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Untangling a proposed alternative-weekly mega-merger.

"New Owner for Westword." That was the headline over an October 24 Denver Business Journal item about plans to merge New Times Media, the parent company of this newspaper, with Village Voice Media. And while an argument could be made that the banner wasn't technically wrong, it's certainly misleading, as was much of the coverage this topic has generated to date. A lot of opinions have been spewed nationwide, but precious few of them have truly addressed whether readers of Westword and other affected publications might see substantial changes if the deal is eventually approved -- "might" and "if" being the operative words.

Here are the basics. New Times owns papers that serve its home base of Phoenix plus Denver and nine other cities; the eleven tabloids constitute the country's largest chain of alternative weeklies. VVM, for its part, places second in the alt-weekly sweepstakes, with properties in Seattle, Minneapolis, Nashville and Orange County supplementing its two biggest prizes, the L.A. Weekly, a veritable SoCal institution, and New York City's Village Voice, the original model for papers like Westword. In what probably wasn't a coincidence, the merger announcement was made amid the Voice's fiftieth-anniversary celebration.

The VVM/New Times agreement calls for these papers to be gathered under the Village Voice Media umbrella -- a move that says more about the continuing cachet of the Voice name than it does about who will be in charge. New Times shareholders will control 62 percent of the combined operation, and the company's execs will occupy five of the nine seats on the board of directors, as well as the top slots in the power structure. New Times chief executive officer Jim Larkin and executive editor Michael Lacey get to keep their titles in the new VVM, while current Voice CEO Daniel Schneiderman is set to become president of Village Voice Digital Media. The man chosen to be chief operating officer, meanwhile, is Scott Tobias, currently Westword's publisher as well as president and chief operating officer of New Times.

The Village Voice may become Westword's sister publication.
The Village Voice may become Westword's sister publication.

These facts puncture the Denver Business Journal's claim that Westword will have a "new owner," just as details of the pact, which doesn't call for an exchange of cash, undermine headlines in the New York Times and Business Week that used words like "purchased" and "buys." Still, the term "merger" doesn't truly convey the weirdness of the New Times/VVM relationship over the past decade.

Beginning in the go-go '90s, the two firms battled each other in Cleveland, where New Times' Cleveland Scene took on VVM's Cleveland Free Times, and L.A., where the Weekly faced off against the Los Angeles New Times, a rival built in 1996 from the remnants of the L.A. Reader and the Village View, which New Times purchased and then shuttered. Things got even nastier at decade's end, when the entire VVM chain -- including the flagship Voice, whose owners over the years have included none other than Fox chieftain Rupert Murdoch -- went up for sale. New Times was among the bidders in what Voice columnist Cynthia Cotts depicted in 2000 as an attempted "hostile takeover." Cotts went on to quote an anonymous observer who argued that were the Voice to acquiesce to New Times, it would be like "sleeping with your cousin. It may seem okay, but it's not supposed to happen." Instead, VVM would up in the hands of a group fronted by Schneiderman.

Nevertheless, the VVM/ New Times match went from antagonistic to cozy in 2002, when the companies brokered a truce that turned on the closure of Cleveland's Free Times and L.A.'s New Times. The alt-weekly monopolies created for VVM in Los Angeles and New Times in Cleveland quickly drew scrutiny from the Justice Department, which detected more than a hint of collusion. Neither party admitted guilt in a 2003 consent decree that ended Justice's investigation, but they paid significant fines and agreed to sell the assets of the old papers. (As a result, the Free Times was resurrected under different ownership.) Given that Justice has already called New Times and VVM on the carpet once, the feds are sure to carefully eyeball what journalist John Dicker dubs "a new monolith" that would compete in seventeen major markets.

Dicker's characterization is downright modest compared to descriptions offered by some press commentators. An L.A. Alternative Press offering was titled "New Times = End of Times?" A Los Angeles City Beat cover story declared that New Times had become "almost everything it once despised." And Randy Shaw, who called his piece for Media Alliance "New Times Moves Toward Goal of Killing Progressive Weeklies," portrayed the company's papers as "cookie-cutter product" spotlighting a feature article "that rarely addresses social or economic unfairness. When New Times does touch such topics, it writes cover stories with titles like ŒThe Case Against Rent Control.' New Times owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin are political libertarians whose publications routinely criticize progressives and their institutions."

Such critiques presume that New Times dictates coverage at its papers, but that's certainly not the case at Westword. Not once in more than fifteen years has anyone from Phoenix told me what to write or how to write about it, and I don't know of such an incident happening to colleagues here over that span, either. News decisions are made locally and focus overwhelmingly on local concerns -- and neither "progressives and their institutions" nor anyone else gets a free pass at Westword or the rest of the New Times papers. In a letter about the merger sent to the Poynter.org website, former Phoenix New Times editor Jeremy Voas pointed out that "the so-called progressives in the community are held to the same standards of accountability as the business moguls, the right-wing nuts, the porcine bureaucrats." People with political agendas are likely to view this quality as a negative; others might call it good journalism.

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