Street Talk: One Less Alternative

Dallas is no stranger to media monopolies. Case in point: Belo. So why was it a surprise when New Times, owner of the Observer and FW Weekly, bought up and shut down The Met?

ON THE AFTERNOON OF SEPTEMBER 21, 2000, Gracie Martinez, assistant to the publisher of The Met, announced in a no-nonsense voice that company president Rand Stagen had called a mandatory meeting. Staffers were to converge in the editorial area (usually off-limits to everyone except editors and writers) at 5:30 p.m.

Also there were the publication’s chief investors, Bob Bennett and Chip Johnson,  clad in power suits and toting briefcases. They always seemed out of place in the bohemian-style loft that housed the independent arts and entertainment magazine. Though their presence was ominous, no one was particularly concerned about the impromptu assembly. Some were complaining about being interrupted, delayed, or inconvenienced. Others even joked about the possibility that everyone was about to be fired. Met employees, mostly preoccupied with relatively menial concerns, were unprepared for what was about to happen.

Stagen said he was going to get straight to the point. It was no secret that The Met had been for sale for a period of time. Three companies had been interested, but the highest offer-the accepted offer-had come from the Phoenix-based New Times Inc., parent company to The Met’s primary competitor, the Dallas Observer.

Shifting from one foot to the other, a tense Stagen went on to say that The Met was officially closed, that everyone should leave and come back between 9 and 11 the next morning to collect their belongings. By the following afternoon, those attempting to contact The Met via telephone would receive the greeting, “Thanks for calling the Dallas Observer,€VbCrLf and anyone logging on to The Met web site would connect to a pitch-black screen bearing only the stark and telling message, “Go Away.€VbCrLf

SINCE THE ORIGINAL PHOENIX NEW TIMES  paper was founded in 1969, it has grown into the largest assemblage of metropolitan newsweeklies in the United States. It all started with the purchase of the Westword in Denver. Four years later, it took over Floridian papers in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In 1991, the Dallas Observer and Houston Press joined the rapidly growing chain. Building momentum, New Times bought up California’s SF Weekly and formed New Times LA through the merger of two small independents. Since then, they have picked up the Riverfront Times of St. Louis, Pitch Weekly of Kansas City, and Scene, a music paper that was altered to fit the New Times format. Last September, the conglomerate added Fort Worth Weekly, bringing the total to 11 alternative papers across the country owned by New Times.
All 11 New Times papers look the same-scandalous 5,000-word cover story, with music and entertainment blurbs followed by the cash cow: the classifieds.

“It just makes sense to use the same format for all of our papers,€VbCrLf says New Times associate executive editor David Pasztor. “It’s just more economical.€VbCrLf

The format is immensely profitable. Although New Times is privately held and does not reveal its net income figures, business analysts estimate annual revenues at approximately $120 million and place a market value for the company in the same range, giving New Times both the cash flow and borrowing capacity to fund a two-pronged acquisition strategy: snap up weeklies in new markets and eliminate competitors in existing ones.

The order to kill The Met came, according to paperwork from the deal, from The Met investors, lead by fiscally driven Bennett. And while the journalistic community and rag readers are still saying “the Dallas Observer bought The Met and shut it down,€VbCrLf Bennett and other key players continue to recite the uniform statement, “The Met closed, then sold its assets to New Times.€VbCrLf

Pasztor told a group at a Society of Professional Journalists meeting last October that The Met was not closed because they were a direct threat to the Observer; there was concern that another chain such as The Village Voice Media would buy The Met and “turn it into a real paper.€VbCrLf

Gay Gabrilska, The Met’s associate publisher, was a driving promotional force at the magazine. She begs to differ with the idea that The Met was no threat to the Observer. “I feel like New Times was threatened by the quality of our editorial product.€VbCrLf Entertainment editor Gary Dowell agrees. “There was no doubt in my mind that being bought by New Times meant that The Met would be shut down,€VbCrLf he says. “The Observer wanted to get rid of us for a long time.€VbCrLf

Gabrilska also charges that Bennett and possibly others knew that this deal was going down and he wanted to beef up the sales department to drive up the asking price. Bennett had instructed the unwary management team to overstaff the sales department, according to publisher Jamie Moreland and Gabrilska. In the month preceding The Met’s closing, 14 people had been hired.

