Ousted C*Ville Editor Starting New Weekly

The Hook scheduled to launch Feb. 7

Early last week it looked as if Hawes Spencer was the only casualty in a brutal power struggle between the three owners of Portico Publications Ltd., the Charlottesville, Va., publisher of AAN paper C*Ville Weekly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.

He was ousted from his editorship of the alt-weekly and removed from the company board by co-owners Bill Chapman and Rob Jiranek Jan. 14., Spencer says.

But Spencer re-emerged with plans to launch another alt-weekly in Charlottesville to be called The Hook and has so far grabbed four staff members from C*Ville, as well as a regular columnist and six freelancers.

Courteney Stuart, associate editor, Lynn Jameson, proofreader, Chris Conklin, art director, and Jen Fariello, photographer, have all moved over to The Hook and will serve in the same roles at the new weekly.

The disruption at the top has clearly been felt throughout C*Ville Weekly, though Chapman, co-owner and publisher, declines to discuss the details of the shakeup.

“We’ve sort of decided that’s a personnel issue we don’t want to talk about,” Chapman says about Spencer’s departure.

Cathy Harding, who worked for C*Ville previously, as well as serving as features editor at AAN-member Isthmus in Madison, Wis., will fill the editor’s vacancy left by Spencer. The remaining vacancies don’t pose a significant problem, Chapman says, indicating that Charlottesville has a talent pool sufficient to fill the remaining editorial and art positi ons.

As far as Spencer’s remaining ownership in Portico, Chapman was still uncertain what would become of it, saying, “We haven’t talked about that.”

Spencer, however, has asked his attorney to sell his share in the company, “because I don’t think they’re ever going to be as valuable again as they are right now,” he says.

Chapman also had no comment about allegations Spencer made in a letter he sent to several people, a letter that Chapman has read and that was also received by AAN.

In the letter, Spencer charges that he was ousted for his refusal to support publishing decisions he didn’t agree with and because he sought help from a mediation firm to settle the problems between him and his partners.

After his attempts at mediation, Spencer says he was offered the option to resign, maintain an amiable parting and receive a $5,000 severance. At 10 percent of the $50,000 salary he drew in 2001, Spencer declined the offer.

“When I was presented with that ‘take $5,000 and shut up and go away’ option, it just wasn’t a very attractive idea,” he says, not just for the money, but also because he was being pushed out of a company he co-founded with Chapman in 1989. C*Ville’s first issue appeared on Sept. 19 of that year.

Chapman moved to New York shortly after the company’s founding, returned four years later and re-purchased his share in the company. At the same time, Rob Jiranek also bought into Portico, creating a three-man ownership and board. From the beginning of the tri-part arrangement it was agreed and written into the company’s bylaws that any decision over hiring, firing or spending more than $5,000 would require agreement from each of the owners, Spencer says.

Spencer says that arrangement was abandoned after his repeated protests about the handling of C*Ville money. According to Spencer, Chapman and Jiranek found a loophole in the original bylaws and rewrote them such that any decision only require d a majority and no longer agreement from all three partners.

“We’ve reorganized the bylaws of this company a couple of times,” Chapman says, insisting they were necessary changes to accommodate the company’s growth. “Neither of those updates was done with the intention of firing anyone.”

C*Ville’s profits were being poured into Blue Ridge Outdoors, another Portico publication started as a special section of C*Ville, Spencer says. BRO has only recently begun to make a profit, he sa ys.

“I got tired of continuing to support it, but more specifically I objected to a transfer of six figures of C*Ville money to expand it (BRO) into North Carolina,” Spencer says. “I asked them to fund that themselves and stop using C*Ville as a bank.”

Spencer adds, “Investing in Blue Ridge Outdoors might be a great idea, but not when someone just forces it on you.”

Within 48 hours of his ousting, Spencer says he received three offers from another publishing company, a television company and some individual investors, respectively; each interested in starting a print publication in Charlottesville.

Working with Blair Kelly, who has launched five real estate publications in the past, and another unnamed investor, Spencer is launching The Hook, a new alt-weekly in Charlottesville that will be on the stands Thursday, Feb. 7, he says. Kelly will serve as publisher of the new paper while the other investor will remain uninvolved in operations. Spencer will also be an owner of the new paper.

“It’s a little eerie; it’s a similar three-owner setup,” he says, but adds that the new company has a more bulletproof structure to require a three-person agreement on decisions.

He anticipates the new co mpany will spend around $200,000 before ad sales begin to catch up with costs.

So far Kelly has hired two ad sales staff, both former C*Ville employees who had left that paper more than a year ago.

On whether two alternative newsweeklie s can survive in Charlottesville, Kelly says, “I think it partly depends on what niche we carve out and the direction we take.”

Former C*Ville art director, and current art director at Cleveland Free Times, Bill Ramsey doesn’t give two alt-weeklies much hope of surviving in Charlottesville, though.

“The daily paper, The Daily Progress, is very small and weak, so people turn to C*Ville and read The New York Times and The Washington Post for news. It is a real monopoly,” he says. “I suppose it’s possible, but not likely, that both would survive. C*Ville has 12 years of history behind it, but Hawes Spencer was co-founder and, like him or not, Hawes was C*Ville.”

Seth Wharton is a freelancer writer in New York City.

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