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Return of New Times

The chain that owns this newspaper, Village Voice Media, is merging with New Times Media. The new company will become the largest chain of metro weeklies in the country, with 17 newspapers and $400 million in assets. New Times will take over editorial control of the Weekly when the Department of Justice approves the merger in the weeks or months to come.

Like everyone else at the Weekly, I suspect this will mean a lot of changes for the paper you’re holding in your hands. I don’t know what they are. Nor their intensity or character. But in pondering this merger, some realities have been overlooked in the past week of coverage. Most of the discussion has been hand wringing over the future of “alternative journalism.”

That concern comes laughably late. “Alternative journalism,” at least as defined by the nostalgic vision of a lot of laid-back folks in earth shoes and turtlenecks working happily and lovingly late into the night to put out some eccentric tabloid full of futon ads and wandering narratives, died a long time ago. At least, if we are talking about publications with any real significance. The truly successful metro weeklies, the L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice, the Phoenix New Times and the Boston Phoenix, have been corporate-run, multimillion-dollar entities for some time.

Has that crimped their original creativity? No doubt, in some ways. But the corporatization and professionalization of these same weeklies mean that their writers and editors can earn real-world salaries, providing the means to do some pretty damn good journalism.

I don’t know a single editorial employee of these outfits who longs for the good old days when they got paid $50 an article, if anything. Indeed, I am always amused when someone I know says he or she is shocked to learn that people who write for the Weekly actually can be paid well (note that the Weekly pays about the same fee — and sometimes more — for a cover story as does the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine). Similarly, the New Times chain pays salaries that are competitive with midsize daily newspapers. Reporters and writers in both chains are paid dignified salaries with good benefits and, for the most part, don’t drive to work in dilapidated V-dubs with flower-power decals.

The group that holds both the L.A. Weekly and The Village Voice is not some blue-haired collective of hipsters who stay up at night worrying about the integrity of journalism. The Weekly’s current owners are a privately held corporation whose principals include a heavy presence from Goldman Sachs and various investment funds. The ownership group leaves almost all questions regarding editorial matters to CEO David Schneiderman, a former publisher and editor of The Village Voice who previously worked as a New York Times editor. The internal culture of the paper is fairly benign and enlightened as corporations go, but nevertheless corporate (yes, we even have H.R. managers).

Some worry that this merger, like most corporate marriages, will inevitably lead to some downsizing. I think that’s true. But our sister Village Voice was downsized a full decade ago by the current ownership. Where have you been? The venerable Voice, founded 50 years ago by Norman Mailer, which used to be sold in kiosks alongside The New York Times, was put on the street as a free-circulation publication. Soft, feature coverage was increased and pushed up to the front of the book. Editorial staff was cut. News coverage — especially expensive national and international reporting — was rolled way back. In the eyes of some, this was a disaster. Others thought The Voice came out of it all the more agile and readable. But the world didn’t come to an end.

The Voice/L.A. Weekly papers are stolidly liberal-lefty and continue to keep a finger or two dipped into some nebulous conception of a counterculture. Our cultural coverage is ample. The L.A. Weekly, more than The Voice, continues to put a lot of its resources into state, national and even international reporting. Sometimes the results provide excellent coverage that beats the mainstream media. Other times our pages are marred by a whiny, self-indulgent politics of victimization. Some people like that. I hate it.

The New Times chain, by contrast, takes pleasure in poking fun at P.C. liberalism and by refusing to take partisan stands, fancying itself as a group of libertarian lone-shooters. Sometimes the results are refreshingly unpredictable, hard-hitting exposés of politicians both conservative and liberal. Other times the product is sophomoric and snarky, lacking in any serious analysis. Local coverage by some New Times publications has admirably driven targeted pols to drink. On the other hand, the Los Angeles New Times (which closed a couple of years ago) thought its readership couldn’t or wouldn’t focus on politics beyond the city limits, and that was plainly mistaken. The editorial drift of that paper also sometimes flirted with the suggestion that the L.A. Times and City Hall were part of some great multicultural, left-wing conspiracy — something the local readership knew to be an out-to-lunch concept.

The future success of the L.A. Weekly, under New Times corporate management, will depend to a great degree on what lessons were assimilated by the latter’s short-lived experience as a Los Angeles publisher (the Los Angeles New Times published from 1996 to 2002). The readers of the Weekly are mostly a liberal, cosmopolitan audience, deeply concerned about politics at every level — from Commerce to Kurdistan. They also demand robust and critical coverage of the arts — at least of the movies and local music. Their tastes and expectations cannot be written off after a quarter-century of picking up the Weekly every Thursday and anticipating a certain sort of paper.

One of the more entertaining aspects of working for an institution like the Weekly is to see how often the readers sense some sort of betrayal, some creeping sign of impurity. Take a certain kind of corporate advertising — like tobacco ads — and you’re a sellout. Fire an unproductive worker to increase efficiency and you’re “going corporate” — even though we went corporate a long time ago. What none of these critics ever can come up with, however, is some other way for their beloved, “alternative” paper to finance itself, pay its rent and staff, and face up to the competition. There is often some unreal expectation that in a fiercely competitive and radically shifting marketplace, these papers should be managed as if they were some sort of Tibetan healing circle. Get real, folks. These are businesses. For their journalism to succeed and to be widely read, they need to be successful businesses.

The same political left, always ready to criticize these papers for selling out, has created no consortium of liberal foundations that I’m aware of that has come to a publication like the Weekly or The Voice and said: “Here is a $50 million endowment. Stop taking ads from tobacco companies and outcall masseurs, stop chipping away at the union contract, and live on this endowment instead.” In any case, be aware that to run one of these big-city weeklies, you need to find $5 million or $10 million per year. From where should that come?

The Internet, and its more liberal-friendly grassroots manifestations, has seriously harmed the advertising environment that traditionally supported the weeklies. Craigslist, alone, has cost various weekly newspapers — including this one — millions of dollars in lost revenue. Online entertainment listings seriously compete with the calendar guides that are the backbones of weekly papers. And powerful mainstream dailies have started their own weeklies in several cities (and if you read the Thursday L.A. Times, you know some of them are quite well-done).

The management of both VVM and New Times has decided its future economic prosperity resides in the acquisition of lucrative national corporate advertising. And for that end, management concludes, it will be in a stronger position if it consolidates. That doesn’t have a very pretty or romantic ring to it, does it? It’s not something that gets me up early and fills me with inspiration. But I’m curious to know what, if you will excuse the term, are the alternatives?

In the end, what is at stake here is not the future of alternative journalism. I have no idea, in any case, what is meant by that term. I’m more concerned to know if there are going to continue to be any open venues where excellent, edgy, independent and powerful journalism will be supported and promoted. During the span of my professional life, it has been increasingly difficult to secure that space. The Times talks about shorter, more celebrity-driven stories. Former documentarians from ABC and CBS now scrounge for work on low-budget cable reality shows. The journalism industry has become ever more hostile to journalism. At the level of metro weeklies, I imagine it will be even more difficult in the short- and medium-term future. With or without this merger.


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