Jim Larkin, pioneering co-founder of Phoenix New Times, dead at 74 | Phoenix New Times

Jim Larkin, pioneering co-founder of Phoenix New Times, dead at 74

The award-winning publisher died by suicide days before the start of his retrial in federal court.
Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin hold up a California judge’s order in August 2017 tossing out criminal charges against them.
Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin hold up a California judge’s order in August 2017 tossing out criminal charges against them. Stephen Lemons
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Phoenix New Times co-founder and legendary Arizona publisher Jim Larkin died on Monday. He was 74.

Larkin, who lived in Paradise Valley with his wife Molly, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Superior near Boyce Thompson Arboretum, according to the Superior Police Department. No foul play is suspected in his death, police said.

A police incident report about the suicide was not available on Wednesday.

Larkin's death came a week before the scheduled start of his criminal trial in federal court. In 2018, prosecutors charged Larkin and New Times co-founder Michael Lacey with a host of crimes related to their former ownership of Backpage, the now-defunct online classified ad site.

"We are devastated at the loss of James Anthony Larkin," the family said in a statement provided to New Times on Wednesday. "Jim was an incredible husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend. His life and legacy embody the spirit of his home, the Sonoran Desert. Jim fearlessly blazed his own path in life and always stuck to it.

"As the publisher of the Phoenix New Times and other weekly alternative newspapers for over 40 years, Jim fought for voices and issues ignored by society. He fought against police brutality, he fought for immigrant rights and, above all, he fought tooth and nail for free speech. He wasn’t afraid to pick up the unmovable boulders of our society and shine light on the corruption beneath. While many publishers abandoned journalistic principles in the face of pressure and harassment, Jim stood fast and fought for the truth," the statement continued.
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From left, New Times contributor Geoff O’Connell, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin in 1972 at the paper's office near Mill Avenue and University Drive in Tempe.
Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin

‘We pursued stories across America’

Lacey and a ragtag collective of Arizona State University students launched the paper as the Arizona Times on June 9, 1970. It was their response to the Kent State Massacre that May and the anti-war movement sweeping across college campuses.

Larkin, who grew up in Phoenix, introduced himself to Lacey with a handwritten note outlining the history of the local power structure in 1972. That's when Lacey invited Larkin, a waiter at the time, to join the paper.

“I remember going over to Michael’s house . . . and he had just come back from giving blood (to raise money for the paper),” Larkin told journalist and former New Times staff writer and columnist Stephen Lemons in a May 2020 story exploring the early days of the paper. “And this is the guy that hired me? I thought to myself, ‘I better keep my night job at the restaurant.’”

Larkin was named publisher and president of the paper in 1974. The pair exited the company within a few years, but launched a stockholder revolt in 1977 that reinstated them as executives.

By the late 1980s, Lacey and Larkin had built the small paper into a major force and had begun to acquire alt-weeklies around the country, beginning with Denver Westword and Miami New Times. They were, as Phoenix Magazine put it back in 1990, the pioneering "new presslords" of alternative journalism. It was just the beginning of their business ventures that eventually grew to include 17 papers and garnered hundreds of journalism awards.

"Jim Larkin’s passing has torn at my heart," Lacey wrote of Larkin's death in a Wednesday statement to Front Page Confidential, a site focusing on free speech issues operated by Larkin and Lacey and edited by Lemons. "I knew him for over 40 years as we pursued stories across America, literally from sea to shining sea."

"Jim was a businessman, and he recognized and created a market for alternative newsweeklies. He cut trail where most perceived only risk," Lacey wrote. "Above all of his works, however, he was a family man. A loyal husband, he reveled in his six children."

Larkin was resolutely unafraid to take on the powerful. "He relished the fight. And I think that sustained him," remembered Tom Finkel, editor-in-chief of Miami New Times, and a longtime colleague of Larkin's.

Over the years, the publisher and his papers feuded with prominent figures, including former U.S. Sen. John McCain, embattled former Phoenix police Chief Ruben Ortega and Vice President Kamala Harris, who pursued Larkin and Lacey as California attorney general.

Larkin's family pointed to that legacy of challenging public officials in their statement on Wednesday.

"Jim Larkin’s publications and unwillingness to compromise on the value of free speech drew the attention and ire of powerful interests throughout his career. Jim shouldered the burdens forced upon him head-on with the full support of his family and friends," the family said.

