MetroBEAT, Battered, Stops the Presses

To outsiders, this month’s closing of MetroBEAT — the Greenville, S.C., alt-weekly — must have seemed sudden. There wasn’t a farewell issue or ceremonious departure, just a simple letter on the paper’s Web site penned by editor James Shannon stating that the print edition of the paper had been suspended.

For insiders, however, the demise of the paper had played out over months, if not years. The end finally came on Friday, April 8, when owner Debby Eason decided to put the print publication to rest. She had spent the previous few days making phone calls to prospective buyers.

“I made one final call to each of them and said, ‘If you ever want this market, you better do it now because Gannett [which owns both a daily and faux-alt in Greenville] will never let you in,'” she recounts. The calls were unfruitful. And with the prospects looking grim, Eason decided that it was time to give up. “It just got to where I just couldn’t keep it going and know that I would get my money back.” Eason says that she was more interested in keeping the paper alive than reaping profit from its sale.

The paper’s assets — what little there were — were packed and moved into storage. On Monday, April 11, she held a final meeting with the paper’s staff, which had dwindled to four full-time employees. “There was no furniture there, so some sat on the floor and the rest of them stood. It was a very short meeting, but we got done what we needed to get done. It was just a very sad time for all of us. I just hated it because I had put so much money in it hoping someone would continue it,” she says.

Why did it happen? The easy answer would be to say that the paper was squeezed out of the market by Link, a faux alt published by Gannett — which also owns the area’s flagship daily, The Greenville News. Indeed, a little more than a week before Gannett launched Link in February 2004, MetroBEAT’s cover story, written by Shannon and titled “David versus Gannett,” relayed the story of how the media behemoth uses unfair tactics to strong-arm competition.

Including excerpts from Richard McCord’s 1996 book “The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire,” the article was, perhaps, a mild attempt to one-up the new weekly and maintain MetroBEAT’s viability. But the conclusion that a single corporate entity is solely responsible for the fall of MetroBEAT is false. The truth is far more complex.

“It had less to do with Link than it [did] with other factors,” says Chris Haire, who served as MetroBEAT editor from February 2000 until July 2004.

To fully understand MetroBEAT’s collapse, one needs to know a bit about the paper’s history. In 2001, Eason bought Creative Loafing-Greenville from Creative Loafing, Inc. — a company she founded but was no longer involved with at the time. Renamed MetroBEAT, the paper was accepted into AAN in 2002. In 2003, it was honored with two Alt-Weekly Awards — for illustration and political commentary — a rare feat for a paper in its first year of membership. The following year, it received awards from AAN for cover design and food writing.

By then, however, Haire says things had already reached a point of uncertainty. “There was a lot of turmoil that just never went away,” he says. In the wake of 9/11, local advertising revenue had decreased markedly as businesses in Greenville and the surrounding area shut down or scaled back promotions. “The dollars just dried up,” says Haire.

Eason had put the paper on the market in the fall of 2003 after realizing that she wouldn’t be able to give it the financial support it needed. “I just didn’t have the ability to sustain it,” she says.

What’s more, many members of the full-time staff, including the distribution manager, left the paper and weren’t replaced. Responsibilities were passed to part-time employees and stacked atop the heavy workloads of the remaining full-timers. “Those are the kind of practical realities that make it hard to generalize and make a sort of shorthand [assessment of what happened] …I think it was just a perfect storm of circumstances,” says Shannon.

Attempts to revitalize the paper, such as a redesign and tinkering with editorial content, didn’t pay off in the long run. And, of course, 2004 rolled around and Gannett launched its faux alt. “Once Link came out … that was the final straw,” says Haire, “The paper was on its way out.”

Link’s competitive tactics were heavy-handed, says Clinta Carmichael, MetroBEAT’s publisher. (Carmichael headed MetroBEAT until March 2004, when Brooks Cloud took over as publisher and she was named associate publisher. Carmichael step back in as publisher when Cloud left the paper later that year.) She claims that the Gannett-backed faux alt undercut MetroBEAT’s advertising prices and pushed the alt-weekly out of certain retail outlets by locking them up with exclusive distribution agreements. “It wasn’t a level playing field. With a daily newspaper it’s never going to be a level playing field. They have all the money they could ever hope to have,” she says.

Carmichael still believes that with the right financial backing, the paper could have survived the competition. “I honestly still believe confidently that if Debby had been able to stick it out and find an owner that was willing to stick it out and have the monetary wherewithal to support us, we still could have thrived,” she says. Strangely, through all its turmoil, MetroBEAT readership remained unwavering, even inching up slightly according to the most recent Media Audit report, says Carmichael.

Perhaps with this in mind, Shannon has acquired the MetroBEAT Web site, where he plans to continue publishing online. Shannon has already published several stories on the Web since the discontinuation of the paper’s print edition, and has been working with some of its former freelance writers. “There were a number of contributors to the paper who responded to the news that the print version had shut down by saying that they wanted to continue to provide content,” he says.

Shannon is unsure of how much success the Web site will have, but he’s encouraged by the traffic the site continues to generate. And he thinks that Greenville is still in need of what MetroBEAT provided. “You play a role in the life of the community and it doesn’t mean that you play the dominant role, but it’s certainly another voice.”

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.