Times Mirror swallows the Advocate weeklies, raising serious questions
about the future of the alternative press
by Dan Kennedy
On an enchanted evening late last month, Geoff Robinson and his wife, Reihana
Robinson, were in a celebratory mood. The previous week, Geoff and his ex-wife,
Christine Austin, had announced they were selling the five Advocate
weekly newspapers, which they'd published for 26 years, to the Hartford
Courant. Now the Robinsons were marking the occasion with a quiet dinner at
a Northampton-area restaurant.
Soon they were spotted by author Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action), who
had worked for the Advocate chain in the late '70s and early '80s. Harr
and his old boss exchanged pleasantries and talked about the sale; Robinson
insisted that he hadn't done it for the money.
"He said there were other buyers that wanted to pay more money," Harr recalls.
"But he sold to the Hartford Courant because he thinks they're the ones
who are going to do the best job keeping it as an alternative voice." Harr
pauses before continuing, "I don't know where he gets that idea."
If Robinson didn't do it for the money, he did pretty well nevertheless.
According to one estimate, he and Austin split $17 million to
$20 million. And, of course, they had every right to cash in.
But by selling to the Courant, which in turn is owned by the Times
Mirror Company, one of the country's largest media conglomerates (its flagship
is the Los Angeles Times), they have struck fear into the hearts of
their staff, abandoned their readers to the whims of monopoly media, and dealt
a blow to the alternative press that could have dangerous long-term
"If he's smart, he'll never step into this building again," a bitter
Advocate staffer says of Robinson. (Robinson, reached at home, declined
to discuss the sale with the Boston Phoenix. Austin could not be reached
In a media nation in which virtually every daily newspaper is owned by one of
a half-dozen or so megacorporations, and nearly every major city is served by
just one daily (Boston is a fortunate exception), alternative weeklies such as
the Advocate papers serve a crucial role as a critical, independent
voice. But the Advocate has now been neutered. Nowhere is that more true
than in Hartford, the largest city served by the chain. The Hartford
Advocate has morphed overnight from the Courant's nemesis into a
marketing tool for clueless Courant executives trying to figure out how
to appeal to those crazy twentysomethings with their coffee addictions and body
Even worse, the acquisition of the Advocate -- the first time a major
daily chain has purchased its alternative competition -- could be the start of
a sad trend. Rapacious media executives will no doubt take note of how easily
the Advocate was silenced and start looking at those pesky, and
economically attractive, weeklies in their own backyards. "We live in a
monkey-see, monkey-do media world," says Danny Schechter, a veteran progressive
journalist and media activist. "If the Times Mirror Company, powerful as it is,
starts buying up community papers, then other chains are going to think they
have to do it in order to stay competitive." Adds Ben Bagdikian, author of the
classic critique The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, 1997): "The
alternative paper as a distinctive, progressive, cutting-edge medium is rapidly
Despite the anti-competitive implications of the Advocate sellout, the
Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission waved the deal through last
week -- hardly surprising in an era when even megamergers such as the
Fleet-BankBoston combination encounter little more than a speed bump from
Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal has pledged publicly to
investigate the sale, but he doesn't sound eager to piss off his state's
largest, most influential newspaper. "Our review is ongoing, and we hope to
conclude it in the near future," he told the Phoenix. "I really can't
Indeed, at this point, the only obstacle standing in the way of Times Mirror's
monopolistic quest is a quixotic lawsuit bankrolled by Bruce Brugmann, the
iconoclastic owner of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and an outspoken
opponent of chain ownership. The suit -- filed in federal district court on
behalf of an auto dealer and a Connecticut woman -- claims that the demise of
competition will do irreparable harm both to advertisers and to readers.
(See other coverage below.)
"I'm mad as hell about this. It's the worst threat to face the alternative
press ever. It's horrible," says Brugmann, whom Robinson has cited, ironically,
as a role model. "If alternative papers sell to the local daily competition,
they no longer have any reason to exist. And pretty soon they will not
Just a few weeks before Geoff Robinson became a very rich man, he was telling
folks that his papers weren't for sale. But though the timing -- and the
identity of the buyer -- were a shock, few observers are surprised that he and
Austin finally decided they'd had enough.
