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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The sale of the Indy—and what it means

Posted by on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 6:03 PM

Sorgie, what's going on'?"

Every few days for the past five years, Steve Schewel, the owner of the Independent Weekly, has ambled into my third-floor office and greeted me wearing the official Steve Schewel uniform: a sky blue polo shirt, tan shorts and running shoes.

This is how his visits usually went:

He would pinch a piece of cellophane tape from the dispenser on my table, clamp and roll it between his thumb and index finger, then toss it in the trash can atop the apple cores, peanut M&M wrappers and Whole Foods scrapings.

He would pace the floor, occasionally stopping to pump a few bicep curls with an exercise band that hangs from a filing cabinet. We would kvetch about serious topics such as the dastardly deeds of the Republican-led Legislature. We'd brainstorm about stories and dream up headlines for an exposé on Art Pope (We settled on "Stop this man"). We would often make small talk: the prospects for Duke basketball. My disappointment that I'm too old to safely experiment with LSD. His Democratic parents and my Republican ones.

The Venable Center in downtown Durham is a former tobacco drying warehouse. My office has old windows that push outward with a long iron rod that, depending on how far the pane is open, extends 6 inches to a foot into the room. Sometimes Steve would get worked up and veer dangerously close to the window.

"Steve, watch your head," I would advise, placing my hand over the end of the rod. He would glance at it and continue talking, unfazed that he had nearly given himself a frontal lobotomy. This happened many times.

Then on June 18, Steve walked into my office and said, "Lisa, I need to talk to you."

He closed the door.

By now, it's widely known that the Indy has been sold to Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland, Ore., owned by Mark Zusman and Richard Meeker, brother of former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker.

Over the past two months, Richard and Mark have met with most of the staff; those interactions convinced them to proceed with the deal. And my interactions with them told me that they are the right people to buy the paper. While Mark and Richard want to make a financial go of it, they are in it for the journalism more than the money. In 2005, Mark led Willamette Week to the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting—the only alt-weekly to win the award—for uncovering sexual misconduct by former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt with a 14-year-old girl. Goldschmidt was the mayor of Portland when the abuse occurred. Richard's ties to North Carolina include not only his brother but also other family members. His father lives on Ocracoke, where Richard worked as a schoolteacher before he embarked on his newspaper career.

For Triangle readers, the sale of the Indy—one of the few locally owned alt-weeklies in the nation—marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. But this kind of horse trading in alt-weekly circles has been happening for more than a decade. In 2002, the Indy bought the Spectator, which was owned by Creative Loafing, which came to own six papers and, after growing too big for its britches, declared bankruptcy in 2008. Companies like Village Voice Media (VVM), the whale of the industry, gobbled up smaller papers like they were plankton.

Coincidentally, the Indy-Willamette deal was finalized in the same week that David Carr, a media columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article pegged to VVM's latest round of layoffs: "Are Alt-Weeklies Toast?"

An obituary is premature, Carr wrote, acknowledging that "smaller weeklies in smaller communities, much like the pattern that has held for dailies, seem to be relatively healthier."

But Carr, an alt-weekly veteran himself, and those of us in the trenches acknowledge the Internet has posed significant challenges for print media—even if the papers are free.

The sale offers the Indy an opportunity to reinvent itself—in print and online—in this Web-centric environment. We can rethink how to address the geographic challenges of covering four culturally and politically distinct counties. While alt-weeklies have traditionally been considered the voice of their respective cities, the Indy has to be the voice of a half-dozen.

Raleigh is not Durham—and vice versa. (And if you want to argue over which city is hipper, you'd better bring some muscle. We'll give you home field advantage and meet at Brier Creek.) Cary is not Carrboro, but now that the former allows backyard chickens—a gateway drug to liberalism—inside the town limits, it could soon be.

Readers throughout the Triangle have posed several questions about the sale to Indy staffers, on the paper's Facebook page and via its Twitter account. Here are some answers:

Q: Will the progressive viewpoint change?

A: No. C'mon, the new owners live on the Left Coast, in Portland, home of light rail and medical marijuana. The Indy will continue to be the progressive voice of the Triangle—one that's on a mission to bring light rail and medical marijuana to North Carolina.

Q. Will people lose their jobs?

A. Four people will no longer work for the Indy after the sale, which becomes official Oct. 1. At the same time, there will be new hires, and other than the loss of one position when the general manager and publisher jobs are merged, the number of employees should remain largely the same.

Q. Will any jobs be outsourced?

A. No. Well, if someone decides to work on his or her vacation, that job will be done, albeit temporarily, from the beach.

The Indy is fortunate to have been locally owned for nearly 30 years. A newspaper's success—judged by how well it serves its community and its profitability—depends on the owners' commitment to journalistic excellence and good business sense. I feel certain that Mark and Richard will continue that commitment.

The best thing about having a local owner was that Steve could stop by my office any time. The worst thing about having a local owner was that Steve could stop by my office any time. He's been in here a lot over the past two months—although since he was elected to City Council, his new uniform is long pants, a white shirt and a tie. But his fixation with cellophane tape and his near-misses with the window rod have not changed.

Nor how he often says goodbye:

"Keep it going, Sorgie."

Will do, Steve. Watch your head.

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The Indy is being sold to Willamette Week

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