Reaction to the Advocate Sale

Within the Industry, A Wide Range of Opinion About What it Means.

When the history of the alternative newspaper business is written, the date of April 14, 1999, will play a prominent role.

For it was on that date that the Hartford Courant — one of the seven daily papers owned by the Los Angeles-based media conglomerate Times Mirror Corp. — bought the New Mass. Media chain of alternative papers from co-owners Christine Austin and Geoffrey Robinson.

Before it’s consummated, the sale of the Hartford, Valley and New Haven Advocate s and the Fairfield County Weekly/Westchester County Weekly must be approved by federal regulators. Also, a recently filed lawsuit seeking to block the deal poses a problem.

But that hasn’t stopped Advocate insiders and other industry observers from discussing the acquisition, and speculating about what it means.

To measure the temper of that discussion, AAN News recently interviewed several people about the deal.

Folio Weekly Publisher Sam Taylor says the announcement shouldn’t come as a shock. After all, he says, Times Mirror isn’t the first company to get into the alternative newspaper consolidation act.

“There are no surprises here,” says Taylor from his office in Jacksonville, FL. “[The Advocate/Weekly sale means] the trend continues where we have alternative papers being bought by chains — either alternative ones or big daily-owning companies….

“I think the real question is: What response should [people at alternatives] have? Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to say a company that owns dailies can’t run an alternative paper.”

Not surprisingly, New Mass. Media co-owner Robinson, who founded the company in 1973, agrees with Taylor’s assessment.

“Daily [newspaper publishing] companies are not all the same,” he says. “For people to look at them as this one monolithic enemy is just bullshit. Anyone who puts the [the Journal Register Company’s] New Haven Register — which isn’t even a newspaper, but a crime against humanity — in the same ballpark as the Courant is insane.”

He continues: “The fact of the matter is the Courant has a long tradition of real solid journalism. Hell, just two days ago they got another Pulitzer [Prize]. I think the people at the Courant understand the unique role of all [the Advocate/Weekly papers] in the New England market. They know they’re something to be preserved — not something to be folded into the Thursday weekend section.”

Courant Publisher and CEO Marty Petty says her company won’t eliminate the Advocate’s editorial edge.

“We believe the alternative press can play an important role in keeping all media, including the Courant, on its toes,” she told the New York Times when the sale was announced.

Despite her assurances, many are skeptical.

“There’s really no way of telling how this is going to play out in the long run,” says New Haven Advocate Editor Josh Mamis. “Even with their best intentions, the long-term questions include such … considerations [as]: Who do they hire if an editor leaves? Do they bring in a Courant/Times Mirror person? Does the company evolve over time to be something other than what it is today? That’s my concern globally. Personally, I simply never thought I’d be cashing a Times-anything paycheck, and I feel more than a little funny about it. But what else can you do but have a wait-and-see attitude?”

Hartford Advocate Publisher Fran Zankowski adds: “We’ve been very assertive in our concerns about the dilution of our paper. We’ve heard from them that we’ll continue to be autonomous and independent, but they’re going to have to prove it…. We’re absolutely going to fight the good fight. We need to prove to everyone we’re not the ‘Junior Courant.'”

The Courant’s acquisition also raises uncomfortable economic issues. Many say the sale gives Times Mirror an anti-competitive edge in Hartford and Fairfield County, where the company already owns two daily papers.

“What’s going on here is fairly simple,” says San Francisco Bay Guardian Founder and Publisher Bruce B. Brugmann. “There’s a chain daily who knows it can’t get the young audience, the progressive audience…. so, they figure, ‘Let’s just buy it.’

“There is nothing good about this in any way, shape or form. It’s a stake planted in the heart of the alternative press.”

Although Nashville Scene Publisher and AAN President Albie Del Favero “is a firm believer that a daily newspaper company can run an alternative paper,” he’s “distressed” about what the deal means for advertisers.

“By taking two primary competitors in Hartford and joining them,” he says, “the question I have is: What does this mean for competition? The potential is there for the Courant and the Advocate to keep jacking up their ad rates, to drive rates up in [Hartford’s print] market.”

For his part, Robinson views the local connection as a plus.

“When we were looking for a buyer, a big overarching qualifier was to see if there was someone local,” he says. “The Courant was the most qualified and it was who I wanted to be in control. Yes, it’s owned by Times Mirror, but the people running it eat, sleep and drink Connecticut.”

The five papers, which today are profitable, says Robinson, generated revenue last year of around $14 million. Although he won’t discuss the financial terms of the Courant deal, Robinson asserts, “It was not a matter of going with the highest bidder.”

Not everyone is buying it.

Some employees interviewed for this story describe a gray mood inside the offices of the Advocate/Weekly papers in recent weeks. People are uncertain about their jobs and the company’s future, they say. Others are just pissed.

“Robinson? What a jerk,” says one staffer. “I don’t believe him when he says he sold to the Courant because it’s local. He was greedy and I think he’s using the local buyer angle as cover.”

Says another: “There’s been all the antitrust talk and now there’s a lawsuit — to me, at least, it shows they didn’t think this through. They must have gone with the highest bidder because, if you think about it, we’re worth more to the Courant than anyone else.”

The same staffer says selling to the Courant also shows there was little regard for the papers’ employees.

“Why didn’t he sell to somebody else? Anyone rather than the daily in our backyard,” the worker says. “And what about the employees? I don’t think they ever thought about us when they were negotiating with the Times Mirror people. We don’t know what’s next. We’re all in limbo.”

Of course, what comes next is the $64 million question. Nevertheless, at least one thing is certain, according to PitchWeekly Publisher Hal Brody. As alternative papers have grown and become more profitable, he says, idealism has taken a back seat to the bottom line.

“As someone looking to sell some day, it’s good to know the papers are attracting more and more buyers,” says Brody. “I’m like a lot of publishers who started in this business a long time ago and are starting to think about getting out. When it comes to that, the capitalist system takes over.”

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