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Tucson Weekly Losing Alternative

There's No Mistaking The Move Of Daily Papers Into The Alternative Market.

By Tali Woodward

MAY 10, 1999:  THE BIG DAILY newspaper companies have noticed the flourishing alternative market and are beginning to respond in typical monopolistic style: if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

On April 14 a subsidiary of the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut daily owned by Times Mirror, announced the purchase of five New England alternative weeklies, including the Hartford Advocate. This is the first time a daily paper has bought a weekly that competes in the same market.

Details about the purchase of the New Mass. Media chain--which includes the Hartford Advocate, the New Haven Advocate, the Valley Advocate, the Fairfield Courier Weekly, and the Westchester County Weekly--are hazy. Officials from Times Mirror, which also owns the Los Angeles Times and a number of other daily papers, would not disclose specifics or comment further.

Courant public relations person Kathy Andrews told us that the deal was filed last week and is now pending a 30-day regulatory review by the federal government.

Andrews said, "The management at the Courant is confident that the review process will show that this makes sense for readers and advertisers."

Though legal experts say the deal requires antitrust examination, the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice have already approved the sale.

But the merger has agitated local readers in the five communities and national media watchers, who see it as a dangerous precedent that will threaten alternatives across the country.

We called former Justice Department lawyer Jack Blum, an expert on media mergers, about the sale. "Eek, the big guys march on," he said. "This will have an adverse impact on readers and on advertising. Media competition is the way you get lively, open government."

Blum, who helped run the congressional hearings that led to the Newspaper Preservation Act, told us there are "substantial antitrust questions to be answered."

In Connecticut, community activists are upset that their news will now all be published by a single out-of-town conglomerate. The displeasure is particularly apparent in Hartford, home of the Courant, the state's dominant paper. Times Mirror bought the Courant in 1979.

"There's one daily in this community. Now the largest free weekly is owned by the same people," Georgette Yaindl, director of the Connecticut Bicycle Coalition, told us. The Advocate, one of the weeklies published by New Mass. Media, "was the only comprehensive alternative. They're promising that nothing will change, but I'm not optimistic."

New Haven alderperson Jelani Lawson told us, "The citizens of Connecticut will lose out, because the Advocate papers present a fresh look at many issues not covered by the mainstream media--issues that have to do with communities of color, environmentalists, etc."

New Haven Advocate editor Josh Mamis was surprised by the April 14 announcement. "I never thought of myself as someone who would work for a large media corporation. I prefer an independent voice every day of the week," he told us.

"In the short term, I believe them when they say there will be no significant changes. The danger is more long-term; I have doubts about five or 10 years from now."

Some Connecticut readers see national implications in this development. "The larger issue is local ownership of one's media," Yaindl said. "Effectively, this ushers in absentee corporate ownership of traditionally alternative free-press weeklies."

Media coverage of this deal may be the best evidence yet of the problem with this sort of merger. Typically, the April 15 story in The New York Times (part of a national chain that owns many papers in towns with competing weeklies, including Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa) did not mention that the deal requires federal approval because of possible antitrust conflicts.

That's the sort of point an alternative weekly might normally make--but the Hartford Advocate's Web posting and the papers' joint press release announcing the takeover don't mention it either. In fact, the statements don't even mention that the Courant is owned by Times Mirror, with headquarters in Los Angeles.

Editor's note: On April 21, two Hartford residents filed suit in Connecticut's U.S. District Court on grounds that Times Mirror's acquisition of the five alternative Advocate/Weekly papers represented a monopoly that would adversely affect both economics and free speech in the Hartford community. The two plaintiffs--an Advocate reader and an advertiser--are represented by antitrust expert and UC Berkeley law prof Stephen Barnett, and Hartford-based counsel David Beizer. (For details, see "Follow That Story," San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 28, 1999, available online at www.sfbg.com.)

AAN Interactive, the Web site for the national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, reported on May 3 the official sale of New Mass. Media's five independent Advocate/Weekly papers, as announced on Friday, April 30, by Hartford Courant publisher Marty Petty.

As of The Weekly's press time, neither the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Justice Department nor attorney general of Connecticut had raised any objection. (Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal is reportedly "looking into the merger," but refused comment.) The lawsuit would not be considered until each agency had approved the sale. While the Bay Guardian was unable to reach anyone for comment as to when this 30-day waiting period started, counsel expects new information around May 12.

In the meantime, Barnett and Beizer have responded to news of the sale by filing a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the Times Mirror/New Mass. Media merger, citing other antitrust newspaper cases as precedent. Barnett told the Bay Guardian that if the motion is granted, it will prevent the papers from carrying out the merger until the plaintiffs have their day in court.

So is free speech worth its weight in gold? You be the judge: AAN Interactive reports that "informed speculation within the company suggests the papers sold for around $17 to $20 million." Sellers Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin received both cash and stock in Times Mirror. "It was more stock than cash," says one source.

Lest you think this an isolated incident, think again. Barnett represented the Bay Guardian in its antitrust suit against the Chronicle-Examiner Joint Operating Agreement back in the 1970s. The JOA/acquisition trend has not only continued since, but intensified nationwide. Even the vaunted NYC Village Voice and (Phoenix) New Times, both pioneers in the alternative press, have become chains unto themselves in recent years, owning papers far removed from their home base operations.

Tucson readers need look no further than their doorsteps for further evidence: both daily papers--The Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen--have been published for decades under the Joint Operating Agreement of Tucson Newspapers, Inc. This agreement governs business, printing and advertising concerns between the papers. What's more, their editorial product answers to out-of-town owners and shareholders: the Pulitzer family in the case of the Star, and the ubiquitous Gannett chain for the Citizen.

A version of this article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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