In 2003, New York–based Village Voice Media, which owns six urban newspapers including Seattle Weekly, and New Times Newspapers of Phoenix, which owns another 11, got slapped down by the U.S. Justice Department for colluding to create monopolies in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Now, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a locally owned weekly that competes with New Times, the companies plan even closer collaboration, merging into a 17-paper chain serving many of the biggest media markets in the country.
Rumors of this have been around for months, but Bay Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond has obtained an apparent draft agreement for a merger, with details ranging from who would put up the cash to who would sit on the nine-member board. According to the May 27 draft agreement obtained by the Bay Guardian, privately held New Times would own 62 percent of the new company and the venture-capital investors who own Village Voice Media would have a 38 percent stake.
Besides Seattle Weekly, Village Voice Media owns New York's Village Voice, LA Weekly, OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., City Pages in Minneapolis, and Nashville Scene. New Times owns SF Weekly, East Bay Express, Cleveland Scene, Phoenix New Times, Westword in Denver, Miami New Times, New Times Broward-Palm Beach in Florida, the Dallas Observer, the Houston Press, Riverfront Times in St. Louis, and The Pitch in Kansas City.
Executives at neither company responded to requests for comment.
Coming to terms is one challenge, but the two companies also must take merger plans to the Justice Department for approval, to satisfy federal law and a consent decree regarding their Los Angeles and Cleveland pact. In 2002, before the feds intervened, Village Voice Media closed its paper in Cleveland and New Times closed its paper in Los Angeles to create mutually beneficial monopolies. Neither company admitted wrongdoing, but monetary penalties were paid.
Should you care if the nation's two biggest urban-weekly chains merge? That depends on how you feel about Seattle Weekly. This newspaper has been in the Village Voice family since 1997, when 48 local Seattle Weekly co-owners sold it. Papers in the Village Voice chain have operated with a great deal of independence, while New Times papers are to varying degrees aggressively centralized in editorial approach and lean business practices. The Bay Guardian is doing the key reporting on this issue because it is fighting New Times' SF Weekly and East Bay Express, which are squeezing the Bay Guardian for readership and ad sales. In Seattle, aggressive tactics by a merged company controlled by New Times could be trouble for The Stranger, the smaller, locally controlled weekly here.
In a recent editorial, the Bay Guardian called on the Justice Department to "go public and block the deal" between Village Voice Media and New Times. That could happen, but given the Bush administration's easygoing attitude toward media conglomeration, it's not likely. About the only thing standing in the way of consolidated corporate ownership of what once were quaintly known as "alternative" weeklies are egos.