Merger mania

Lacey to Voice staff: Drop dead

By Tim Redmond

tredmond@sfbg.com

The merger between the nation's two largest alternative newspaper chains was finally consummated Jan. 31, and the very next day, Mike Lacey, the new owner of the Village Voice, was in New York City giving the staff the facts of life.

Lacey met with Voice staffers Feb. 1, and, according to sources who were present at the meeting, announced that the Voice news section was too soft because it was full of commentary and criticism of the Bush administration. He said he didn't want any more commentary — just hard news and long-form human-interest stories.

He also insulted the entire news department by saying Voice reporters "need to stop being stenographers" and, the sources told the Guardian, warned the staff "to be ready to say goodbye to some of your friends."

When one participant said the description of the staff as "stenographers" was unfair, Lacey reportedly responded, "So, I'm unfair."

The Voice carried no news on the closure of the deal, which combines New Times Media and Village Voice Media. Scott Spear, senior vice president of the new company, announced the consummation of the merger in a terse release stating that the big chain will take the Village Voice Media name and publish alternative weeklies in 17 markets.

Although New Times will control the merged outfit, the corporate name was quickly changed on the mastheads of New Times papers. At this point, New Times Media is effectively gone.

The company will also run a national advertising outfit that will have immense marketplace clout. By selling ads into weeklies in markets that include New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, and San Francisco, the Ruxton Group will threaten independent weeklies all over the country and their ability to sell national advertising. There are 23 alternative newsweeklies in California, and the San Francisco and Los Angeles markets, where independent or smaller operations are competing with VVM, will see the greatest impact.

The new Village Voice Media owns SF Weekly and the East Bay Express, which were part of the New Times chain, and now owns LA Weekly and OC Weekly, which were part of the old VVM.

The US Justice Department signed off early on the deal, even though the two chains were caught in 2002 in an illegal market-allocation agreement (see "New Times Nailed," 1/29/03).

California attorney general Bill Lockyer is still investigating whether the merger could violate the consent decree the two companies signed to settle the 2002 antitrust charges and whether it will lessen competition in the state. A decision is expected shortly.

Meanwhile, documents obtained by us from a source close to the Village Voice show the New Times managers will inherit a company that, despite its progressive politics, has profound salary differentials between the executive and staff levels. While most staff writers earned between $40,000 and $50,000 in 2005, the records show, editor in chief Dan Forst, who recently left his job, was paid $324,567. While some classified sales reps and receptionists made less than $30,000, the outgoing publisher, Judy Miszner, made $238,702.

SFBG

PS Full disclosure: The Guardian is suing New Times (now VVM), the East Bay Express and SF Weekly, alleging that the chain is using predatory pricing to try to put an independent competitor out of business.