Fear and loathing have littered the recent pages of alternative weeklies over news of a possible media merger–of alt-weeklies. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported details of a possible merger between the two largest chains in the alternative weekly world, New Times and Village Voice Media.

Ever since, pages have been rustling with the news, in Seattle’s The Stranger and the Boston Phoenix, but especially in the Bay Guardian‘s New Times-owned competitor, SF Weekly. In a 4,000-word screed published last week, New Times executive editor Michael Lacey lambasted Bay Guardian publisher Bruce Brugman, calling him “bull-goose looney,” a “needy ferret” and other colorful things. Brugman has called on the Justice Department to block the potential merger and criticized the SF Weekly for making an exclusive advertising deal with Clear Channel that will deprive the Bay Guardian of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Lacey calls Brugman “paranoid” and replies to the latter criticism by saying that “Brugman’s ethics are as convenient as any whore’s.” On the matter of the merger, however, Lacey said only that the report miscounted the number of papers such a chain would own–17, not 18. He neither confirmed nor denied the rest, citing confidentiality agreements.

Lacey and Brugman are famous for these epistolary throw-downs. They’re like an old, married couple on an episode of Cops. But beyond their personal battle is a serious question about the future of alternative weeklies in a constantly merging, bottom-line driven media industry.

New Times and Village Voice are hardly the only chains in the alt-weekly world, but they are the biggest. The new company would make up 14 percent of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a trade organization of which the Independent is a member. Chain ownership can bring more resources, more benefits for employees and security for strugging papers. But chains can also impose centralized out-of-town management, layoffs and a whole new set of expectations.

There are three big reasons this merger is scaring people.

First, according to the draft merger agreement obtained by the Bay Guardian, a nine-member board would control the new company, and four of those members would be investment bankers and venture capitalists. Five members would come from New Times, four from VVM, and each company would appoint its investors. (For more details, see the Bay Guardian report at www.sfbg.com/Extra/ntvvm.html.)

Second, national advertising money would change direction in a way that could hurt alt-weeklies across the country, including this one. The Alternative Weekly Network (AWN) places national ads in 110 weeklies across the country. The Village Voice and its papers are members of AWN, bringing to the table the key markets of New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. But New Times has its own competing national ad group, Ruxton, which sells to 28 papers. If VVM takes up with Ruxton, all those other weeklies will lose serious pull with national advertisers.

Third, the imminent flip. According to the Bay Guardian report, the deal is structured to allow a sale of the mighty 17-paper chain within five years. Who might want to buy it? Maybe Viacom, which owns dozens of TV and radio stations, book publishers, film studios and cable networks, including MTV. Or perhaps Gannett, the notoriously bottom line-driven newspaper chain that publishes USA Today. Gannett has experimented with its own weekly newspapers, derisively known in the alternative weekly world as “faux alts” for their lack of political edge and progressive values.

News of this merger plan triggers a deeper fear that the seemingly inevitable trend toward consolidation has taken hold in alternative media. The VVM-owned Seattle Weekly articulated that fear best in an editorial following the Bay Guardian‘s report: “About the only thing standing in the way of consolidated corporate ownership of what once were quaintly known as ‘alternative’ weeklies are egos.”

Only a year and a half ago, the same companies colluded to create mutually beneficial monopolies. New Times shut down its paper in Los Angeles, which competed with VVM’s LA Weekly, and VVM closed its Cleveland weekly, which competed against New Times’ Cleveland Scene. The Justice Department filed an anti-trust complaint that the chains settled by agreeing to sell the two papers’ assets to qualified buyers and notify the government before embarking on any merger. But few think the Bush administration’s Justice Department is likely to stand in the way.

It would be an odd coupling. The Village Voice was founded in 1955 and is the first alternative weekly paper in the country. It has a long, hallowed tradition of hell-raising politics and gay-rights advocacy. New Times, founded in Phoenix in 1970, prides itself on award-winning reporting and long-format, narrative journalism, but it does not embrace the notion of advocacy journalism that many see as the hallmark of alt-weekly newspapers. Its papers do not make political endorsements or run editorials, nor did they take an official stance against the war in Iraq, as the Voice did. “Though many of the nation’s alternative weeklies continue to be known for their agenda-driven approach to news, New Times has prospered by remaining true to a different vision,” says a statement on its Web site. Executive Editor Lacey has expressed that vision this way: “If it is political, we are against it, meaning that we are skeptical of political movements and politicians.”

