The Express, the Planet and Village Voice Media

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By Tim Redmond

The new owners of the East Bay Express are settling into their offices -- and already, the current and former ownership has become something of an issue. The Berkelely Daily Planet last week quoted Express editor Steve Buel -- who ran the paper when it was owned by Village Voice Media (formerly New Times) and is now part of the independent ownership group -- saying some rather unkind things about his former bosses:

While Buel wouldn’t confirm reports which had the Express alone losing $500,000 every year, but he did say that the previous owner, New Times—which owned the paper outright between 2001 and late 2005 before merging with VVM—“doesn’t do well in places with competition.”

He added, “If you look at the paper in the past year or so, you will see that it has gotten a lot thinner.” The chain does well in places like Denver, Phoenix and Miami, he said, “which are basically suburban markets, which are not competitive. But they didn’t do well here.”

Now, “out from under the ax of New Times, we will be able to make a much better paper,” Buel said.

I was a bit startled to read those comments, since Buel has never said anything harsh about the big VVM/NT chain, and in fact defended chain management at some length when the two of us debated the issue at a forum a few months back.

But of course, Buel is absolutely right:

VVM/New Times has never done well in competitive markets, is getting hammered in the Bay Area, and was forced to cut and run, giving Buel, Hal Brody and six other investors the paper at a fire-sale price. The only strategy the chain could muster was to cut ad prices so low that the Express (and the SF Weekly, the VVM/New Times paper on this side of the Bay) were hemorrhaging cash.

That predatory pricing is the basis for our ongoing lawsuit against the chain, and it's left the new Express owners with a bit of a quandry: It's going to be tough to raise ad rates to a normal level, since the chain has depressed the market. But I'm confident the new management will figure something out to make the paper sucessful again.

In the meantime, though, Buel has tried to back off a bit from his criticism. In a letter posted on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies web site, he wrote:

I am very proud of the time I have spent working for New Times and Village Voice Media. Under their guidance, the Express enlarged its editorial staff, professionalized its reporting, sharpened its news coverage, and tightened its writing. While we will indeed do some things differently at the new Express, it would be very unfortunate if your source's selective quotation of my comments left anyone with the impression that I have a low regard for the company I've spent the last six years working for. In fact, they are the best employers I've ever had.

When I called Buel yesterday, he didn't deny his comments to the Planet and said he didn't think he was misquoted. But he said that, in a 25-minute conversation with Daily Planet reporter Richard Brenneman, he had been a lot more nuanced and that the comments didn't reflect his overall (and more positive) attitude toward VVM/New Times.

Which is too bad: The chain has screwed up two alt-weeklies in the Bay Area, turned numerous others in their 17 cities into cookie-cutter clones, undermined the progressive editorial vision of the industry and tried desperately to drive competitors like us out of business. And Buel and his co-owners are going to have trouble getting out from under the problems they have inherited.

And the VVM/New Times tentacles are still wrapped around the Express, which is still doing cross-Bay sales with the SF Weekly and still using the VVM national ad firm, Ruxton.

There's also a little confusion about who the new owners actually are, so let me clear this up as well as I can. According to Hal Brody, there are eight investors who have formed a Delaware limited liability corporation. Brody is the single largest investor, but no individual owns 51 percent of the company. Buel and some friends of his raised half the money, and Brody and his friends raised half, but there all the owners are part of the single LLC.

We know that Buel, Brody, Kelly Vance (an original Express founder) and Bradley Zeve, who owns the Monterey County Weekly, are four of the investors. Brody won't say who the other investors are, which is kind of silly, since in a few weeks, when the Delaware authorities get the paperwork processed, this will all be public record anyway.

"We're not releasing those names at this time," Brody told me, "but if you care enough to get the records from Delaware, be my guest."