It all started back in '96 when Michael Lacey called me at the L.A. Times and asked me to meet him at a bar a block away. After more than a few cocktails, he asked me to leave what I thought was the high-and-mighty daily and help him start a New Times paper in Los Angeles. He challenged me to embark on "an adventure." More than that, he strongly suggested that only a pussy would turn him down.
I must look crazy, I thought. Or stupid. I had a good job. Plus, I'd never even seriously read an alternative rag, probably because I'd been living in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years and was forced to pick up the LA Weekly, or the two sorry excuses for alternative papers that New Times Media wound up absorbing and obliterating, the L.A. View and the Reader.
I took the job for one reason. Lacey promised freedom to do no-holds-barred journalism. He demonstrated that New Times papers weren't shackled by power brokers or political correctness. As long as the facts were there, he said, he wouldn't be asking why we went too far (something that happened routinely at the L.A. Times), but possibly why we didn't go far enough. There would be no ideological bent. Jill Stewart's column often came from the right, something unheard of in an alternative paper; others were left-leaning. But the real point was to go after liars, crooks and bullshit artists something the papers New Times Los Angeles replaced almost never did.
But let's not speak ill of the dead. Only of the pathetically hippy-dippy Weekly, which is still alive in the City of Angels. New Times Los Angeles, at which I was the lead editor for six years, is on a morgue slab. Its death certificate reads October 2, 2002, which has become a historic date in the alternative journalism world.
The night before, Lacey, who co-founded the New Times company with Jim Larkin 33 years ago in Phoenix, had summoned the L.A. staff to the bar at Shutters, a swank Santa Monica hotel, for what was billed as a weekly copy meeting. I'd arrived a couple of hours before the others armed with pitches for upcoming cover stories. The event wasn't all that unusual, since Lacey, as denizens of this desert city know full well, is fond of holding confabs in drinking establishments.
I was waiting on a barstool when he showed up. I made a joke. He didn't laugh. I made another; he didn't hear it. He said, "What are you drinking?" I muttered that I was on the wagon, to which he said, "You're not tonight." We moved to a table and sat in silence until the waiter came. Lacey ordered a double Scotch, and I ordered an Absolut on the rocks. "Make that a double, too," Lacey demanded.
By then, I'd concluded that I was getting fired. Turned out it was something much worse. The paper was closing the next day. Lacey said he was sorry (I believed him, because I know how badly the Irish hardhead hates to lose), that the editorial staff had done its job, but that the Bush-era economy, capped by the aftermath of the events of 9/11, had made it impossible economically for New Times L.A. to continue the fight against a decades-old competitor.
When we walked into an adjacent private room where the rest of the staff had assembled, I was still in shock. Everyone was yukking it up, happy to be out of the office with booze and a fancy dinner in the immediate future. One look at the bosses' faces, though, and there was a creepy silence.
Lacey told the waiter, "We want to order some wine. Let's see, there are 20 people here. Bring us 20 bottles." The silence continued until 19 bottles of expensive red wine and one bottle of white were placed before each person there. We started to drink, and he made the announcement.
Strangely, nobody went for his throat.
People were in tears that the paper was folding but were understanding. Part of the reason was that a generous severance package was promised and almost everyone was offered a job in another New Times city which is how I came to be writing this column as editor of Phoenix New Times. But the real reason was that, as reporters, we understood that we were in the news business, that our paper had been losing boatloads of bucks (nearly $20 million over six years, we found out later) and that Duh!bya's dismal economy, and the banks ruined by it, were shutting down struggling businesses across the national landscape.
Lacey announced that Village Voice Inc., owner of the LA Weekly, was paying New Times for its assets in L.A. and that New Times was paying Village Voice for its Cleveland Free Times assets. (Turned out the Voice company paid $11 million and New Times paid $2 million.) It seemed like a damn good deal. Considering.
My telephone answering machine kept going off in the other room. I could hear it through the alcoholic haze, but I couldn't lift my eyelids. We had continued the wake, having room service bring even more alcohol to Lacey's hotel room, after which we'd gone to a Venice bar. Some of us couldn't remember exactly how we got home.
I finally crawled out of bed and lifted the blasted receiver. It was David Carr of the New York Times. He asked about the night before. What were the details of the closing? Did I know ahead of time? Was I angry? What did I think of the lackluster Weekly winning out in L.A.? Did I think New Times had committed an antitrust violation? Was the situation similar to that of the Chandler and the Hearst families (the infamous former owners of the L.A. Times and the defunct L.A. Herald Examiner), who had divided up territory back when reporters carried press cards in the brims of their hats?