But will getting rid of political advocacy really be better for business?

The Bay Guardian‘s tenacious coverage is fueled by a bitter legal battle with the SF Weekly and the East Bay Express of Berkeley, also owned by New Times, which the Bay Guardian says engage in predatory pricing. Yet New Times’ Bay Area papers and its Cleveland Scene are losing a combined total of $4 million a year, and the merger agreement notes that these papers might be cut loose.

In their carefully worded editorial, Seattle Weekly editors Roger Downey and Chuck Taylor summed up their reaction: “Should you care if the nation’s two biggest urban-weekly chains merge? That depends on how you feel about Seattle Weekly. Papers in the Village Voice chain have operated with a great deal of independence, while New Times papers are to varying degrees aggressively centralized in editorial approach and lean business practices.” Downey and Taylor extend concern to their competitor, too. “In Seattle, aggressive tactics by a merged company controlled by New Times could be trouble for The Stranger, the smaller, locally controlled weekly here.”

The Stranger responded in an article by news editor Josh Feit that the Weekly is the paper in trouble. As the Weekly has changed hands, Feit says, The Stranger‘s page count went up while the Weekly‘s went down. “When New Times takes over a paper,” he adds, “it typically cleans house–firing staffers wholesale, imposing a cookie-cutter design, and taking away staffers’ editorial autonomy. And its cantankerous Libertarian political posture is diametrically opposed to that of predictably liberal alt-weeklies like Seattle Weekly.”

The crusading spirit of alt-weeklies might be alive and well after all. But now that blogs have grabbed the torch of liberal muckracking, what do readers expect from us?

I asked Independent Weekly board president Steve Schewel, who founded the paper in 1983 as a small outlet devoted to covering state politics and civil rights issues, how the Indy fits in. “The alternative press, when we first got into it, was really a movement and not an industry,” he says. “When those of us who started papers 20 or 30 years ago started those papers, it never occurred to us that we were part of a publishing industry.”

But as those papers became financially successful, especially in major cities, ownership turned over and the mission began to change. “The second generation of owners began to view these papers in large measure as businesses,” Schewel says. “If we don’t make a profit with these papers, then we can’t survive. So I’m not against the papers making a profit. But being part of a movement is very different from being part of an industry whose most important objective is to maximize the bottom line.”

But wait–didn’t the Indy buy out the Spectator a couple of years ago? “It’s absolutely true that we bought another newspaper and closed the doors,” Schewel says. “The reason we did it was economic necessity–there was only going to be one of us that made it in this market.” What’s unusual is that the independently owned weekly bought its chain-owned competitor. Spectator was owned by the Atlanta-based Creative Loafing, which owns eponymous papers there and in Charlotte and Tampa. “In that sense it was very unusual and it did represent a victory of independent media over chain ownership,” Schewel says. “But it was absolutely true that we did shut down another voice, and that was a loss to the community. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Schewel says he’s worried that a New Times-Village Voice merger would lead to the loss of still more voices. “I don’t think it’s sinister. It’s not a plot,” Schewel says. “It’s certain people doing business together. But it does concern me over the long term what this will mean for the homogenization of the alternative press.” The irony of his own criticism, he says, is that both companies are known for exceptional journalism. “These papers by and large are among the very best papers that we have in the alternative press. They do represent a kind of irreverent, challenging, investigative brand of journalism that they share with us and other alternative newsweeklies.”

Still, he says, “You can do lots of good reporting without making the kinds of choices about stories, without doing endorsements, without taking the kinds of stands on issues that the alternative press is known for at its best. I worry that in the long run, significant ownership of these papers by banks and venture capitalists is going to mean the loss of their political and journalistic edge.”

New Times papers (11)

  • Phoenix New Times
  • Westword, Denver
  • SF Weekly
  • East Bay Express
  • Houston Press
  • Dallas Observer
  • New Times Broward/Palm Beach
  • New Times Miami
  • The Pitch, Kansas City
  • River Front Times, St. Louis
  • Cleveland Scene

    Village Voice Media papers (6)

  • Village Voice
  • Seattle Weekly
  • LA Weekly
  • OC Weekly
  • Nashville Scene
  • City Pages, Minneapolis