Cleveland Free Times Reemerges After Long Absence

Debuts at 112 pages, circulation of 70,000

Additional material was added to this story on Wednesday, May 28 at 8:00 a.m. EDT.

Like a bull charging through a chute, the first alternative newspaper in history to be spawned by an antitrust settlement emerged from a seven-month absence last week with a barely controlled fury. Debuting with a summer-special issue weighing in at 112 pages, the new Cleveland Free Times hit the streets exploding with entrepreneurial energy and vitriol directed at its main competitor, Cleveland Scene.

Editor David Eden says the paper’s average size was about 96 pages before it was closed in October 2002 by Village Voice Media (VVM) in a deal with New Times Media that also shuttered New Times Los Angeles. Following an antitrust investigation, the companies agreed to pay fines and “to aid the opening of new weekly papers” by selling the assets of the two closed alt-weeklies in an auction supervised by Justice Department officials.

Free Times distributed 70,000 stapled-and-trimmed copies at nearly 2,500 locations. Prior to its closure, the paper had a circulation of 90,000. Eden expects the press run to reach that point again in the next month or so.

The paper’s new office in downtown Cleveland is nearly half again as large as its former headquarters, housing 35 employees, including 33 of the 49 former full-time staff.

Eden, who had been editor for six months before Free Times was closed, says the paper will be a “stronger local voice” than it was when VVM owned it, with more writers and editors from the area rather than young j-school graduates who come through the newsroom for a year or so and “move on after they get some good clips.” The paper now has 10 full-time editorial positions, two fewer than it had with VVM, but Eden says they have more part-time writers and freelancers.

The reborn paper fits squarely into an alternative journalism tradition that favors topical coverage of municipal issues with a liberal activist point of view. Editorial content consists of short news items about local institutions and politics mixed with an assortment of columns, entertainment listings and restaurant and arts reviews. One of the new features introduces the African-American voice of Michael Oatman, a “300-pound fly on the wall” who says he loves Cleveland “as only riff-raff can” and claims that “(t)o truly live and love this city, one must roll around in the gutter a bit, imbibe its seediness, and drink from the overflowing rusty metal cup that is our shared legacy.” In his debut column, Oatman manages to find the real person who “still dreams of a normal life” behind Lindy Bush, a 44-year-old, divorced, crack-addict prostitute mother of four who weighs 90 pounds, has “been raped three to five times” and “considers herself a Republican.”

Eden sees a different Cleveland than Oatman does, one that is divided into good guys and bad guys. Included in the former category is State Senator Eric Fingerhut, who hopes to get the Democratic nomination to oppose Sen. George Voinovich in 2004 for one of Ohio’s seats in the U.S. Senate. Free Times’ anonymous gossip columnist, called “The Nose,” claims he “was impressed by how much (Fingerhut’s) colleagues on both side (sic) of the Senate aisle seem to respect and admire … Fingerhut.” According to a Dec. 7, 1994 article in The Plain Dealer, Eden was a full-time volunteer press secretary and senior media advisor to Fingerhut’s congressional campaign.

The black hats include the publisher of the local daily, whom he calls “The Snake,” and Mayor Jane Campbell, dubbed “Queen Jane.” But Eden reserves a special poison for the ink he spills on his competitor, which he calls “Ob-Scene,” and its parent company, the Phoenix-based New Times alternative weekly chain. In an editorial titled “Boycott Scene Magazine,” Eden rages at the New Times-VVM deal that closed Free Times and calls his competitors “sleazeballs and crooks,” “scumbags,” “out-of-town corporate media creeps,” and “cowards and hypocrites who deserve this town’s full contempt.”

“We came back with a real feel-good issue,” Eden says.

Eden also charges that New Times and VVM “signed a Consent Decree with the Justice Department admitting that they violated U.S. antitrust laws.” However, in the settlement the companies signed with the government, neither New Times nor VVM admitted guilt or were charged with a crime.

