How bad is the New Times alt-weekly chain’s takeover of Village Voice Media for the Voice-owned L.A. Weekly? Pretty bad. New Times founder and executive editor Michael Lacey, never famous for his tact, has long had the habit of dismissing competitors in the Birkenstock-wearing world of alt-weeklies as “raggedy-ass” publications filled with “espresso-crazed lefties,” and he expands his empire with all the diplomacy of Germans marching into the Sudetenland. He’s also notoriously foul-mouthed, a tone that trickled down into New Times L.A. via “freakin’,” the paper’s favorite all-purpose adjective, followed closely by “bulls**t” and “retard.”
A Phoenix-based westerner by way of New Jersey, Lacey is impressed by neither the venerable Voice name nor its literary heritage in New York, which he’s been known to derisively spell “New Yawk.” He has little patience with the earnest p.c. culture that permeates the Weekly, and I worry about the feelings of people there, some of whom I’ve known for years. (I would like to be a fly on the wall, though, when he meets Nikki Finke.) I spent some time with Lacey when he tried to hire me away from the old Buzz magazine to the upstart New Times L.A. ; I liked him, although I stayed at Buzz. But when I read this week that one of his former Phoenix editors remembered the boss as a combination of W. C. Fields and Pol Pot, I thought, well, that sounds about right.
Lacey first tried to acquire the Weekly in 1994. When he couldn’t, he bought two smaller rival papers, the L.A. Reader and Village View, and immediately closed them to begin New Times L.A. in 1996. Then in a deal that piqued the interest of Justice Dept. antitrust lawyers, Village Voice Media and New Times Inc. agreed in October, 2002 to shut down New Times L.A., creating a market monopoly for the Voice’s L.A. Weekly. In return, Voice Media closed its Cleveland alt-weekly, leaving the market there clear for the New Times-owned Cleveland paper. Since L.A. is much bigger than Cleveland, the Voice also agreed to paid New Times $8 million.
The new deal announced this week, which is structured as a merger, gives the New Times empire a combined circulation of 1.8 million papers in 17 major markets, about a quarter of alt-weekly readers. But it will take a few months for the Justice Dept. to finalize it, because in January, 2003, Village Voice Media and New Times signed a consent decree, admitting no collusion guilt but agreeing to pay fines of around $300,000 each (basically a handslap), and also to submit any future deals to federal regulators for approval.
Not everyone in the alt-weekly universe has joined in the hand-wringing about New Times. “You can hardly blame young people for not wanting to read some painfully earnest weekly shrill-a-thon against Bush, or embarrassing attempts by tired, 40-something ex-scenesters to come across as hep for the kids,” Boston’s Weekly Dig observed this week. ” If the New Times model takes hold and what readers get is more nonpartisan investigative journalism and less tired posturing, fair enough.”
But Lacey has a way of stepping on toes and rubbing salt into wounds. He recently lambasted Chuck Taylor, an editor of the Voice-owned Seattle Weekly, for not contacting him for a story Taylor wrote on deadline Sunday night about the deal. The Nashville Scene reported that Lacey said under New Times, “Chuck will pick up the phone and call people.” Which seems a good place to note that that when an L.A. Weekly reporter working on a story about the 2002 closures called Lacey for a comment, Lacey yelled “Go f— yourself” and slammed down the phone.
He can be courtly, though, on occasion. I still remember the wording of Lacey’s staff memo when Marnye Oppenheim, a young writer at the Phoenix paper, died unexpectedly at age 32 after collapsing in the office some weeks earlier. “Another seizure struck,” Lacey wrote, “and good fortune failed all of us.”
The New Times papers are often called “neocon,” which is obviously bizarre but the label has stuck. “New Times was an inveterate establishment basher,” Harold Meyerson, the Weekly’s political editor (and American Prospect’s editor-at-large) wrote after the consent decree, “but its view of who was the establishment and who the outsider was classically neocon.” “Desert libertarianism on the rocks, with sprigs of neocon politics,” Bruce Brugmann, who publishes the paleoleftist alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, complained about New Times in August. (Brugmann has sued New Times and its two San Francisco-area papers, the S.F. Weekly and the East Bay Express, for undercutting Bay Guardian ad rates.)
“Imagine a needy ferret blogging,” Lacey described Brugmann, in an editorial responding to the rival publisher’s accusations. Still, I think the creaky old San Francisco lefty is on to something with that “desert libertarianism” business, although it’s hard to imagine anyone I know at New Times even flipping through Friedrich Hayek. Their editorial tone seems marked by a westerner’s distrust of big government, and they have no more respect than a rattlesnake for liberal pieties set down by the eastern establishment. The L.A. Weekly, on the other hand, has always seemed to take cues from the Nation/American Prospect/Village Voice circuit. “That’s Barbara Ehrenreich’s son,” an editor there once whispered to me when I visited the office, as Weekly staffer Ben Ehrenreich walked by.
The notion that New Times is neocon, though, is just ridiculous. The chain’s big strength has always been its investigative and irreverent focus on local politics, while the defining theme of neoconservatism is a hawkish foreign policy. When New Times L.A. drifted into commenting on foreign affairs (thankfully not often), its anti-Bush tone was predictably confused, ignorant, and reflexively pro-appeasement. (Is there actually such a thing as a dovish neocon?)
There was really no reason befuddled paleoleftists painted New Times with the neocon brush except that Jill Stewart, the L.A. paper’s star columnist, was fiercely against bilingual education and incompetent school administrators, and in favor of making even low-income minority kids learn how to actually read and do math. For this, she was considered by the knee-jerk left reactionary, mean-spirited and therefore, I suppose, neocon–a word whose definition has now expanded to mean “anyone to the right of us.”
Her New Times column constantly attacked the agenda-driven California assembly member Jackie Goldberg (then an agenda-driven L.A. City Council member), which seems to have sent the neocon/j’accuse set into a tizzy. But plenty of people who consider themselves liberal agree with Jill about her ideas on education. And many of my liberal Silver Lake neighbors still resent Jackie Goldberg for being soft on civil disorder. True believers at the Weekly, however, remain fans of Jackie–and also of long, thumbsucking think pieces about multiculturalism, navel-gazing first-person essays, and other features that Mike Lacey generally finds trite and irritating. As I said, I feel for them, once he hits town.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.