Cowtown Coup

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

Is he blowing smoke? No, after talking to him after the announcement, I'm certain he believes that FW Weekly has done some damn fine journalism. Look at the paper's story from July 27, "Dirty Dealing: The King and Queen of the Kimbell help themselves to $1.5 million of the museum's money." That investigation, about how Kimbell Art Foundation president Kay Fortson and vice-president Ben Fortson were paid $1.5 million for work normally regarded as volunteer-only, was an important story that has received national play. The Star-Telegram followed it and credited the Weekly. (In two stories about this subject, the Morning News did not credit the Weekly, but, then again, the Morning News is petty and small.) It's just the sort of journalism that made it an attractive buy, according to Lacey.

But--always a but--the reaction inside the Star-Telegram speaks to what I think has always been the paper's problem: It busts its nut only once a year. "Our first reaction wasn't, 'Oh, this is a great story,'" says a Star-T reporter, "it was, 'Is this true?' Because with them, you never know."

Since FW Weeklywas launched in '96, it has done three or four big-impact stories: the Kimbell piece, an examination of the Fort Worth school superintendent's shady record, a look at the "barbaric" health care at Carswell women's prison, a look at Molly Ivins' supposed foray into plagiarism again--all by the same writer, Betty Brink, who has been offered a staff position by New Times. For a start-up with modest ambitions, that's all right. For a paper that, according to Camuto in 1996, was going to "bring balls back to Fort Worth journalism," that's batting around .019--one out of 52 a year. As for its movies and music criticism--often ignored when evaluating such papers, but the reason many folks pick up these papers--it's been largely forgettable, with rare exceptions.

Still, that's not the only reason the chain (12 papers in the United States, including FW Weekly) wanted the paper. Another reason it plans to cut a big check--how big I don't know...my guess is slightly more than $1 million, probably about $1.2 million or so, figuring that most break-even/slight-loss papers are sold for about one times revenue, and FW Weekly probably brings in about a million bucks in ad sales a year--is because of the market. Big companies who buy ads want to reach both cities and all in between.

"New Times has been interested because it's so close to Dallas," says Bob Walton, a minority investor in FW Weekly and the man who sold the Dallas Observer to New Times in 1991. (He sold the weekly San Antonio Current to another media company in 1997.) "It's similar to what's going on with the Miami and Broward papers. [New Times runs New Times Broward·Palm Beach and Miami New Times in Florida.] Most national advertisers look at Dallas-Fort Worth as one big market, like they do L.A.-Orange County. Like those markets, Dallas and Fort Worth are seen by national advertisers as one big pie."

Third, what will happen? That one I can't answer. No one seems to know exactly, other than the hiring of more editors and writers. Forsyth says he wants to stay, but will he--especially since Camuto, despite his protestations, is largely seen as the driving force behind the publication? (Says one former staffer: "He had his nose completely in editorial. He read everything.") Even if both papers want to keep the operations separate, there has to be some overlap. (Example: Last week's FW Weekly music story was on The Deathray Davies. The Observer's main music story the week before was on the same subject. Why wouldn't both papers run that story? But then, why pick up both papers if you're a music fan? I'm so confused.) My best guess, from talking to people and seeing how the company operates: The papers will be separate, although everyone will calm down and realize that it makes sense to share some music stories, all film reviews (actually, that's a New Times mandate), some news stories, maybe even a feature or two. But FW Weekly will be able to run the stories or columns they think make the paper less stodgy and more fun than this paper--like Vicki Charmaine's humor column--and not run stuff like, say, this column if they don't want to.

"FW Weekly is my baby, and everyone wants to see their baby grow up," Camuto says. "This is just the next phase of life for it."

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