The Advocate chain was born in 1973, when two young editors at the
Courant, Robinson and Ed Matys, quit their jobs, borrowed $1500 apiece,
and started the Valley Advocate. Matys left early on, but the paper he
helped found eventually multiplied. In addition to the Valley Advocate,
which serves the Northampton and Springfield areas, New Mass. Media (as
Robinson and Austin later named their company) published the Hartford
Advocate, the New Haven Advocate, and the much smaller Fairfield
County (Connecticut) Weekly and Westchester County (New
York) Weekly. About 270,000 papers are given away free each week; the
Hartford paper, with a circulation of 70,000, is the largest.
During the past few years, life at the Mother Ship -- New Mass. Media's
headquarters in Hatfield, Massachusetts -- has been tense. Robinson and Austin
divorced several years ago, and though insiders say they have done their best
to put a smiley face on their acrimonious relationship, the split left the
Advocate papers leaderless -- or, to be more accurate, led in
contradictory directions depending on who had the upper hand at any given
"Their personal battle made the top management here really dysfunctional,"
says an insider. "It just sort of made everybody neurotic, so on that level I
think it's just going to make everyone healthier for them not to be here."
Thus, it's not surprising that staff members at the New Haven Advocate
and the Valley Advocate are cautiously optimistic about Times Mirror
ownership. Presumably, they can keep whacking away at the dailies in whose
shadows they labor, the New Haven Register (owned by the bottom-feeding
Journal Register chain) and the Springfield Union-News (owned by the
Newhouse chain). And though Times Mirror's alternative sensibility approximates
that of, say, Paul Harvey, Advocate sources say they have no reason not
to believe Courant publisher Marty Petty, who has announced a hands-off
policy regarding the management of her new acquisitions.
"Being independent or throwing on the name 'alternative' doesn't guarantee
that what you read is accurate, fair, lively, intelligent, any of those
things," insists Valley Advocate managing editor Tom Vannah. "I'm
happier with the Hartford Courant than with a lot of scenarios I could
envision. But if they start fucking with the newsrooms, see you later."
A realistic take for someone enjoying the relative isolation of the Happy
Valley, far from any Times Mirror properties. Not so realistic if you're
editing an alternative weekly in Hartford, and the 212,000-circulation
Courant (298,000 on Sundays) just went from being The Enemy to being The
In a note to readers titled "Free and Unfettered," posted on the Hartford
Advocate's Web site this week, publisher Francis Zankowski and editor Janet
Reynolds say they intend to hold their new master to its pledge of
non-interference. "We won't let them change us -- not now, not in the future,"
reads the note. "We may be getting sold, but we'll never sell out. We
Reynolds, in an interview, is, if anything, even more adamant about the
Advocate's mission under Courant ownership. "We don't define
ourselves as the anti-Courant; that would be too narrow. But we take
potshots at them and call them to task on a regular basis. And I don't see that
changing one iota. If anything, I might err on the side of doing it more," she
says. And her defiance boils over when she talks about Robinson and Austin's
decision to sell the paper to the very daily Reynolds must battle every week.
"I've been pretty measured in my public comments up to this point, but now I
will use the 'betray' word," Reynolds says. "We do feel betrayed, especially
here in Hartford. How could we not? The road that we have to walk on now is
different from even the road our sister papers have to walk on. It is so
antithetical to everything that I believe alternative journalism is about. I
think it's unconscionable."
Shortly after the sale was announced, Courant staffer David Daley wrote
a piece for his paper's weekly "Cal" section (an arts-and-listings tab that
Reynolds believes was, uh, inspired by the Advocate) lambasting the
Advocate as a dull parody of an alternative paper (for good measure, he
took a few shots at the Village Voice and the Phoenix as well),
and referring to "talk . . . of the Advocate's spirit and
voice and independence" as "bleary-eyed, nostalgia-addled revisionism."
Daley's critique was one of a series of newspaper and magazine articles
published in recent years that have taken the alternative press to task for
(pick one) indulging in its progressive-left, community-activist roots at a
time when that brand of politics has become irrelevant -- or, conversely, for
abandoning those roots and selling out.
Daley's argument that the Courant can't make the Advocate any
worse is false, even dangerous. Like all papers, the Hartford Advocate
could be better or worse than it is right now. What it can't be, ever again, is
an independent voice. Defining the term "alternative newspaper" is tricky, but
one essential definition is this: it must be willing to take on the dominant
mainstream media as the powerful institutions they are.
