Just as the Plain Dealer is About To Undergo
Yet Another Round of Cutbacks in Coverage,
Alternative Weekly Landscape in Cleveland
Gets a Serious Overhaul, With Purchase and
Merger of Two Ailing Alternative Weeklies
Just two years after the Plain Dealer underwent a serious cutback in its editorial staff, which resulted in more than 60 newsroom employees accepting generous buyouts, the paper is again looking at further cuts in editorial space as well as staff. Last week, Roldo Bartimole broke the story of the latest cutbacks, which was picked up nationally via a link from the widely read Romenesko website, but until this morning the paper hasn't acknowledged that such plans were in the works (finally, publisher Terry Egger did so this morning on public radio station WCPN, on a show hosted by PD columnist Regina Brett, though he was tentative and refused to be pinned down about any details).
Against that backdrop, the news came this morning like an earthquake, via a press release, that the city's two ailing alternative weeklies, which have been locked in a grueling war of attrition for years, have been purchased by a once-modest but increasingly prominent newspaper chain (based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, of all places) and will be merged shortly, under the name Scene. While the Scene got the name (and the new paper will be located in the Scene's current space), the more important choice is that the Free Times' publisher will become publisher of the new operation, which suggests that paper will get much the upper hand in the merged entity, presumably including staffing choices.
A consolidation of Cleveland alt-weeklies has been tried before, in 2002, but was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department on antitrust grounds. The Free Times, then owned by the chain which also owned the granddaddy of American alternative weeklies, the venerable Village Voice of New York, colluded with the New Times chain (considered by some as the Evil Empire of the industry) to stop competing in Cleveland and L.A., carving up the markets and awarding one town to each. Even the ethics-challenged Bush Justice Department could tell that didn't pass the smell test, and moved to block it. Tim Rutten, then the media writer for the Los Angeles Times, did a heroic job of covering the story, breaking one development after another (eventually the NYT's David Carr, a veteran of alt-weeklies, caught up), thus adding even more pressure on the government.
The deal was eventually stopped, a consent decree was signed by both parties, and the papers went back to competing in a town, Cleveland, whose economy really can't support two healthy alt-weeklies. The Justice Department has continued to monitor the situation until recently, as former FT editor David Eden noted to the PD several months ago. Presumably, this new deal has at least the tacit blessing of the Justice Department.
Times-Shamrock Communications, which would be the new owner should the deal close, is not exactly a household name. But it does own and operate some familiar names. The Detroit Metro Times and Baltimore City Paper have long, proud traditions in their markets, and by all accounts, Times-Shamrock has been doing a reasonably enlightened job of operating them in an increasingly tough environment (alt weeklies have been hurt badly by the web, just as print dailies have). All that bodes well for how they would run the Cleveland paper.
UPDATE: Cleveland.com story is here, Crain's account is here.
UPDATE #2: Thanks to Jim Romenesko for the link to this posting (and welcome to Romenesko readers), which he posted mid-day along with the link to the Cleveland.com story. I've earned some Romenesko links in the past for media columns in the Free Times, and of course appreciated them greatly, but never before for anything written on this blog. We're honored.
UPDATE #3: Editor & Publisher magazine posted this article about the growing internal PD turmoil over expected cuts. Ironically, WKYC, which seems so interested in covering the PD's employment cutbacks, doesn't seem to have told its audience about its own recent reduction in personnel. It too has cut some jobs (as many as 10 people, we're told, including reporter Vic Gideon, a popular, longtime fixture in the Cleveland electronic media), no doubt a result of the mounting financial woes of its owner, the Gannett chain. If the station has covered this (please let me know, anyone), I'll be thrilled to apologize and correct the record. But I'd also likely pass out from shock.
Here's the original press release on the alt-weekly deal:
Times-Shamrock Communications today announced the acquisition of the Cleveland Scene and the Cleveland Free Times, alternative newsweeklies separately owned by Village Voice Media and Times Publishing Co. of Erie, Pa., respectively.Terms of the purchase were not disclosed. The deal is to close on June 25.The two alternative publications will continue to publish separately for their next three issues and then merge into a single newsweekly, the "Scene," on July 23, according to Don Farley, publisher of the Alternative Group for Times-Shamrock Communications.Mr. Farley said that Matt Fabyan, publisher of the Free Times, will be publisher of the combined Scene newsweekly."This is a great addition to our existing group of alternative newsweeklies," Mr. Farley said. "We look forward to serving the greater Cleveland community for many, many years."The Scene and Free Times each has won dozens of awards from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, the Cleveland Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Times Publishing Co. has owned the Free Press since 2003. Village Voice Media, the nation's largest publisher of alternative weeklies, has owned the Scene since 1998.Scene will be Times-Shamrock's fifth alternative newsweekly. Times-Shamrock, which is wholly owned by the Lynett and Haggerty families of Scranton, Pa., also publishes alternative newspapers in Baltimore, Detroit, San Antonio and Orlando.Times-Shamrock also owns eight daily newspapers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Virginia and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; community weekly newspapers in Northeastern Pennsylvania and Upstate New York; and radio stations in Scranton, Baltimore, Tulsa, Reno and Milwaukee.