Pennsylvania Newspaper Family Invests in Cleveland Free Times

Actively looking for other alt-weekly properties

A new company headed by former Village Voice Media President Art Howe and funded by the Mead newspaper family of Erie, Pa., is the majority investor in the group planning to bring the Cleveland Free Times back into print next month.

Former Free Times Publisher Matt Fabyan is CEO of FT Acquisitions LLC, which purchased the name and assets of the shuttered VVM newspaper late last month. Kildysart, LLC, a holding company formed by Times Publishing Co., whose main media property is the Erie Times-News, a 60,000-circulation daily (90,000 Sunday), is the significant majority shareholder in FT Acquisitions, CEO Howe says. Times Publishing also owns a small cable television station in Edinboro, Pa., and has in the past owned other newspapers, including community weeklies.

Jim Dible, vice president and general manager of Times Publishing, says the Mead family, which has owned the Erie daily since 1888, had been looking for ways to grow the company and had a long-term personal and professional association with Howe. Howe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, worked his way up from delivering papers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a boy, and later was head of the group that owned Philadelphia City Paper.

“We thought that with his knowledge and us being a newspaper company, we could go together to grow our company,” Dible said.

“The Mead family is perhaps the most respected publishing family in Pennsylvania,” Howe said. “They understand our industry, they understand the editorial side of our business and understand that alternative papers have to be truly free.”

Kildysart, named after the Irish town where the Mead family originated, is actively pursuing other purchases of alternative newsweekly properties, “but I’m not at liberty to tell you where,” Dible said. “It’s less likely we’d go far afield initially,” he said.

Initially, Fabyan and the other investors, including David Eden, who will again be editor in chief of Free Times, planned to start a new publication after Free Times was closed by VVM as part of a controversial deal with New Times. When the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating that deal, which also closed New Times Los Angeles, Fabyan decided to wait for developments.

As part of a consent decree, VVM and New Times agreed “to aid the opening of new weekly papers” in Los Angeles and Cleveland by selling assets from the defunct papers, “including the rights to the names.”

Once that agreement was made public, Fabyan “put it in high gear.” There was some “back and forth” with other bidders for the Cleveland Free Times name and assets, which included computers, servers, scanners, street boxes and other such tangible equipment, Fabyan said. Ultimately the government chose the successful bidder based not only on the amount of the bid, but also on whether it believed they could successfully operate the paper, he said. The purchase price was not disclosed.

“The government was looking for people who really understood the business and had a lot of experience,” Fabyan said.

“All of us feel that Matt Fabyan and his team are extraordinary professionals, the best I’ve ever worked with,” Howe said. The ownership arrangement, which includes various classes of stock and ownership, makes the key management team “significant partners” in the newspaper, Howe said. “They stand to benefit greatly from the economic growth of the paper.”

Thirty-five of the 49 employees laid off when the Free Times shut down are expected to return to their jobs, but Fabyan says the new Free Times will run leaner, doing more with a smaller staff. Unlike the VVM model of producing “big, powerful papers,” Free Times will concentrate more tightly on local coverage.

Eden says readers can expect to see the paper “as they remembered it” but cautioned it will not be exactly the same. He wants to focus more on local politics and news and expand arts and music coverage in the latter half of 2003.

Fabyan said he wants the paper back on the street in May and that he will probably make a decision on office location in the next week.

“Everywhere I go, people are pretty anxious to see the paper again,” said Fabyan, promising a few surprises and new columns. “Really, the paper that we had when we closed was the one we’d built and the one that we loved.”

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

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