In response, Bennett clears his throat several times, speaks rapidly, and claims that his memory is unclear as to when, precisely, New Times expressed interest in buying The Met. “It all happened really quickly,€VbCrLf he says, “I cannot recall all the details.€VbCrLf Bennett and Stagen both maintain that there was no motive for overstaffing other than to strengthen and grow their product.

Details of the sale are rather hush-hush. Moreland, realizing that hindsight can prove 20/20, remembers that Bennett and Johnson were showing up at The Met offices frequently during August and September of last year. And The Met’s CPA was being asked to compile financial statements and project reports from 1999 and 2000. When Moreland expressed concern, she was told that routine negotiations, involving Village Voice Media and an unnamed Washington group, were taking place. And, oh yes, the parent company of the Observer was also involved “to sweeten the pot.€VbCrLf Moreland, and the rest of the management team, was unaware that the multimillion-dollar chain was about to “purchase The Met’s assets.€VbCrLf

THE MET’s CLOSING ADDS TO THE GROWING list of old-school values that have been battered by the new-economy market. And for anyone who does not believe the alternative weekly industry is big business, consider this: The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the trade organization for alternative newspapers in North America, has a combined circulation of 7.5 million. Revenues of all weeklies have risen approximately 10 percent annually for the past eight years. But as alternative weeklies cash in, what becomes of that independent spirit?

These boisterous little rags, known as alternative newsweeklies, started popping up in coffee shops and bookstores back in the Watergate era, a time of growing public skepticism of big institutions, including daily newspapers. The spawning of independents in Dallas-Fort Worth commenced with the Dallas Observer, followed by Fort Worth Weekly, and, just six years ago, The Met. General opinion is that the alternative press is an industry that questions the values of the dominant mainstream culture, supports local arts and entertainment, and defends the marginal and disenfranchised. From the onset, the vociferous criticism of official culture and big business laid the foundation for the independent newsweeklies, but one by one, the little thorns in the side of the big-print media conglomerates realized that they couldn’t beat big business-so they joined ’em.

Bruce Brugmann, a legend in alternative journalism, believes that the spirit is endangered, if not dead. He formed the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1966 “to provide an alternative to the big monopoly dailies-to print news and raise hell.€VbCrLf He denounces recent monopolization of the Dallas alternative market by what he calls corporate carpetbaggers. “It is so sad to see the New Times people of Phoenix paratroop into your town, buy up yet another independent, locally owned and operated alternative newsweekly, and establish yet another little cog in its national chain operation. They came in and mowed down [The Met] because they want no competition of any kind. Their dirty tricks have slain the independent spirit in so many towns-now Dallas and Fort Worth.€VbCrLf

Dallas is not a stranger to monopolization of its media outlets. In 1991, Belo, owner of the Dallas Morning News “bought the assets€VbCrLf of the Dallas Times-Herald, which was shut down. Ironically, the Observer chastised Belo and its efforts to silence the voices of its competitors. Then Observer editor, Peter Elkind, wrote a column called “Belo Watch,€VbCrLf which closely monitored the goings on of what he commonly referred to as the “monolithic media conglomerate.€VbCrLf In those days, the Observer epitomized the still-thriving independent spirit. But it was also during that same year that it was acquired by New Times. The large chain, with hard-boiled Mike Lacey at the helm, ultimately gave the paper superior resources and journalistic horsepower, but it made the style less political and more corporate.

Elkind, now with more gray hair but the same bombastic attitude of his alternative paper days, admits the corporate consumption of independents is troubling. “To see the New Times people do the same as Belo,€VbCrLf he says, “sends chills down my spine.€VbCrLf

The alternative press is a for-profit business, full of compromises and increasingly driven by the bottom line. The future of alternatives undeniably lies with the likes of New Times and other corporate chains. With more money to pay talent and less of an agenda, these outlets are attractive options for writers frustrated by financial limits imposed by independents. With few exceptions, like the unsinkable Brugmann, those in the business who assume a mantle of selfless purity, clinging to the independent spirit, may have to forfeit good intentions and concede that it all boils down to business.

Photo: Neal Farris

Christy Hughes-Babb is the former managing editor of The Met. She is currently the editor of the Dallas and Fort Worth editions of  WHERE magazine.


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