One media outlet swallows another, jobs are lost and egos bruised, and allegations of bad faith fly. It’s a classic pattern — and it’s played out with unusual piquancy since last year’s merger of New Times, the Phoenix-based chain of alternative weeklies, with New York–based Village Voice Media.
Thus far, the New Times–Village Voice union hasn’t garnered the same level of attention as the Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times-Mirror in 2000 or the New York Times Company’s 1993 purchase of the Boston Globe, two other deals that have generated plenty of ill feeling. (Among other things, the financial scale is smaller: the Tribune paid a whopping $8.3 billion for the Times Mirror, but the joint value of the New Times–Village Voice love child is reportedly a mere $400 million.) But the alt-weeklies merger has led to the spewing of just as much vitriol. One year on, the Village Voice Media name remains, but the Voice and its sister papers — LA Weekly, OC Weekly, Seattle Weekly, City Pages in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the Nashville Scene — are being aggressively recast in the New Times mold.
It’s no surprise that the ex–New Times brass who now lead VVM — including CEO Jim Larkin and, as executive editor, the famously irascible Mike Lacey — want the Voice and its fellow papers to conform to their standardized, apolitical, SunBelt–baked vision of what alternative journalism should be. What is striking, though, is how quickly and decisively defenders of the old left-leaning, decentralized VVM ethos have been routed. The battle just began — and it’s already over.
The roster of casualties since VVM’s reinvention includes some of alternative journalism’s biggest names. Start with the Voice itself, which already boasts an array of post-merger firings (Robert Christgau, founder of the paper’s Pazz & Jop poll; music editor Chuck Eddy; Washington, DC, correspondent James Ridgeway) and resignations (media columnist Syd Schanberg; investigative reporter and 2001 Livingston Award winner Jennifer Gonnerman). The LA Weekly ditched columnist-at-large Harold Meyerson, news editor Alan Mittelstaedt, and co-managing editor Tim Ericson. Will Swaim, who founded OC Weekly and served as its publisher and editor, quit that paper earlier this year, followed by political columnist Rebecca Schoenkopf. In Seattle, editor-in-chief Knute Berger, managing editor Chuck Taylor, columnist Geov Parrish, and investigative reporter Philip Dawdy (among others) all walked away from the Weekly. And in Minneapolis, Steve Perry — who helped the paper win a storied battle with the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader — quit as editor; staff writer Britt Robson also resigned; and music columnist Jim Walsh got the axe. (The Nashville Scene, meanwhile, has been strikingly tranquil; more on that later.)
Why would anyone abandon a good job in today’s media market, especially if they don’t have anything else lined up? For starters, consider the case of City Pages. Perry, the recently departed editor, declined comment for this story. But Britt Robson spoke with the Phoenix at length about his decision to quit.
The big catalysts, Robson said, were Perry’s departure and the hiring of Kevin Hoffman as his replacement. Since Robson considers Perry a good friend, he might have balked at whoever took over as editor. But Hoffman — a 30-year-old who’d been managing editor of Cleveland Scene, one of the old New Times papers, and who had no previous knowledge of the Twin Cities — was the worst kind of successor. “Somebody in Denver hired somebody in Cleveland to run a paper in Minneapolis,” Robson says. “That says everything about their attitude toward local control and idiosyncrasy.”
Not that he dislikes Hoffman personally, Robson quickly adds: “He’s 30 years old, he’s leaping at a chance for a nice promotion — I certainly don’t begrudge him this.” Even so, he continues, “Practically everyone on our staff has more experience at City Pages than he had at his paper in Cleveland, and is older than he is. And to a person, no one was consulted about Steve’s replacement — they just announced it. It’s very clear that the intent was to repudiate what we were doing. To see it any other way, I think, is being naive.” (Asked about his lack of local knowledge, Hoffman had this to say: “My wife and I love the Twin Cities, and we plan on being here long-term. . . . You move into a place, you do your best to respect local customs, you learn as much as you can as quickly as you can, and you make yourself an asset to the community. And I’m blessed here to have a strong, veteran staff that’s been doing good journalism in the Twin Cities for quite a few years now.”)
But that’s just part of the story. Robson also left because he became convinced the New Times mindset would guide the new VVM, and that City Pages would suffer as a result. When Andy Van De Voorde, VVM’s executive associate editor, introduced Hoffman to his new employees, Robson recalls, “he did it by saying, ‘This guy was kicking our ass for the competition, so we figured it was a good idea to hire him to go kick other people’s asses.’ That’s emblematic of how they do things. It’s this kind of cheapskate-tough-guy swagger.”