Start the Presses

With a little help from the government, a newspaper that was shut down in a notorious deal has returned from the dead. The Cleveland Free Times, a feisty but financially challenged alternative weekly, will resume publication in May.

The paper had been killed off six months ago, when the nation’s two largest chains of alternative newspapers agreed to end their head-to-head competition. The New Times chain closed its paper in Los Angeles, and Village Voice Media (which owns the L.A. Weekly) shuttered Free Times.

The arrangement immediately attracted state and federal regulators, because antitrust laws forbid companies from colluding to divide markets and eliminate competition. Rather than contest a civil lawsuit, the two chains opted to settle in January, paying nearly a million dollars in fines. The feds also required both chains to make the assets of the closed papers available for sale. These assets, including the names of the papers, had questionable value, but in Cleveland the formula has apparently fueled genuine competition.

The new Free Times will offer readers a familiar, popular label and even a familiar product, given that the former publisher, the former editor in chief and many former writers will return as staff. The paper “will pick up where we left off before we were closed,” said publisher Matt Fabyan in a release. His ownership group includes Arthur Howe, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who once was president of Village Voice Media.

Of course, there’s one ingredient that Fabyan might have to change. On the last round, Free Times was losingä money, according to Village Voice Media CEO David Schneiderman. So was the competing Cleveland Scene (owned by New Times) — which is why the two chains consummated their deal in the first place. Cleveland “was really a one-paper market in terms of profitability,” said Schneiderman in a January interview. “One of us had to go.”

Schneiderman as well as New Times execs declined comment this week. But Free Times editor in chief David Eden flatly denies that Free Times was losing money when it was “illegally closed,” as he put it. As for New Times, “their worst nightmare scenario was that Matt Fabyan would resurrect Free Times and the deal would be worthless,” said Eden. “We were the number-one paper and we expect to be the number-one paper again very soon.”

The antitrust settlement explicitly gives advertisers a window to dissolve New Times/Cleveland Scene advertising contracts. “We want all former Free Times advertisers, and all Scene advertisers, to now know that they are free and clear to advertise again in the Free Times,” said publisher Fabyan.

Making a go of it would defy conventional wisdom, but for the moment at least, fans of the alternative press can cheer for a David in its tilt against the Goliath of the two dominant chains. “I am hoping the new Cleveland Free Times will show the way and become a model for the critical new front in the alternative press: the rise of the entrepreneurial paper, willing and able to fight the competitive battle of the independent versus the chain,” said Bruce B. Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, in a widely distributed e-mail. Brugmann’s paper is not part of a chain. “I raise my martini glass . . . to the spirit and the good health of the new Cleveland Free Times.”


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