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Seattle Weekly Acquired Again

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On Monday, October 24, Phoenix-based New Times Media—an 11-paper chain of alt-weeklies—announced a plan to acquire Village Voice Media, a company that publishes six papers, including the Seattle Weekly. The new company will retain the name Village Voice Media. With papers in 17 cities, and a weekly circulation of 1.8 million papers, the new Village Voice Media will be a "national alternative newspaper giant," according to a skeptical Village Voice piece outlining the marriage of the two "big daddy" alt-weekly chains.

The deal, subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Justice due to antitrust issues, is a boon for New Times, which will own 62 percent of the new company and control five of nine board seats. New Times' current CEO Jim Larkin will retain his position at the helm of the new company, and Mike Lacey, New Times' executive editor, will oversee all 17 papers, with local editors reporting to him in PhoenixCQ. Meanwhile, David Schneiderman—VVM's current CEO—will run the merged company's online operations (under his leadership, VVM shrank from nine papers to six).

What does that all mean for the Seattle Weekly? New Times has a history of being very involved with its papers, specifying a cookie-cutter design "aimed at appealing to travelers," according to the New York Times, and pushing an editorial bent that eschews politics—New Times papers don't make political endorsements, for example—which is a stark contrast to the left-leaning ideology at most VVM papers, including the Weekly (it's hard to envision all three of the Weekly's knee-jerk lefties, Geov Parrish, George Howland, and Knute Berger, surviving under New Times' iconoclastic model). While New Times' Lacey has said the Village Voice in New York will retain its logo and format, he's made no promises about other papers affected by the deal, like the Seattle Weekly. (Neither Lacey nor the Weekly returned a call from The Stranger.)

"[Lacey] will not be a passive investor," says Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. When New Times bought Redmond's rival, the SF Weekly, Lacey "basically walked in and said everything you're doing is shit, this is a terrible publication and we're going to completely redo it and some of you will be here and some of you won't... He turns papers into New Times papers."

Perhaps in anticipation of a New Times overhaul, the Seattle Weekly's political and music editors have been shopping around for new jobs in recent months, The Stranger has learned.

What's the acquisition mean for The Stranger? Just two months ago, the Weekly—reporting on rumors of a forthcoming merger—speculated that a New Times-VVM deal would hurt The Stranger. If you've listened to the Weekly the last two times their paper was sold, you've heard their predictions that The Stranger was in for trouble. (Stern Publishing bought the Weekly in 1997, and sold it to VVM when it was formed in 2000.)

But The Stranger has grown, even as the Weekly has been bought up time and time again by larger chains. Before Stern bought the Weekly, that paper was, on average, 37 pages larger per week than The Stranger. By 2000, the Weekly had slipped to a 10-page lead. Now, The Stranger is the larger paper, averaging seven pages more than the Weekly each week. (In Seattle as in New York, where the Village Voice is struggling, New Times has purchased a paper in decline.)

Another potential threat to The Stranger: Village Voice papers are slated to join the New Times' national advertising sales agency, the Ruxton Group, as part of the deal. Currently, The Stranger is a part of that group, while the Weekly is not. Asked by the San Francisco Bay Guardian if he expected Ruxton would ditch The Stranger, publisher Tim Keck replied: "I know Ruxton would like us to stay. Without The Stranger and the Portland Mercury, Ruxton's [demographics] get a little longer in the tooth."

How do other companies fare against New Times papers? Well, in two of the three cities where New Times has competition—San Francisco and Cleveland—the papers are locked in protracted battles. In Cleveland, an October 2002 deal between VVM and New Times shut down the Cleveland Free Times, until the feds intervened and the paper was sold to a new publisher (12 Free Times staffers have since sued New Times and VVM). San Francisco's independently owned Bay Guardian—with a circulation of 150,384, larger than the SF Weekly's 110,711—is currently suing New Times over alleged predatory pricing. "They hate competition," says the Bay Guardian's Redmond. And for good reason: According to a memo obtained by the Bay Guardian, Schneiderman told New Times execs earlier this year that VVM's San Francisco and Cleveland papers were "locked in a brutal struggle... with no sign of success." He wrote: "In the 2004 Calendar year, SF Weekly, East Bay Express, and the Cleveland Scene racked up losses of $4 million."

In Seattle, the Weekly will have more to hate than The Stranger: Seattle Monthly magazine, with several former Weekly staffers on the masthead, and demographics more in line with the Weekly than any other publication, is set to debut soon.

amy@thestranger.com

 

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