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Merge Baby Merge, The Alternative Press Consolidates

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After years of speculating, bloviating, and bracing in abject horror, it’s official: The two largest alternative weekly newspaper chains have merged into one behemoth. New Times Inc, which owns weeklies in Phoenix, Denver, St. Louis, Kansas City, Berkeley, SF, Cleveland, Houston, Dallas, Miami and Palm Beach has acquired Village Voice Media, which in addition to its eponymous flagship, hosts outlets in LA, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Nashville, Orange County and Seattle.

Total papers: 17, total circ: 1.8 million.

The new monolith will either rule the roost or compete fiercely in 14 of the country's largest 25 metro markets.

New Times will have a controlling interest in the new company (called Village Voice Media) and, as the NY Times reports, plans on buying out its partners within five years.

Not surprisingly, veteran alt. weekly types have not taken this well. Many echo the line of Bruce Brugmann, the SF Bay Guardian’s resident blowhard, that New Times is “"desert libertarianism on the rocks, with sprigs of neocon politics."

In short, a bad thing.

This isn’t what worries me. And let’s face it; Craigslist is wayyy more of a threat to the alt. weekly business model than this Corleone wedding.

While one might shudder at the prospect of more media consolidation, New Times is not Freedom Communications Inc. or Cox. Their papers do incredible reporting. Lots of it. All the time. Serious investigative shit that’s hard, if not impossible, to emulate in the blogosphere. When their papers are good, they’re often the best reads in town.

In fact, readers in many a large metro market would be well served if their alt weekly were gobbled up by the emerging behemoth. Sad but true.

What’s more troubling about this new union is that the Phoenix-based New Times crew will impose its editorial template on the newly acquired papers. The template? Well, it’s like this; Cut your freelance staff. Keep the writers in-house, except for the film reviews, which are syndicated chainwide. And most significantly: Shrink The Editorial Content.

For example, take a look at the current issue of the New Times flagship Phoenix paper: www.phoenixnewtimes.com

For news there’s a cover feature just south of 5000 words about a photography project on the US/Mexico border.

A 1200 word piece on a death row prisoner.

And…that’s it!

Ok, there’s two music pieces, and a ghettoized culture section in the corner of the page. The casual scroller will miss it entirely.

Meanwhile, the Voice is jammed with so many stories that, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to catalogue them all. Ditto that for the LA Weekly, whose political and arts coverage is often second to none.

In short, with New Times there’s less there there. Not to mention that unlike the Village Voice and its sister papers, New Times doesn’t host blogs or create interplay between its web and print versions. Aside from the letters section, there’s no forum for readers to dialogue.

This is no small point since readers, especially the almighty youth market, continue to regard newspapers like herpes on a stick. The ones who don’t expect their pubs to be web based and interactive.

For a good example of how a weekly can meld its print and web versions go here: The Slog: http://www.thestranger.com/blog/

Don’t get me wrong, there’s pros and cons to both models. But readers flipping through a free weekly are looking for; well… it’s often hard to say. Perhaps something surprising.

If the Atlantic Monthly-sized features offered by New Times don't float your boat, you'll have a lot less to choose from. And while bigger isn’t necessarily worse, less isn’t always more.

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Full disclosure: I’ve freelanced for papers in both chains and appreciate their timely, if modest, checks.