By Ian Morrison
Steve May, who with his wife, Cherry Fisher May, owns the Lafayette area's new weekly newspaper, The Independent, calls the media leviathan Gannett Company "the 800-pound gorilla of Louisiana," and says he wants to take his best shot at it. Ted Power, publisher of the Gannett-owned weekly The Times of Acadiana, dismisses the competition. "I think people aren't looking for another general-interest publication," he says.
Whatever the outcome, it's sure to be an interesting brawl -- and one with a lot of old baggage.
The Mays, once the independent owners of The Times of Acadiana, had built the paper's reputation for fearless journalism -- which included its constant skewering of the Lafayette daily newspaper, The Daily Advertiser. Because of The Times' relentless criticism of the daily, jaws dropped in 1998 when the couple sold the paper for an estimated $14 million to the Canadian-based Thomson Corp. -- owners of The Advertiser. The Mays moved to Florida.
Though the papers remained physically separate, the implications, to many, were clear: with its two papers now belonging to one owner, Lafayette had lost a strong editorial voice.
In 2000, Thomson decided to shift its focus to Internet communications, software and business services. That year, Thomson sold 21 publications to Gannett in a massive $1.12 billion unloading of its media assets. Among them were The Daily Advertiser and The Times of Acadiana. The two publications remained in their separate buildings until Hurricane Lili hit last year, damaging The Times' offices. This summer, Gannett publisher Ted Power advised employees at both papers that the arrangement would become more permanent: former competitors The Advertiser and The Times would now be sharing both a newsroom and advertising staff.
It was Gannett, Steve May says, that brought him out of retirement.
Earlier this year, Steve and Cherry Fisher May and longtime business partner Odie Terry bought the 8-year-old Lifestyle Lafayette with the intent of transforming the monthly arts and entertainment publication into a cutting-edge, independently owned alternative weekly. Most of the Lifestyle Lafayette employees decided to stay on and join the staff of The Independent.
Gannett's presence in the state motivated the move to get back into Louisiana media, May says. Gannett, which owns five of Louisiana's 21 daily papers, is "on the verge of owning Louisiana. They are two markets away from total ownership concentration."
The new Independent launched in August with editor Jeff Gremillion; former Gambit Weekly music editor Scott Jordan is the new paper's senior editor. May plans to turn The Independent into a weekly by fall.
New Orleans-based writer Jason Berry, a former Times of Acadiana contributor, wrote The Independent's first cover story, a profile of gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. He says he is elated at May's return to the newspaper business, and describes him as an outspoken critic who was willing to challenge the big-media Goliaths of a community.
"He created a news voice in a town that had a wretched daily newspaper," Berry says. "My hope is that Steve will remain true to his feisty molecular composition."
In its heyday, the 33,000-circulation Times of Acadiana made big waves. Berry and his former editor, the late Richard Baudouin, were key players in The Times' aggressive coverage of the burgeoning Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals in the mid-1980s.
Despite organized opposition from the largely Catholic community served by The Times, the Mays supported Berry's extensive reporting on the crisis and Baudouin's explosive 1986 editorial calling for Bishop Gerard Frey to resign. The owners continued to defend The Times' stance even in the face of a massive advertising boycott.
In 1993, The Times again made national headlines; this time over an incident related to the Ku Klux Klan. In response to an editorial on free speech written by Baudouin, a Klan member appeared at the newspaper with $900 to purchase a large advertisement delineating the Klan's beliefs. The Times ran the ad, but gave the money to local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Klanwatch. The story made front-page news in The Wall Street Journal.
"I don't blame Steve for selling," says Berry. "But the paper never achieved the plateau of quality that it had."
May admits they sold The Times to the Thomson Corp. "because they offered a lot of money." But he insists there's a world of difference between Thomson and Gannett. "[Thomson] understood that to maintain their market share, all they had to do was maintain the quality of those papers," May says. "Gannett has only one way it knows. It views them not as viable and healthy parts of a mix, but as obstacles to the success of the cookie cutter."
He says Thomson made a "very serious effort" to leave The Times alone -- until the Gannett sale, which increased Gannett's overall newspaper circulation by 466,000.
May paints the consolidation of the two papers -- not his original sale -- as the death knell for The Times' independence. But questions about The Times' "alternative" status first emerged when the Mays sold the weekly to Thomson. That year, the national trade organization the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies decided not to grant The Times of Acadiana a membership due to an AAN clause prohibiting a member paper from being owned by a company that also runs a daily.
