The Sept. 22 announcement brought barely a blip among the nation's mainstream media controlled by Mickey Mouse, Westinghouse and General Electric. But news that the Village Voice and six other highly successful and profitable alternative newsweeklies are up for sale sent a jolt through our industry. Are we, the irreverent gang of alternative press, destined to wear Dilbert suits, get haircuts like the one sported by The Gazette's business dish Rich Laden and spoon up the status quo after all?
Leonard Stern, who bought the papers from Rupert Murdoch 14 years ago, based his decision to sell on the fact that his kids aren't interested in running the papers. In addition to the Village Voice, Stern Publishing also owns LA Weekly, Seattle Weekly and papers in Orange County, Calif.; Cleveland; Minneapolis; and Long Island.
The newspapers all belong to the 125-member, national Association of Alternative Weeklies. Despite a few conglomerates like New York-based Stern Publishing and New Times of Phoenix, which owns 10 alternatives including Denver's Westword, most of the alternative newsweeklies are independently owned, including this paper, which has been an AAN member since 1994.
In Stern's case, with $80 million in annual revenues, the price tag for his seven papers is estimated between $160 million and $200 million, almost certainly mandating that a large corporation buy the properties.
"The pending sale raises serious questions about the survival of politically activist, advocacy journalism for wide audiences," noted Don Hazen of the Independent Media Institute.
Industry insiders are alarmed that the sale potentially opens the floodgates for a takeover by corporate-controlled conglomerates like Gannett or Knight-Ridder. However, in the age of the Internet, a whole new set of dynamics are in place. Companies, like Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo, Ticketmaster Online, AT & T and the Los Angeles Times parent, Times-Mirror, have all been bandied about as possible purchasers.
Times-Mirror already dipped its foot in the alternative-media pot when it snatched up five weeklies in New England last spring. The rationale for wanting in is easy to fathom: Circulation at daily papers, including the Gazette, is declining while readership of weekly alternatives has grown by more than 50 percent since 1992.
In other words, those wacky readers just seem to appreciate investigative news that is not controlled by PR flaks or the local or national Powers That Be, as well as thoughtful coverage of the arts, extensive entertainment listings and really funny cartoons.
So it's alarming, and ironic, that the Village Voice is now facing the possibility of being gobbled up by a company with the power to squash its voice like an icky bug. The paper, co-founded in 1955 by author Norman Mailer, is considered the bedrock of the anti-establishment genre of authority-questioning alternative journalism.
In a Sept. 24 Chicago Tribune story, AAN president and Denver's Westword Editor Patty Calhoun laid it out flat, in her usual style.
"If we sell to dailies, then what are we alternative to?" she asked. "We thought daily-newspaper owners were evil. There's no telling what's coming now."
Maybe employee health plans that require lobotomies for everyone.
So you haven't yet figured out how to nab a sweet gig as a high-priced consultant for the city? Not to worry. Consider the lucrative field of nonprofits. After the Associated Press released a list of the highest-paid nonprofit executives in the United States a week or so ago, we sure have.
Take, for example, Jere Radcliffe, the chief Scout executive of Texas-based Boy Scouts of America. Radcliffe is pulling in more than $537,000 a year in salary, bonuses and benefits. Paul Le Clerc, president of the New York Public Library, earns about $432,000, which includes housing costs, benefits and up-front pension money. Edwin J. Feulner Jr., who runs the Washington-based, conservative Heritage Foundation, pulls in nearly $517,000, which includes a six-figure bonus, benefits and expense money.
The U.S. Olympic Committee Executive Director, Richard D. Schultz wins the gold for nonprofit wealth here in Colorado Springs. As the chief operating officer for the Olympic Committee, Schultz wears a big heavy medal around his neck that translates to $609,000 per annum.
Breking it down, Schultz gets a salary of $483,665, which includes $109,000 in deferred compensation, plus $125,000 in benefits. For this, he oversees a staff of nearly 500 people who fund raise, train athletes and engage in public relations.
"What we are is the largest sports organization in the U.S, and [Schultz] is likened to one of the heads of the major league [sports] commissioners," said USOC spokesman Mike Moran.
Not bad for a guy who started his career as the basketball and baseball coach at the University of Iowa. But if you think the half-million-plus is a hefty chunk of change, compare Schultz's salary to sports bosses in the for-profit sector, like NBA Commissioner David Stern, who gets paid a reported $7 million a year.
"All of the commissioners make salaries that are in the seven figures," Moran report. "[Schultz's] compensation pales by comparison."
His sacrifice is enough to make you cry.