News - Chain chain chain
Weekly Planet editor John Sugg comments on the new ownership of Creative Loafing Inc.
Note: This column first appeared in The Weekly Planet, Creative Loafing's sister paper in Tampa, Fla.
When the Weekly Planet announced two weeks ago that it was transforming itself from a decidedly edgy, slightly eccentric and intensely local alternative newspaper into the flagship of a regional media chain backed by Cox Newspapers, here are the memories that flashed through my mind.
In 1972, Atlanta-based Cox ordered its editors to endorse Richard Nixon over George McGovern. It was a blow at the heart of the independence Cox editors had prized and boasted of for years.
The dictate from Atlanta tarnished Cox's reputation and cost the media company two of its best editors. Sylvan Meyer left The Miami News after the endorsement appeared — forced out, due to his outspoken opposition to Nixon.
Gregory Favre, editor of The Palm Beach Post, quit almost immediately after being told he would have no choice but to back Nixon. It was a troubling decision for Favre, who had been nurtured in his career at Cox papers in Dayton, Ohio, and Atlanta, and had been scripted to become one of the top corporate executives in the outfit. But Favre — who for 30 years has served as my model of an ethical journalist — followed the principles he had patiently taught his staff.
I was one of Favre's staff in those days, having gone to work for the Post after college. Not every editor would have welcomed a former state leader of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, who still reeked of tear gas from antiwar demonstrations. Favre seemed to like me, however, and was amused at the firebrand lights flickering in my eyes. He told me to hold tight to my beliefs, but predicted that my sharper edges would mellow with time, which they did.
When Favre resigned, I was in Greece, freelancing stories back to the Post and other publications, and planning to return to the West Palm Beach paper. Once Favre quit, I had little stomach for rejoining the Post, and went to work for The Miami Herald. I held few good feelings about Cox.
That wasn't my final chapter with Cox, however. The Atlanta Constitution hired me as news editor in 1976 — a job I took after receiving assurances from friends at the paper that Cox had learned the error of dictating to editors. It was a helluva lot of fun being a senior editor at the Atlanta paper during Jimmy Carter's presidency; not only could we pick up the phone and immediately get the White House staff on the line, but we (dubbing ourselves the Bad News Bearers) regularly played softball with the president's aides. Then, in the late 1980s, my opinions of Cox flowed back in the negative direction, when the company folded the feisty and respected Miami News.
Still later, when I first talked to the Weekly Planet about a job, a strong selling point for me was that Gregory Favre, my early ethics mentor, was on the Friends of the Planet, our advisory board.
With all that history in mind, you can understand that I had no lack of mixed emotions when the Weekly Planet's owner, Ben Eason, told me a few weeks ago he was contemplating bringing in Cox as a minority partner in a deal to acquire the Creative Loafing group of alternative papers.
Adding dimension to my concern was my intent to become a partner — a very, very, very, minor partner, compared to Cox — in the new company. My fortunes, financially and professionally, were tied to a company that at different times I had revered, respected, disdained and denigrated.
Atlanta-based Creative Loafing Inc., owned mainly by Eason's parents, founded the Tampa alternative paper in the late 1980s. Ben Eason in 1994 bolted from the family company and purchased the Planet. Two years ago, we bought a Sarasota publication and renamed it Weekly Planet. This month, Weekly Planet Inc. closed the deal to purchase the nine-paper Creative Loafing group — with Cox holding 25 percent of the stock in the new 11-paper chain. Ben Eason and his sisters, Taylor and Jennifer, hold more than 60 percent of the stock. We'll retain the corporate name of Creative Loafing Inc.
In the alternative newspaper business, getting involved with daily newspapers is viewed as akin to stepping in dog shit. You begin smelling of "mainstream," which often makes our genre's journalists gag and retch. When alternatives elsewhere have climbed in bed with dailies, there have been outraged calls to expel the apostate publications from the Association of Alternative Newspapers.
Evelina Shmukler, the media critic for Creative Loafing, our former and now new sister paper in Atlanta, last week voiced angst in her column over the deal, fearing that like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the alternative newspaper will become "homogenized and stale." The anxiety is much more palpable in Atlanta, where Cox owns not only the daily newspaper, but also the top-rated news radio station, the TV station with the largest news audience, and pretty much dominates local Web sites. Now Cox has a stake in Creative Loafing, which is the second largest circulation newspaper in all of Georgia.
"Monopoly is a strong term," Shmukler wrote, "but I don't think it's a stretch to leave that word hanging out there."
We don't have that particular concern in Florida. But the Creative Loafing Inc./Cox Newspaper deal is worrisome — to our staff and our readers, about three dozen of whom have called or e-mailed me. Some congratulated us, some expressed amazement or delight that we had become so successful, some saw the hidden landmines of "chaining" and teaming up with Cox, and some chided us for being a bunch of greedy bastards just like the media giants.
I can't argue with any of those viewpoints. Indeed, I share all of them to some degree.
There are things that comfort me. I called Favre, now vice president of news for the McClatchy Co., one of the nation's best newspaper chains, to get his current assessment of Cox and our deal. He called the episode that led to his departure from Cox an "aberration" and noted that Cox hasn't repeated its sin of 1972. "And the people who run Cox all come up from the newsroom, which is good," he commented.
Ben Eason, in putting together the intricate puzzle of the deal, sternly defended the independence of editors. He hired as our two new corporate senior vice presidents principled people with strong editorial backgrounds.
Bill Boyd is a former faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg and the Florida president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Neil Skene is the former editor of the now-defunct Evening Independent in St. Petersburg, and editor and publisher of the St. Petersburg Times-owned Congressional Quarterly.
For any more guarantees, you're going to have to trust the integrity of Eason, Publisher Susan Dix Tibbits (a former editor here), and the Planet's editors, Susan Edwards and me.
Actually, you shouldn't trust us. Ultimately, the readers — skeptical, informed citizens — are the best press watchdogs. What's truly disturbing about the media today is that papers and TV have bludgeoned citizens into passivity.
We don't want numbed readers. Just as we will continue to criticize the "establishment" — government, business, religion, social institutions and, certainly, media — we encourage you to question and, when you feel like it, bash us.