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November 26–December 3, 1998

on media

Art's excellent adventure

Arthur Howe, president of City Paper owner Montgomery Newspapers, managed to catch staffers at four newspapers unaware this week with the announcement that he'd signed an agreement of sale with the owners of three alternative newsweeklies.

Howe and the majority owners of Alternative Media Inc., based in Detroit, struck the deal on Friday, just about five weeks after AMI co-founder and CEO Ron Williams admitted he was entertaining offers from four suitors. AMI owns the Detroit MetroTimes, the Orlando Weekly and the San Antonio Current.

"My job," says Howe, "is to cobble together the investment deal that makes the most sense." He declined to reveal who is involved, but confirmed that Montgomery Newspapers may be among the buyers. In addition to City Paper, which it acquired in 1996, Montgomery owns a chain of community weeklies in the western suburbs, as well as the monthly Art Matters and Parents Express.

Howe also refused to discuss the cost of the deal. A recent report on the Association of Alternative Newspapers (AAN) website estimated the three papers' combined annual revenues to be $12 million to $15 million.

Howe will act as CEO of the new, as-yet-unnamed chain.

AMI grew out of the Detroit MetroTimes, which was founded by Williams and Laura Markham in 1980 (Markham now is vice president and COO). AMI bought Orlando Weekly from the Toronto Sun in 1994, when it was equal parts alternative and shopper, and picked up the San Antonio Current earlier this year.

Williams said that, after 18 years of "doing the same thing, I wanted a change. Wouldn't you?" He refused to disclose the purchase price.

AAN's Cory Zurowski quoted Williams as saying: "We chose Art [from the four bidders] because we believe he will treat our employees fairly, pursue the existing mission of the company and he agreed to pay us a reasonable price for 18 years of work."

Several sources say AMI was in "acquisition mode," as one put it, as recently as late summer. It's not clear what prompted the decision to sell, but Monte Paulsen, the chain's Washington, DC-based national editor, says there does not appear to be any dark secret behind the sale. Concurring with Williams, Paulsen said the publishers might simply have decided it was time for a change.

"I don't think Ron's had a full vacation in 18 years," Paulsen says. And Markham had earned a Ph.D. in psychology, but hadn't had time to put it to use.

Six prospective buyers came calling, and four made offers: New Times Inc., Stern Publishing, Baltimore City Paper owner Times Shamrock Group and Philadelphia Weekly and South Philadelphia Review owner Review Publishing.

Howe appears to have been the least known among staffers at the AMI papers. Orlando Weekly editor Jeff Truesdell described him as "the dark horse."

"When word first came down that [Williams and Markham] were considering bids, there was apprehension because those of us here signed on with AMI's long-term goals for this and other papers," Truesdell says.

And now? "I don't have a clue what any of this means," he says, but he expects no significant changes in the way the papers are run.

Paulsen says one of the early tests will be AMI's tradition of allowing editors to report directly to Williams, rather than their own papers' publishers—a policy some of the publishers have tried to change.

"Ron's really committed to journalism," says Paulsen, adding that he doesn't believe Williams would sell to anyone who didn't share that commitment.

James Garcia, editor of the Current, agrees. "They're the kind of people intent on not just finding a buyer who would give them a reasonable price but also with a conscience," Garcia says.

Howe, a former reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, insists that he has no intention of tampering with the papers' success. Once the purchase deal has been finalized, he says, his next job will be to "keep [the investors] away" from the editorial staffs.

"Alternative newsweeklies are the model of choice right now, and will emerge in the new millennium as the preferred print forum," Howe says. "I believe they will, in fact, be the Sunday newspapers of the future.

"And AMI … is probably one of the most prestigious groups going."

-Frank Lewis;

additional reporting by Gwen Shaffer and Howard Altman