AAN Executive Director Richard Karpel recalls the Times of Acadiana incident as an unusual case. At the time, AAN's "Daily Paper Clause" was not clear yet, says Karpel, and The Times case pushed the organization to sharpen and redefine it.
"They can't join the association if they are published by a daily," Karpel says. "An existing member can be a member, even if bought by a daily." The Times did not contest the decision, nor did it seek to rejoin, Karpel says.
Dr. Robert Buckman, a journalism professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, recalls more tension surrounding the initial sale of The Times than Steve May acknowledges. "People at The Times were wondering if he had sold out for 30 pieces of silver," Buckman says. "Traditionally, Steve May took delight in slaughtering The Daily Advertiser's sacred cows. Instead of slaughtering them, they were (now) feeding them and milking them."
Very few small newspapers have competed with Gannett and won. Among the few victors was Arkansas Democrat publisher Walter J. Hussman Jr., whose story is documented by author Richard McCord in his 1996 book, The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire.
Hussman became publisher of the Democrat in 1974, competing for an advertising and readership market against the Arkansas Gazette, which had been in operation since 1819. After a series of near catastrophes and a major antitrust suit, Hussman had nearly put his competitor out of business. Less than a year later, in 1986, Gannett bought the Gazette. The purchase began a five-year-long newspaper war pitting Hussman against a seemingly insurmountable opponent.
"Both papers lost a whole lot of money," McCord says, explaining that the smaller paper eventually prevailed because "Gannett just decided it didn't want to lose any more."
Gannett had bought the paper for $51 million, assuming around $9 million in debt. As reported to the U.S. Justice Department, Gannett bled $25 million in operating the Gazette the year before its demise. It sold the paper to the Democrat for $69 million.
Gannett's operations are global, extending from Louisiana to Hong Kong by way of Europe and Guam. The chain's 114 daily newspapers in the United States have a total circulation of 7.7 million. Its 22 television stations, which cover 17.7 percent of the nation, span 44 states. Its print assets also include more than 400 non-daily publications and USA Today, the most profitable daily in the United States. In Louisiana, besides publishing The Daily Advertiser and The Times of Acadiana, Gannett controls The Times of Shreveport, the Monroe News-Star and The Alexandria Daily Town Talk.
"They've had a pattern of saturation," McCord says of Gannett. "They got to where they were swapping newspapers with other chains to get a geographic hold. They've been doing this as a growth pattern ... they just keep growing."
McCord believes the only advantages the Mays will have against the competition are their reputation and money. Without either of those assets, he says, they cannot stay in business against an adversary with seemingly infinite financial resources. "Gannett's not invincible; it is a juggernaut," McCord says. "These advertisers, they don't care about the quality of the journalism -- but they do care if the guy has a good reputation."
Currently, Gannett is trying to attract younger readers with weeklies that focus mostly on lifestyle and entertainment news. The Cincinnati Enquirer, a Gannett-owned daily, has announced plans to publish a new weekly by the end of the year. Gannett tested the waters with weeklies in Lansing, Mich., and Boise, Idaho, and is now aiming for larger markets such as Louisville, Ky. Gannett's rash of new youth-oriented publications are the fruits of a corporate task force dubbed Rx Prescription for Readership Growth.
Ted Power, a former editor and general manager of a Gannett newspaper in Tennessee, became publisher of The Advertiser and The Times of Acadiana in December. He says the consolidation of Advertiser and Times operations was intended to make both papers more efficient. A consolidated ad staff could reach more advertisers, and The Times could incorporate work by The Advertiser's news staff, he says. A Times reporter could write for The Advertiser, he says, and vice versa.
Power says that the papers remain separate entities, have different missions and audiences, and neither gets priority over the other. "In the long run, the distinctions to who works for whom might not be as apparent," Power says. "We use the products to promote each publication."
Power admits that The Times of Acadiana has declined in quality since Gannett's acquisition. He says it's not due to a lack of independence, but because "The Times has been neglected." Power says he's at work on a business plan to revamp The Times. But he says he has no plans to keep the paper going in the alternative weekly vein of its previous incarnation -- the style favored by his new competitors.
"Alternatives tend to rely a little bit more on not naming sources, which runs contrary to things we're trying to do," Power says.
May dismisses Power's comment. "That would be a source of enormous entertainment to knowledgeable journalism observers around the country who have watched the alternative-weekly press compete head-to-head with their daily brethren, and distinguish themselves by winning every local, state and national press award that they're allowed to compete in with daily competitors," May says.
