New Times Promises Larger Edit Budget for FW Weekly

Staffers guardedly optimistic about the new owners.

FW Weekly, which after reportedly losing money for nearly five years was on the verge of breaking even, has been bought by New Times Inc., owner of the nation’s largest stable of alternative weeklies. With its latest acquisition, New Times now owns 12 AAN-member papers with a combined weekly circulation of 1.15 million.

“I think the sale is the best thing for the staff,” said Robert Camuto, publisher and majority owner of Fort Worth’s only alternative newspaper. “New Times will be able to bring to the table a lot of things the staff has been naturally asking for, from higher pay to better benefits to more resources.”

Staffers, naturally, were a little more circumspect. “They’re making a lot of promises but we’re taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” said contributing editor Betty Brink, who recently penned an award-winning exposÈ about poor medical offered at a local low-security federal women’s prison. “But I feel very confident that we will be able to maintain our independence.”

The sale of FW Weekly is expected to close by September. The price and terms of the sale were not disclosed. However, Camuto did say that reports of the paper’s yearly revenues at $1.2 million were more or less accurate. Based on that figure and the paper’s circulation of 40,000, Larry Grimes, president of the W.B. Grimes and Company, Maryland-based media and acquisitions firm, estimated the sale price between $1.2 and $1.5 million. Camuto would not name the price of the sale but did indicate it was closer to $1.5 million.

Camuto said that while he entertained other feelers, New Times was “the only serious prospect.” Staffers said that they had heard that other interested parties included Village Voice Media, New Times’ only competitor for the mantle of the nation’s largest alternative-newspaper chain, and a local investor group.

“All of us knew it was coming,” said staff writer P.A. Humphrey. “We were kind of relieved when we found out that the buyer was a company that has a history of promoting alternative journalism.”

New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey, who said that the strength of FW Weekly’s editorial content is what precipitated the deal, insists that there are no plans in the works to merge the operations of the paper with the Dallas Observer, which is also owned by the alternative-journalism chain. With the Trinity River flowing between them, Dallas and Fort Worth are only a 45-minute drive apart, but are worlds apart culturally, financially and politically. Said Camuto, “They are two different cities, they are going to have two different newspapers.”

But Grimes suggested that even if the two papers don’t share editorial resources, some blending of operations is likely in order. “Because of the proximity of the two cities, my guess is that a good portion of the bookkeeping, management and production may come out of one office. And some advertising might be shared as well,” he said. (New Times Chairman and CEO Jim Larkin was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.)

For now, New Times is promising only that they’ll increase the paper’s editorial budget. For years staffers have become accustomed to cutting costs, even if that meant, for example, copying only excerpts of a court file.

“It’s always been a borderline struggle, we weren’t getting raises and there were cutbacks,” says Brink.

Hosting a meeting after the deal was announced this Friday, Lacey told nervous staffers he plans to hire at least three more reporters, a full time copy editor and possibly a full-time columnist.

“We’ve beaten the daily with just two writers, if we had five writers we can really kick their butt,” says Humphrey.

And while concerns linger among the staff about life under a chain, one former skeptic spoke highly about his experience with New Times. “My budget is up 50 percent even though the size of the page count has not gone up,” says Riverfront Times Editor Safir Ahmed, whose paper was bought by New Times in November of 1998. “And I have more editorial independence than I can dream of. I can’t remember the last time I talked to Lacey or anyone in corporate about the content of the Riverfront Times.”