“The Nose” claims New Times CEO Jim Larkin put “a few hundred people out of work to save (his) ass and (his) personal fortune.” And he calls Larkin’s son Ramon, the publisher of Scene, an “inept … Daddy’s boy … who has embarrassed (the Larkin) family and put (the) business at risk.” According to New Times, when it closed, New Times Los Angeles had 57 full-time equivalents, 28 of whom were offered other positions in the company; 13 ultimately accepted the offer. Forty-nine full-time employees were laid off at Free Times, says Publisher Matt Fabyan.

Eden’s rage may have been ignited last June, four months before Free Times was closed, when Scene delivered some hard shots of its own. In a column titled “Meltdown at Free Times,” Scene Editor Pete Kotz wrote that Free Times’ “tale of relentless strife still makes for the best running sitcom in town.” Kotz also repeated claims by former staffers that Fabyan altered and killed stories to please advertisers, and he chided Eden for “skimpy reporting practices” and “anonymous hit pieces.”

Kotz wrote another column the week Free Times closed. After admitting that it’s “bad form to dance on the grave of another,” he did a fandango, proclaiming, “The Free Times’ death wasn’t unexpected or sudden. It was long, slow suicide.” He charged Eden with turning the paper into “a barking poodle with no house training.”

While Eden uses his space in the debut issue for vituperation, in his own introductory column Publisher Fabyan plants the flag of “local” ownership and dons the mantle of small business: “We are no longer owned by a large media corporation and just another link in a newspaper chain. Now we are locally owned and operated, a paper for Clevelanders produced by Clevelanders.”

Although Eden, Fabyan and “several key management personnel” now own a small fraction of Free Times, along with former VVM President and Cleveland-area native Arthur Howe, the majority owner is Times Publishing Co., of Erie, Pa. Eden, Fabyan and Howe are principals in FT Acquisitions, LLC, the company that was formed to acquire the paper, but the largest investor is Times Publishing, through a separate entity formed with Howe to pursue acquisitions of alternative newsweeklies.

The March 26 press release announcing the acquisition of Free Times failed to mention Times Publishing’s involvement. A week later, after AAN News learned that Times Publishing owned all but a sliver of the paper’s equity, Howe confirmed that the family-owned daily paper company holds a “significant majority” of the ownership. Nevertheless, in the column in which he claims the paper is “locally owned,” Fabyan never mentions the size of Times Publishing’s ownership stake. Instead, claiming to “set the record straight” about “rumors regarding our new ownership,” he portrays himself as a “significant part” of the investor group.

Fabyan declined to provide AAN News with the percentage of the paper owned by Times Publishing.

Eden maintains that the company is merely a “key investor” and not an actual owner of the paper despite its majority stake.

“An owner manages the company; an investor invests,” according to Eden.

Asked whether Times Publishing could remove the owner-managers if they fail to meet revenue and profit goals, Eden says, “Not the way I read it.” He says he and Fabyan drew up the terms of the LLC very carefully “so the rug cannot be pulled out from under us again.”

In an interview last week with the local daily, Fabyan defended Times Publishing’s out-of-town money. “I think it would be difficult for someone to invest in the paper and not be upset when we write something and it adversely affects their business interests,” Fabyan told The Plain Dealer. “It would put us in an awkward position.”

At first blush, the marriage between the low-key Erie company, about which even a Google search reveals very little, and the raucous, slashing Free Times appears to be an odd one.

Founded 115 years ago by John Mead and still owned by his family, Times Publishing’s primary business is the Times-News, the only daily newspaper left in Erie since the company merged the Morning News and Erie Daily Times in October 2000. The paper has around 300 employees and circulates 60,000 copies each weekday and 90,000 on Sunday, according to promotional material produced by the company in 2000. Times Publishing also publishes several suburban editions of the daily, owns a small cable television station in Edinboro, Pa., and has in the past owned other daily and weekly newspapers.

An investment banker with extensive experience in newspaper mergers and acquisitions, who declined to be identified, says a company of that size would be likely to generate about $50 million in annual revenue. By comparison, in 2001, Village Voice Media had gross revenue of $94 million and New Times produced $104 million, according to documents filed in the antitrust settlement.

