Cowtown Coup

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?

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."

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 Weekly was 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 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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