Wait a minute. Ratchet back a little. An antitrust violation?
Sure, Carr said, and began explaining Section One of the Sherman Act. Media companies cannot enter into a quid pro quo to eliminate competition.
In the days after that, Carr's story was published and many others followed, all with the slant that the two largest alternative newspaper companies in the nation had seemingly committed a slam-dunk antitrust violation.
Nobody thought much of the claims. College professors were quoted to back up the contention. Sources on the inside of the deal were barely consulted. Plus, it seemed unlikely that a Department of Justice that had allowed daily newspapers to eliminate smaller competitors for generations (take the Arizona Republic swallowing up the Phoenix Gazette, and the massive Gannett company buying up the whole shebang) would bother with two alternative media gnats. Especially John Ashcroft's pro-business Justice Department.
It became particularly amusing when the daily newspaper titans began reporting that escort services and masseuses that advertise in the backs of practically every alternative paper in the country were the ones complaining about their ad rates going up in the "monopoly" weeklies beside the Pacific and Lake Erie. (Turned out the L.A. Times got it wrong when it said New Times' Cleveland paper had gone up on its ads; rates had actually decreased after the sales.) But the irony of DOJ goons going after New Times and the Voice to protect the rights of X-rated businesses wasn't lost on anybody with half a brain.
A few weeks later, I was having a cup of coffee when my phone machine went off. It was somebody named Maurice Stucke in the 202 area code. He didn't say what he wanted. When I called him back, he told me he was a Justice Department attorney in the Antitrust Division and that he was looking into whether there'd been a Sherman Act violation when NTLA was sold. When I hung up, I called New Times lawyer Steve Suskin, who sent a shock wave through the company when he announced that G-men were on the prowl.
The shock soon turned to outrage, as Stucke and his band of bow-tied goons began to stick it to New Times and the Voice. As newspaper readers in every major city in the country came to know, an antitrust case was indeed started. That is, readers in every city but Phoenix, where the hapless Republic didn't even bother to capitalize on the opportunity to lambaste a competitor. Because at first blush, it did seem that New Times and the Voice in becoming such easy pickings for the federales must have gotten some boneheaded legal advice.
The reality is that antitrust law is complicated. Not a single commentator bothered to parse the "Failing Business" section of the law. The Justice Department utilized this vacuum of analysis to expand its theory of prosecution. Suddenly, its lawyers weren't just dealing with the elimination of business competition but with the alleged squelching of unique editorial voices in two communities. That's right, John Ashcroft, whose agents have trampled on the basic human rights of the Cuba detainees and swarms of Arab-Americans in the wake of 9/11, was suddenly interested in the rights of newspaper readers. All antitrust regulations address impact on advertisers; there's not a word about readers, let alone readers of alternative papers. Nonetheless, Stucke and his bunch began deposing disgruntled former LA Weekly employees about whether NTLA's demise had denied La La Land an essential alternative editorial choice.
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Never mind that the L.A. Times monopolizes the daily newspaper market in that city. (The Tribune Company of Chicago added the big daily to its stable of properties a couple of years ago, ensuring corporate-speak across a dozen American cities.) Never mind that a raft of neighborhood weeklies existed all along in L.A. Never mind that former mayor Dick Riordan Duh!bya's choice to become governor of California last time around (he lost in the GOP primary) is circulating a prototype for a new L.A. newsweekly that he hopes to start this summer.
So what's the latest? Rather than continue to pay out exorbitant legal fees to fight the G-men New Times' tab is approaching $500,000 for a few months of representation the company and Village Voice have agreed to pay $375,000 each to the state of California and a smaller amount to Ohio. They have also entered into a consent decree to resell assets to new newspapers in L.A. and Cleveland. Cozy . . . since Riordan could become the beneficiary of this deal in Southern California.
Now while I swelled with pride when Justice Department witnesses insisted that New Times L.A. was better than the competition, come on! The feds have no business involving themselves in editorial content; there's a little thing called the First Amendment at stake here. My belief is that New Times and the Voice could have prevailed in court for that reason. But a multi-year legal battle in the middle of a national recession might have crippled both companies which still publish papers in 17 cities.
It was better to give in to the DOJ early than to risk the silencing of this many distinct editorial voices.