The industry relationships that brought Fabyan and Howe together are unusual even by the standards of the incestuous, competitive world of alternative newspapers.

Howe started his career in the news business delivering papers for The Plain Dealer and later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and a marketing executive with the Philadelphia Inquirer. He got his first taste of alternative newspapers when, as president of the 30-paper Montgomery Newspaper chain, he bought the Philadelphia City Paper from Bruce Schimmel in 1996. According to a December 2001 Philadelphia Business Journal story, Howe came to Montgomery 10 years earlier after he convinced Philadelphia’s prominent Rock family to join him in buying what was then an 11-newspaper chain of papers based in Fort Washington, Pa. He left the company in October 1999 and announced plans to start a national chain of alternative newspapers. (Howe later sued the Rocks, who still own the City Paper, after they sold Montgomery Newspapers in 2001, claiming he was never paid for his equity stake in the company; the case was settled out of court.)

In 2000, Howe became president of VVM when he secured the financing for the management group that bought the company from Leonard Stern. Free Times was one of the eight papers then held by VVM, which now has six weeklies. Howe left VVM a year later in a management shakeup. Now he has put together yet another deal that creates a company intending to be a player in the alternative newspaper business. In an interview with AAN News last month, Jim Dible, vice president and general manager of Times Publishing, says the Mead family had been looking for ways to grow the company and had a long-term personal and professional association with Howe.

“Art believes passionately in alternative newspapers and is clearly determined to succeed in the business, ” says AAN Executive Director Richard Karpel. Howe also has indicated that it is very important to him that Free Times remain a member of AAN, but under the association’s bylaws that can only happen if the paper didn’t experience a “dissolution” when it was closed in October. With the assistance of legal counsel, that technical issue will be decided by the AAN Board of Directors at its annual convention meeting in Pittsburgh, Karpel says.

Fabyan had been the ad director of Cleveland Scene for many years when New Times bought the arts-and-entertainment weekly in August 1998 and made it into an AAN paper. He soon left Scene for the associate publisher post at VVM’s Free Times, working under Randy Siegel, who took over the paper after his father, Free Times founder Richard Siegel, died in 1993. Fabyan became publisher in 1999 when Siegel, who is now an executive at Parade magazine, left the paper. The Siegel family reproduced the paper’s original Sept. 30, 1992 “mission statement” in a full page ad that ran on page seven of last week’s issue.

Before joining Free Times last year, Eden co-founded an e-mail direct marketing company and worked for several years in public relations and corporate communications, including a stint as a freelance media consultant. Prior to that, he was an editor and film critic at Dallas Times Herald and The Minneapolis Star, a television columnist with the Detroit News, and a national foreign and Sunday magazine editor of The Plain Dealer. In 1997, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood.

After Free Times was closed in October, Eden engaged in a public spat with Lisa Chamberlain, the editor he had replaced at the paper six months earlier. After Chamberlain left Free Times she resumed her position as an aide to liberal U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the former “boy mayor” of Cleveland and a current candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. According to a guest column in the debut issue penned by Cindy Barber, another former editor of Free Times, a phone call from Kucinich’s office to the Justice Department set the antitrust investigation in motion. Kucinich also sent one of the 14 congratulatory letters to the editor published in the paper last week.

Daniel Gray-Kontar, editor and publisher of Urban Dialect, a new glossy monthly that targets Cleveland’s young African-American and Latino audiences, doesn’t consider himself a competitor to the city’s two alternative papers, but he’s watching the battle closely. The former Free Times associate editor says the local advertisers he talks to fall into three distinct groups: those who say they’ll stay with Scene because they’re afraid Free Times won’t survive; those who plan to switch to Free Times to protest New Times’ “arrogance”; and clients who say they’ll split their ad dollars evenly between the two papers.

Gray-Kontar wonders whether two alternative weeklies can survive in a market like Cleveland.

“We’re going to be watching this like a tennis match,” he says.

Ann Hinch, a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this article.