It's one thing for Reynolds to insist that the Advocate will continue
to produce snarky features such as its recent April Fools' Day parody; it's
quite another to ponder what would happen if an Advocate reporter
uncovered evidence of corruption in the Courant's executive suite. At
best, the Advocate can be the court jester, lampooning the follies of
its powerful lord and master. But it is naive to think that it will be allowed
to do anything that would seriously challenge the Courant's power. For
people such as Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes and Courant publisher Petty,
buying the Advocate is an easy way of reaching youngish people who don't
read daily papers. If it works, great. If it doesn't, well, they'll try
Geoff Robinson may have told Jon Harr that the Courant didn't offer the
most money, and who knows? Maybe it didn't. Advocate staffers say
Robinson and Austin were wary of selling to either of the two major
alternative-newspaper chains -- the Phoenix, Arizona-based New Times or Stern
Publishing, owner of the Village Voice -- fearing that they would cut
staff to pay down the debt they would presumably have to take on. But there's
no question that the Advocate papers, and especially the Hartford paper,
were more valuable to the Courant than they would be to another buyer,
because they help to solidify Times Mirror's monopoly. (The company also owns
two other Connecticut dailies, the Stamford Advocate and the
The Association for Alternative Newsweeklies estimated this week, based on
inside information and some guesswork, that the Courant paid between
$17 million and $20 million. That's a premium: New Mass. Media's
annual revenues last year were reportedly $14 million to $15 million,
and all things being equal, alternative papers sell for roughly their annual
But why wouldn't the Courant pay a premium? Not long before it gobbled
up the Advocate, it made a much less publicized deal, buying Valu-Mail,
a direct-mail advertiser. Chris Powell, managing editor of the Manchester
Journal Inquirer, an independently owned daily in the Hartford suburbs,
says the Courant's ownership of the Advocate and Valu-Mail now
gives it up to 95 percent of the print-advertising market in the city and
a number of surrounding communities.
"This is monopolism in its rawest, rankest form, and the authorities should do
something about it," Powell says. "We've gotten out of practice in exercising
anti-trust law over the past 10 or 20 years, and it's time to get back into
shape. Nobody should own Connecticut, not even Times Mirror."
Later this month, at their annual convention in Memphis, the 112 members of the
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies will face a rather momentous decision:
whether to reduce their numbers by throwing out the Advocate papers.
Under AAN bylaws, "alternatives" owned by dailies are ineligible to join,
although executive director Richard Karpel says it's less clear what should
happen when an existing member is bought by a daily.
But even if the Advocates get the boot, don't look for any further bold
action from AAN -- which is, after all, an organization of owners, many of whom
have no doubt taken note of Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin's big payday.
San Francisco's Bruce Brugmann will be pushing for AAN to fight against chain
ownership. (Brugmann's Bay Guardian competes with the New Times-owned
SF Weekly in addition to the daily Chronicle and Examiner
-- papers that have merged their business operations but continue to compete
editorially under a government-approved "joint operating agreement," an
arrangement that Brugmann charges is anti-competitive.) But Karpel says
Brugmann's views are likely to be in the minority. "It certainly isn't a
healthy development when a local daily paper buys its only competition in its
market," Karpel allows. He adds, however, that the price inflation caused by
such deals "isn't necessarily a bad thing" from the owners' perspective. No
Lou Golden, the Courant's deputy publisher, wants to sound reassuring.
The Courant is already looking for a chief executive for the
Advocate with a strong background in the alternative press, he says, and
he reiterates his company's promise to leave well enough alone. "It would be
incredibly foolish of us to change anything in that formula, which has provided
them with that success," he says.
But for the Courant, and for Times Mirror, the Advocate papers
have been a mighty satisfying snack. And, like any corporate shark, Golden just
can't stay away from the food metaphor. "If you go to a restaurant, if the food
is good, you keep going back because you like the food," he says. "It's the
same thing with a publication. If it serves what you need, then you tend to
keep going back."
Trouble is, what readers in Hartford and Northampton and Springfield and
Fairfield County and Westchester County need is an independent media voice.
That has been chewed up and swallowed. And it's not coming back.
OTHER COVERAGE: Our friends at the San Francisco Bay
Guardian have been covering the Advocate sale since
it was announced in late April.
Media reporter Tali Woodward's April 21
coverage of the sale.
Bay Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond's
comments on the sale.
editorial on the anti-trust aspect of the Advocate sale.
Report of the suit filed in District Court to block the sale (skip down past the stuff about
Pacific Gas and Electric).
Text of the suit.
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here