triangle and to serve our advertisers by taking their message to our more sophisticated, intelligent readership. We will keep doing that to the last day,” he said.
Independent Weekly managers plan to interview any interested Spectator ad reps with the intention of hiring two or three, Schewel said. However, the Independent will not be taking on any of the Spectator’s editorial staff, though they plan to pluck a few of their top freelance critics and columnists.
“We recognize the loyalty of the Spectator’s readers and advertisers, and we’re committed to serving them by making sure that the merged paper includes the best of the Spectator — especially its focus on the Raleigh scene and its tradition of excellent arts and entertainment coverage,” he said.
Schewel says his editorial staff is already large for a small paper and that the paper spends 20 percent of its budget on editorial. That puts it just above the industry average of 19.7 percent, according to the AAN Financial Standards Survey.
As part of CL’s efforts to help place laid-off employees, Skene invites AAN editors and publishers to contact him for information about Spectator staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Both Skene and Schewel concede that the Spectator’s strength has been its coverage of Raleigh’s culture and night life.
“Their strength was A&E, ours is investigative reporting and local politics,” said Independent Weekly Publisher Sioux Watson, who also noted that the Spectator often ran “canned stuff from (former CL headquarters in) Atlanta” rather than local stories. “That being said, they did a good job of finding local columnists and covering Raleigh’s music scene.”
“Each (paper) has a history and readership that’s different.” Skene said. “( Independent Weekly) tends to be heavier on a college academic readership with the Duke and UNC campuses. We’re probably heavier among business people and political people.”
Independent Weekly has always led The Spectator in revenue and circulation, Skene said. Schewel said he plans to start the newly merged Independent at its current circulation of 50,000 and increase it over the next two years.
Most Spectator advertisers will be offered continuing contracts in the surviving Independent if the merger is completed as planned.
“They need to pick up our base on the Raleigh side of the triangle,” said Skene. “We have 75 to 100 advertisers that they don’t have. They’re going to have to pick them up and blend our readers with their readers.”
Among the Spectator advertisers that won’t be picked up by the new Independent are tobacco companies, putting the paper among a handful of other AAN weeklies that don’t accept cigarette advertising, despite its location in the heart of the top tobacco-producing state.
Watson said the Independent plans to ask Spectator readers what features they would like to see carried over into the merged paper.
Schewel noted that Watson, a 19-year veteran of Independent Weekly and the paper’s publisher since 1999, will continue as publisher of the merged weekly. “Sioux will be the perfect ambassador to the Spectator’s readers and advertisers,” he said.
Creative Loafing acquired the Spectator in 1997 from founder R. B. “Bernie” Reeves III. The paper published its first edition in November 1978.
Independent Weekly was founded in 1983 by Schewel and a number of other local citizens. The main office is in Durham with branch offices in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.