Joe Donnelly Meets the New Boss, Mike Lacey

Not long ago, while purchasing a ticket for an art-house matinee of The Squid and the Whale (good stuff, by the way), I noticed that the demographically desirable, mildly boho-looking young clerk was reading the L.A. Weekly (all the way out there in Pasadena!). I asked him if he liked that paper. He said he didn’t, and added that things were only going to get worse now that New Times was taking over. “You hear about that?” he asked. Yep, heard something about that. I guess hysteria, like hope, floats. In this case, on the hot air of a desert sirocco blowing out of Phoenix, where the New Times empire started modestly in the wake of Kent State. Back then, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin were a couple of bootstrap kids who were pissed off that the campus police at Arizona State University wouldn’t let them fly the flag at half-mast to honor the dead students. Now, they’re in charge of an 11-paper chain (soon to be 17, barring any unforeseen problems with bean counters), and they still don’t cotton to authority types, or anyone else who’s against them for that matter. Or so the legend grows. By now you probably know that the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have no problems with the merger that will combine the New Times — featuring papers in Phoenix, San Francisco, Miami, Houston and Denver — with Village Voice Media. VVM counts among its six weekly papers the highly successful L.A. Weekly and the alt-weekly granddaddy, The Village Voice. That’s a whole lotta alterna-juice — 1.8 million combined circulation — headed toward one annual report. The new entity, which will control about a quarter of the alt-weekly marketplace, will still be called Village Voice Media. But its headquarters will be in Phoenix. And everyone from self-appointed defenders of the alt-weekly faith, to box-office jockeys in Pasadena, to people at the affected papers worried about their jobs, wonders what happens now that the biggest hurdle in Lacey and Larkin’s march to domination (or is it just survival?) has been cleared. Perhaps no one who isn’t employed by either VVM or New Times is more worried about what happens next than Bruce Brugmann, publisher of The San Francisco Bay Guardian, the left coast’s seminal alternative weekly. Brugmann and the Bay Guardian broke the story of the pending merger on August 31. Since then, Brugmann has campaigned against the merger, calling it a breach of antitrust laws and a threat to the First Amendment, alternative journalism, jobs, unions, liberal values . . . and, possibly, the three-spine stickleback. He has described New Times’ journalistic aesthetic as “desert libertarianism on the rocks, with sprigs of neocon politics” and claimed that Lacey has a strict no editorials–no endorsement policy that will be enforced throughout the new 17-paper VVM. Since the deal cleared federal regulators the day before Thanksgiving, Brugmann has called on state regulators in California, Ohio and New York, including California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, to take up the case against the merger. He’s tried to enlist other newspapers in his battle with New Times. While he may have honest concerns about how this merger will affect the alternative-weekly landscape, Brugmann’s clearly not just playing protector of the public weal; he’s also guarding his own turf. The Bay Guardian has long been locked in a verbal and legal battle with New Times, having sued the S.F. Weekly over predatory and anticompetitive practices, including allegedly giving away and deeply discounting ads. Throw into the mix Craigslist, which is estimated to take $50 million annually in classified-ad revenues from Bay Area papers alone, and a steady decline in print-news circulation and readership, and you can understand why the future is a battlefield being fought by any means necessary. And to some, Lacey apparently looks like the alternative-weekly world’s Attila the Hun.

