Lawsuit Filed to Block Advocate Sale

Advertiser, Reader Claim Acquisition by Hartford Courant Would Cause Damage.

A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Hartford on Wednesday to prevent the Hartford Courant from acquiring New Mass. Media, the company that publishes the Advocate*Weekly chain of alternative papers.

The 12-page complaint claims that the deal, which was announced last week, violates federal anti-trust law.

One of the plaintiffs is Mitchell Auto Group Inc., a company that advertises in both the Courant and New Mass. Media’s Hartford Advocate. According to the suit, Mitchell claims the acquisition would give the Courant unchecked power to jack up ad rates: “Mitchell fears that if the announced merger [takes place] the elimination of competition between these newspapers will result in raising the advertising rates for the Hartford Advocate and thus in causing financial damage to Mitchell Auto Group.”

The other plaintiff, Hartford citizen Alyssa S. Peterson, charges the ownership change will hurt the Advocate editorially.

“The Advocate is willing to print a lot of things that the Courant is not,” Peterson told the Courant. “They’ll bitch about the mayor. The Courant, under the title of ‘journalistic integrity,’ will not. It’s an alternative voice that’s necessary.”

The suit describes Peterson’s argument this way: “[Plaintiff Peterson reads both papers]… [and their editorial contents] reflect the separate and competing ownerships of the two newspapers…. [Plaintiff alleges that if sale is completed] the competitive nature of the local news and editorial material provided by the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Advocate will be diminished if not destroyed. Hence the quality of the product she receives as a reader of both newspapers will be lessened to her damage.”

Courant spokesperson Kathy Andrews declined comment. New Mass. Media co-owners Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin could not be reached.

The plaintiffs are represented by Stephen R. Barnett, a Hartford native who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley law school and specializes in newspaper anti-trust law, and David Beizer, an attorney at the Hartford law firm, Beizer & Weintraub.

The argument that media consolidation is detrimental to competition is hardly an original concept in anti-trust law, says Beizer. However, he also says the assertion “that the deal means the quelling or squashing of an alternative and often dissenting voice” is novel.

Adds his co-counsel Barnett: “In the nature of things, the news and opinion produced by two competing companies is superior to having just one…. Ordinarily, anti-trust law looks only at prices, not the quality of the product. It’s an unusual argument, but a solid one because eliminating competition does effect the quality of the product.”

The Hartford Advocate is well-known for criticizing the daily, whose parent company is the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company. When the deal was announced, Courant Publisher Marty Petty pledged continued editorial autonomy for the Advocate.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys don’t buy it.

“I have yet to see [an acquisition] where the merging entity isn’t subjugated to [the buyer’s] uniform philosophy,” Beizer says. “No way is the Courant going to admit this strong critic into its family and allow it to continue its criticism.”

The sale of the Advocate and the four other papers that make up New Mass. Media’s newsweekly chain is far from a done deal. In addition to the lawsuit, the acquisition is being scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.

Connecticut state officials are also reviewing the matter. Connecticut Attorney General Dick Blumenthal says his office is working in conjunction with federal officials. He would not say when the review would be completed.

The lawsuit has no bearing on what state and federal regulators decide, says Blumenthal, who adds, “[But] we will certainly be monitoring what happens [with the lawsuit].”