Cowtown Coup

FW Weekly sells out to big, bad New Times Inc.

John Forsyth was less than thrilled when he got the news. Forsyth, editor of the Fort Worth alternative paper FW Weekly since Day One in April 1996, had heard rumors that the newspaper was about to be sold to those evil bastards from Phoenix--widely reviled New Times Inc., the largest publisher of alternative weeklies in the country and owners of the Dallas Observer--but when the deal was confirmed late last week, he was still upset.

He and the rest of the shell-shocked staff knew what this meant and were well aware of the infamous New Times rep. The kudzu-like chain would come in here, just as it did in San Francisco and Los Angeles and 30 miles east in Dallas, and clean house. New Times would fire everyone, import its cynical automaton editors, and begin the slow, inevitable process of crapping all over Cowtown. It would institute the

chain's humorless brand of "knee-capping" journalism, write one-sided and unfair stories every week about whoever was dumb or unlucky enough to get in the paper's crosshairs. New Times would apply its cookie-cutter corporate stamp to the paper, do away with all the things that made FW Weekly scrappy and fun. It would become--Lord, it hurt even to think this thought--the Fort Worth Observer.

So when the staff gathered Friday morning for a meet-and-greet with Observer editor Julie Lyons and New Times executive editor, co-chairman, and (by reputation) chief bad-ass Michael Lacey, the mood was, ah, not heartwarming. Even though a cheery press release would soon be faxed out to the media quoting FW Weekly publisher Robert Camuto as saying, "This is the best thing for FW Weekly, for our readers, and the community," few in that room believed it.

"I was disappointed that this chapter of our history is over," Forsyth said Monday, after he had a few days to reflect and recharge. "It was a lot of fun. And I'm inclined to be in favor of local ownership. But I'm cautiously optimistic. New Times says they will put in money and help us improve the product, and you can't be against that."

But. Always a but.

"Still, local ownership, what it brings that you can't replace is that the people who run the paper have a knowledge of what Fort Worth is all about, a real sense of who and what makes the city run."

Set-up. Here's the set-up.

"Fort Worth is drastically different from Dallas," he said.

Then, the heart of the matter.

"We don't want to be the Dallas Observer."

So there's the rub. Because, face it, that's the first thought you had too. A lot of folks don't think it makes sense to have two completely autonomous papers so close together. So, the questions raised--not just by staffers at FW Weekly, but here as well--were along these lines: Why would New Times want a paper that close to one of its own, not to mention in the mid-cities, where the two would compete with each other? Will New Times shut down FW Weekly and expand the Observer's circulation in Tarrant County, maybe changing its name to the DFW Observer? Will there be a co-mingling of editorial or sales or circulation staffs? Most important, if Eric Celeste writes a column about The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram and it runs in both weeklies, will he be paid twice?

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First, why did FW Weekly sell?

Because it wasn't making any money. It wasn't losing a lot of money, because it is a streamlined outfit, with only a full-time editor, one staff writer, a calendar writer, and a few other editorial positions. Most of the writing was done by freelancers.

But the paper would never become very profitable without a big cash injection, and New Times' model for making alternative weeklies profitable can't be argued with: Sink a bunch of cash into the operation, hire top-notch people at very competitive salaries, lose money for a while, and make your money back after the paper slowly gains ad pages and serious journalistic reputation. There was no way that FW Weekly's investors were going to put that kind of coin into the paper. (A lot of the money, according to former staffers, came from Camuto's father, Vincent Camuto, former CEO of Nine West. Vincent Camuto came under scrutiny late last year in New York after it was reported that he made a $15,000 contribution to the Republican State Committee two weeks before Gov. George Pataki awarded Nine West $7 million in incentives to move its headquarters to White Plains.)

Robert Camuto also may have been just tired of the grind. In fact, those who know him are telling friends that Camuto has already decided to move back East as soon as his one-year FW Weekly consulting agreement is done. "That's not true," he says. "I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do. Right now, I'm concentrating on this."

Second, why did New Times want to buy it?

I'll give you Lacey's official, press-release quote: "We would like people to understand that the editorial success of FW Weekly is largely what attracted us to this paper...We want to publish papers in dynamic and interesting cities, and Fort Worth is certainly that."

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