May believes Gannett is on a mission to shrink The Times of Acadiana into oblivion, and accuses the company of taking a "ham-handed" approach in trying to trash The Times without drawing attention. "They should stop acting like they're trying to preserve it. They should go ahead and shoot it and bury it and get it over with," he says.
If the Aug. 15 debut issue of The Independent provides any indication, the Mays' new paper plans to pick up the combative spirit of their old, pre-sale Times. In it, a media story tackles the current relationship between the weekly Times and the daily Advertiser. The headline reads: "Inside The Times-ertiser."
Last Wednesday, the New Orleans Legal Assistance and attorney Bill Quigley filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of five local homeless people -- Tyrone Henry, Jeff Jones, Joann Monroe, Carnell Satcher and Vergie Wells. The filing alleges that, at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2002, the City of New Orleans and members of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) violated the civil rights of the two women and three men by arresting them while they were waiting for their paychecks outside a temp agency in the Central Business District ("Walking While Homeless," Sept. 24, 2002). Defendants named in the filing are the city, NOPD superintendent Eddie Compass, Eighth District commander Louis Dabdoub and the arresting officer, Corey Porter. The court is asked to award compensatory and punitive damages and a judgment to prevent these types of "illegal and wanton violations" in the future.
The arrest came on a Wednesday -- payday at Mari-Clean, a 24-hour temporary-employment agency that specializes in cleaning ships docked in the Port of New Orleans. Police initially put all five plaintiffs up against the wall and frisked them. The two women were issued citations to appear in municipal court and the three men were taken to Orleans Parish Prison, where they stayed for three months until the city attorney dropped the charges. This is no coincidence, according to the lawsuit, but is rather part of the plan, "a policy, practice, and custom ... of arresting homeless persons for obstruction of a public passage without probable cause and with the knowledge that they will remain jailed while awaiting trial due to their inability to post bond."
NOPD spokesperson Capt. Marlon Defillo declined comment because the NOPD has not yet had an opportunity to review the lawsuit.
The arrest in question took place not long after the much-publicized "French Quarter cleanup." The police department said that homeless people had been openly violating quality-of-life ordinances by urinating, drinking heavily and acting disorderly. Agencies and people who work with the homeless charged the NOPD with making needless arrests of homeless people on relatively unproveable charges such as obstructing public passage and public drunkenness.
The debate has subsided in recent months, but the situation for local homeless people has not improved, says Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity for the Homeless, the lead agency of 70 homeless providers that combat homelessness in New Orleans by providing emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing, and case-management services.
Arrest should be used as a last resort, Kegel says. "Homeless people lose jobs because they're in jail; they miss appointments with doctors and psychiatrists; they frequently aren't given their medication while they're in jail; and they're released without their ID so they then can't get another job or even enter a homeless shelter," she says. Recently, the NOPD was awarded a grant from Baptist Community Ministries that addresses interactions between police officers and the homeless. Both Kegel and Defillo are hopeful that this grant will lead a more harmonious relationship.
Kegel says that the grant comes at a particularly stressful time. During the past month, she says, she's heard an increase in complaints from homeless providers -- one of which came from Stacy Horn Koch, executive director of Covenant House, which works with homeless youth. On Aug. 18, Horn Koch alleges, Covenant House outreach team workers wearing identification badges were working in the C.J. Peete housing development when two Sixth District NOPD officers ordered them to hit the "f--ing ground," then handcuffed them and searched their pockets and outreach bag, while telling them to "shut the f--k up." They were eventually released, says Horn Koch, but only after being told that they should "stay out of the f--king projects."
Defillo says that the two outreach workers had walked into a courtyard where narcotics officers were "conducting major surveillance." They saw, he says, "an African American and a Caucasian American with brown paper bags walking into a courtyard which is notorious not only for drug activity but for gunfire and murders." Officers first had "reasonable suspicion" that the two were involved in drug activity, and then -- once that suspicion was eliminated -- were concerned about the safety of the outreach team, he says.
"If these individuals want to provide health information, we support that. However, given the locale, given the history, we ask that they please let us know so that we can provide security for them," Defillo says.
But Horn Koch is not convinced. "That's the first I'd heard about that," she says. "Maybe there was major surveillance but they have no right to treat my outreach workers like that. More importantly, our police officers should not be talking to anyone like that."