Is there reason for widespread panic? Not long after the pending merger was announced in late October, Lacey, executive editor of the New Times, and future executive editor of Village Voice Media, paid his prospective new charges here a visit. Looking more like a retired welterweight-cum-college-professor than the desert-neocon-cum-Beelzebub he’s sometimes portrayed as, Lacey engaged in a long, freewheeling and mostly genteel bull session with several Weekly editors. Maybe he was so relaxed because despite the bleak industry outlook, the L.A. Weekly was having the best year financially in its history. During the meeting, he discussed his background, journalistic values and professional ambitions. Since the DOJ hadn’t yet reviewed the deal, he steered clear of any specific plans for the paper. I don’t think I’m breaching any confidences by stating that at no time during the meeting did bats start flying out of Mr. Lacey’s head, nor was the Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse revealed. Instead, we got a pencil sketch of a man who is obviously passionate about journalism, who presents himself as valuing good stories over political dogma from either end of the spectrum, and who clings to the romantic ideal of journalists as bare-knuckle brawlers sticking up for the average guys who are constantly getting fucked by the powerful. Reached by phone this week after the DOJ and FTC clearance was announced, Lacey was a bit more willing and able to answer questions about what the future might look like under his leadership. When asked if, like an incoming president, he had plans and priorities for his administration’s first 100 days in office, Lacey joked that “normally a president’s first 100 days in office are a grace period, and I’m keenly aware I don’t have such.” He then went on to describe how negotiating the difficult media landscape ahead will be the immediate priority. “I’m going to be managing editorial operations through very challenging times. All you have to do is look at [media blog] Romenesko and it’s a litany of layoffs and buyouts across the industry. We’re suffering the consequences of a Republican administration that has no Republican financial experience,” he said. “The second challenge is trying to determine what magazine journalism looks like in this day and age. There is this enormous debate going on about what is useful. People are confusing capacity with creativity. “Having a million people, all of whom have access to exposure [via the Web], is not the same as journalism.” Asked if this deal is about surviving in a new world of Internet-based “citizen journalists” — to use the jargon of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark — Lacey said, “It’s always about survival.” “That’s nothing new for me, and it’s nothing new for Jim. We didn’t inherit any of this.” How this type of consolidation helps make it easier to compete with bloggers and Craigslist and everything else, though, isn’t clear even to Lacey. “I don’t know necessarily that it does help us with that. We still don’t have a monopoly; we still don’t dictate the price [of advertising]. That’s why Justice approved this. We’re too small as a business,” he said. “Advertisers have a lot of other choices. That’s probably what drives Brugmann nuts. People have a choice about going other places than the Bay Guardian.” The merger, Lacey says, might help the company better compete with Web sites and portals that have national and even global appeal. “I think it opens up possibilities in terms of a national platform with a Web site,” he added, “but that’s speculative. Nobody had been able to make these things that are content-driven as opposed to simply ad-driven work financially. That knowledge base improves every year, and we want to be there and have an opportunity to try and solve that. And journalistically, we think we bring something to the table with all these papers.” As for what they’re bringing to that table, I’m not sure the brief glimpses I got of my new future boss (for now, anyway) while working at New Times Los Angeles for a spell in 2002 shed a lot of light. I was arts editor there for about seven months before jumping over to the L.A. Weekly, unwittingly just ahead of the not-so-DOJ-friendly deal in which Lacey and Larkin closed down the dangerously thin New Times in L.A. In return, VVM packed up its Cleveland Free Times outpost, leaving that small market unmolested for the New Times’ Cleveland Scene. For some reason, VVM also threw in a big pile of cash (at least $8 million) to sweeten the deal for New Times. New Times Los Angeles was a fun place to work, and the largely talented staff took its mission to bite ankles and kneecap bastards seriously. In my few encounters with the man, I didn’t pick up on many of the Darth Lacey caricatures that have been drawn by those fretting that this merger spells the end of alternative journalism. I mean, I couldn’t help but notice during a trip to Phoenix that he does appreciate some fine red wine. I also noticed that if you pitch a story (as I was doing) and you pitch it well, and with passion, he’ll go for it. Even if the topic — in this case, a reclusive but highly influential artist — is not generally his bag. It may be relevant, though, to question why New Times Los Angeles failed. Was it simply overmatched in a market the L.A. Weekly had long dominated, its struggle to get a foothold made even more difficult by the drastic post-9/11 advertising decline? Or were its reflexive dismissals of the L.A. Weekly (the “L.A. Weakly”!) indicative of an ethos that just failed to grasp the local readership? As far as that ethos pertains to an alleged dictate against editorials and endorsements, Lacey said that he’s no fan of them because “generally they reflect the agenda of editors who, rather than inform the community, want to control the community,” but he doesn’t have any such policy. He said editors at New Times papers have made endorsements in the past. “And they weren’t clearing it with me beforehand.” On a more personnel note, there has also been considerable fret among union staff within the L.A. Weekly and The Village Voice about what the new bosses intend to do with existing union contracts. Lacey, who has proudly touted New Times’ compensation and benefits practices, has also been depicted as having no love for organized labor, most recently in a rambling New York magazine article. He says that article was misleading. “My point to the writer in New York was that you have unions come in traditionally when employees are not treated well. “We’ve looked at these union contracts very closely and we don’t see a problem. We can live with this.” Change, as the saying goes, is the only constant. And in their long histories, the L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice and even Village Voice Media Inc. have had many stranger owners with considerably fewer journalistic bona fides than the guys from Phoenix. So, if you like your news, you know, done by reporters and spiced with a healthy dose of skepticism, maybe this whole merger thing makes some good sense in the era of the “citizen journalist.” That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be painful for some, but it might not be the apocalypse for all.

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