The owner of the iconoclastic Village Voice and five other alternative news-papers is merging with New Times Media, which owns 11 U.S. alt-weeklies, including the Dallas Observer. The deal has to be approved by the Justice Department, but if it goes through, the newspaper chain would own 25 percent of the alternative weekly circulation in the country, or about 1.8 million, according to The Arizona Republic and The New York Times.
It’s ironic that we’re talking about the alternative press dominating anything. While most U.S. news outlets are part of huge monopolies, the alternative press diverges from mainstream media’s sameness. Traditionally, alt-weeklies have been free voices in the marketplace of ideas that is supposed to exist in a democracy.
Now that the alternative media is going corporate, too, what will happen to independent voices?
For now, probably nothing, says Lee Newquist, owner and publisher of the Fort Worth Weekly, which New Times used to own. Newquist spent almost 20 years working for the chain.
First of all, Newquist said, Village Voice and New Times papers already are parts of newspaper chains. Secondly, he has faith in New Times chairman and chief executive James Larkin and executive editor Michael Lacey, who would retain their roles after the merger. Both are committed to strong journalism with an independent voice and local focus, Newquist said.
However, the merger could leave the company’s leadership vulnerable. “It concerns me that it might get into someone else’s hands,” says Newquist. “In the short term, it [the merger] can only improve journalism, but if they were to take it and sell it, that would concern me.”
Alt-weeklies often are the only conduit for the public to learn certain information. Take, for example, the Weekly’s award-winning December 2004 investigative story, “Insecurity on Campus,” which revealed that several colleges in the Fort Worth and Dallas area were not reporting serious campus crimes, including rape, potentially violating federal law.
That was never reported in the mainstream press, not in The Dallas Morning News or Fort Worth Star-Telegram or on local tv news. But it was information that college students and their parents needed to know and had the right to know.
Would that sort of reporting continue under an alt-weekly monopoly?
In an Oct. 23 memo to the Voice’s staff, the chief executive officer, David Schneiderman, called the merger with New Times “an exciting combination of two publishers with well-deserved reputations for fierce and independent journalism, strong management, and immensely talented staffs.”
However, Alexander Cockburn, formerly of the Voice and editor of the left-wing newsletter Counterpunch, told The Boston Phoenix that the merger is “contrary to everything the Voice first stood for when it was founded in the ’50s.”
And Kit Rachlis, a former Voice executive editor, pointed out to The Phoenix that “the alternative press thought this was bad for daily papers. I don’t know why it thinks it’s good for itself.”
But don’t forget that the right-wing king of media monopolies, Fox empire owner Rupert Murdoch, once owned the Voice – and he pretty much left it alone.
Speaking of the right wing, it could soon be strongly influencing media in our backyard. An investor group recently bought up 19 percent of the stock in Knight Ridder, owner of the Star-Telegram, then demanded the company put itself up for sale, saying it isn’t profitable enough. (All newspaper stocks are down because of that behemoth of information, the internet.)
The investors, Private Capital Management, are on record giving big bucks to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and to the Republican National Committee, according to a Nov. 2 Editor & Publisher story by Will Bunch.
Last week, Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block.
The proposed sale prompted a group of big-name, respected journalists who have worked for the newspaper company to write an outraged letter decrying the narrow focus on the bottom line. An excerpt from the letter: “Knight Ridder is not merely another public company. It is a public trust. It must balance corporate profitability with civic purpose. We oppose those who would cripple the purpose by coercing more profit. We abhor those for whom good business is insufficient and excellent journalism is irrelevant.”
Sixty Knight Ridder current employees and alumni – including top newspaper editors, academics, Pulitzer Prize winners, and book authors – signed the letter.
Their bravery to stand up against big business and fight for journalism is admirable. But cynicism brings to mind a quote from journalist A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.