"Above all else, Jim’s proudest achievement is his family, his six adult children, four grandchildren and his marriage to his wife. He was brilliant, kind, humble and compassionate. Our world will not be the same without this uniquely caring, strong and noble man, but we will continue to honor his legacy every day. We love and miss him dearly," the statement continued.

But nothing cemented Larkin's legacy of supporting fearless reporting as did the New Times' coverage of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who helmed the office for more than two decades. Under Larkin and Lacey, New Times uncovered countless misdeeds at the sheriff's office — and in 2007, the sheriff arrested the two executives for exposing a grand jury probe into the paper for its reporting. The charges against them were eventually dropped, and they won a $3.75 million settlement in 2013 after suing the sheriff. They donated the money to their nonprofit, the Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund, to distribute to local Hispanic groups.

Arpaio offered this comment on Larkin's passing when reached by phone Wednesday: "He had a job to do. And he did what he felt was right."

One reporter at the paper at the time was John Dougherty, a writer at the New Times from 1993 to 2006. It was his reporting on Arpaio's shady real estate dealings that kicked off the grand jury saga. "I was very proud to be part of the team," Dougherty recalled in a phone interview Wednesday. He remembered Larkin as a "class act," and a publisher who was willing to invest in the writers working at his papers.

"If Lacey bought off on a story, Larkin was going to make sure the money came," Dougherty said. With Larkin as publisher, he said, reporters chased stories that other media outlets shied away from. "It was because we had the freedom to follow the stories, and we had the support of the publisher. And the publisher was Jim Larkin."

Finkel shared similar sentiments, remembering Larkin as "a man of extreme integrity."

"He never stopped being a journalist at heart. In the fiber of his being, he had the DNA of doing what these papers did," he said.

Larkin and Lacey sold their company — since renamed Voice Media Group — in 2012 to a group of longtime company executives. After the sale, the pair continued to run Backpage, which they launched in 2004 to compete with Craigslist.

Scott Tobias, Voice Media Group's CEO, said Larkin's work still impacts the company today.

"Jim was a visionary, a serial entrepreneur, and a mentor," Tobias said. "For those of us who worked close to him, we will remember him as incredibly smart, tenacious and aggressive in all things that he did. The journalistic and media enterprise that Jim and Mike Lacey founded is part of the fabric that Voice Media Group is today. There is no denying their impact. Our thoughts are with Jim's family."

Larkin and Lacey sold Backpage in 2015 and the site closed its adult ad section in 2017. Federal officials seized the site and shut it down in 2018.
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New Times co-founders and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin during a U.S. Senate panel hearing on Jan. 10, 2017.
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

Federal trial scheduled to start Aug. 8

Larkin's death comes just days before a new trial is set to begin in the U.S. Department of Justice's long-running case against Backpage and its executives. The first trial, which began in September 2021, ended in a mistrial. A retrial, which is expected to last nearly three months, is scheduled to start on Aug. 8.

On Wednesday, Larkin attorney Timothy Eckstein notified the court of Larkin's death. The filing also said attorneys in the case will discuss dismissing the indictment against Larkin during a status hearing on Friday with U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa. The hearing was scheduled before Larkin's death.

Humetewa, in an order filed Wednesday, warned attorneys to be prepared for the trial to start next week. She also said attorneys will need to ask potential jurors if they are aware of Larkin's death and, if so, whether that would impact their ability to be impartial.

"The Court, having become aware of Defendant Larkin’s passing, will nonetheless expect the parties to prepare for trial to commence on the current scheduled date," Humetewa wrote.

Zach Stoebe, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said questions about the future of the case are likely to be addressed on Friday.

"As an initial matter, upon the passing of Mr. Larkin, we send condolences to his family and friends, and wish them sustenance and strength in a difficult time," Stoebe said.

Eckstein did not reply to questions from New Times.

In 2018, federal prosecutors charged Larkin, Lacey and four other Backpage employees with facilitating prostitution, money laundering, conspiracy, and various other crimes over the site's adult ad section. Prosecutors said the case was about human trafficking, facilitated through ads on the site.

Larkin and the others argued that the case was in reality about the First Amendment — and that Backpage executives were not responsible for the ads and said that they were legal to publish on the site. They also argued that Backpage didn’t allow advertisers to offer sex acts in exchange for money.
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