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The Riverfront Times

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New Times Trumps Old Times at RFT

By E.F. Porter

            Sure, the Riverfront Times has changed since founder Ray Hartmann sold it 18 months ago [1998]. It has changed for the better. It will continue to change for the better.

            And if its old loyal, liberal-left, counter-culture constituency doesn’t like it, well, that’s just tough cheese.

            Such is the message confident, defiant and perhaps just a touch defensive, but belted in close harmony if not perfect unison – from the editor, Safir Ahmed, his managing editor Roland Klose, and his boss Michael Lacey, it editore-de-tutti-editori of New Times, Inc., the chain of so-called alternative weeklies of which the RFT is a link.

            The palmy days of guerilla journalism spawned by the civil rights and anti-war protests of 30 years ago were great fun, but they’re over, they say. The mission now is thorough investigative coverage of any subject the mainstream daily press has failed to report, and let the chips fall where they may.

            The difference, Ahmed says, is largely one of journalistic professionalism and maturity. The protest press of the time, the RFT and scores of other alternative papers were hatched and did not have the time or the staff to check the facts. It could only deride or howl in outrage and it reached no one save those who already agreed with it.

            “People say we used to be more leftist and ideological. The complaint is we’ve lost our political soul, that we no longer support the little guy, the artists, the small theatre groups,” Ahmed says.

            “And they’re right. There was a time, because of lack of resources, that’s all we could do; rail against the Vietnam War, the rape of the environment, racial injustice. But I’m tired of that shit.

            “We have the same people – (staff writers) Melinda Roth and D.J. Wilson are still with us. The only thing that’s changed is we’re no longer charging up the hill against the corporate establishment.

            “We’re no longer interested in preaching to the choir. I want our paper to be read by businessmen and carpenters and housewives, and you can’t reach them with nothing but opinion.”

            Klose, Ahmed’s second-in-command, agrees. A typical issue of the RFT in the Hartmann era would carry a propagandistic cover story – on cockfighting, say – that had been planted by a liberal advocacy group such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Coalition for the Environment, the abortion rights people, the animal rights people. They had a story to tell, and the RFT would tell it in an entirely predictable way.

            The rest of the book would be given over to movie and film reviews, opinion columns and maybe a canned feature bought from a small syndicate, or a story reacting to coverage of some local issue by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or – while it was still alive – the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The reactive stories displayed an irreverent viewpoint but they rarely provided new information, Klose noted.

            “We never delved into the opposing view and a lot of people liked that,” Klose said. “But if those people want the old RFT to come back, it ain’t coming. The agenda now is journalism.”

            Lacey’s position is eerily similar. “We’ve been at it so long that to us the people on the left are as full of shit as the people on the right,” he told Columbia Journalism Review last year – and reiterated to SJR last week. “We had an agenda when we started, but we grew up. We still have a goal in mind but it’s a journalistic goal, not a political goal.”

            It would be hard to dispute Lacey’s credentials as an advocacy journalist. He got his start putting out an alternative paper in Phoenix in reaction to the killing of the four anti-war protesters at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard in 1970. That paper, the Phoenix New Times, is today the flagship of a fleet of eleven weeklies spanning the country from Miami to San Francisco; four of them bear the New Times name.

            Lacey acknowledges that he has imposed a format on his stable: One long feature on a topic the local dailies have overlooked or avoided, plus several smaller stories, often about the local cultural scene. But within that framework, Lacey insists, Ahmed has a free hand.

            Lacey said an essential element of the New Times paradigm is good pay, good working conditions, challenging work and adequate resources. “Instead of trying to exploit the freelance market, we go in and try to hire the most-talented people we can find, give them full salaries and benefits and time enough to research a story,” he says. What the New Times chain is at pains to avoid are the ennui and disaffection that infect the newsrooms at most dailies.

            “In almost any (daily) city room you visit there’s an atmosphere of depression,” Lacey says. “We’re interested in creating a good working environment.”

            Nothing pains Lacey more than than to be compared to Gannett. “My understanding is Gannettization means dumbing down of content, cutting budget and staff and tailoring the content to public opinion surveys and TV news. What we’ve always done has been just the opposite. We’ve increased the number of bodies. The news budget at the Riverfront Times is up 40 percent and there have been four editorial hires, three reporters and a copy editor.”

            Lacey is almost equally impatient with the suggestion that he and his co-owners will sooner or later sell the chain to a bottomliner and take the money and run. On the contrary, he says, he hopes to bring up his kids to be serious journalists and to forestall at least for a generation the Bourbonesque decadence that smote the houses of Patterson, Bingham, Field, Chandler and Pulitzer.

            How does the RFT’s new-found objectivity sit with its readers? It’s a little hard to tell. Doctrinaire militants, of course, are disappointed. One locally famous environmental activist, while refusing to be quoted lest she jeopardize any lingering opportunities to plant her propaganda in the RFT, made clear she feels jilted.

            But many in, or on, the fringes of the local newspaper scene are apparently only moderately unhappy. “Like most readers, I’m a creature of habit; I liked the old Riverfront Times,” says Bill McClellan, the Post’s top columnist. He says he especially misses the columns, all of which Ahmed abolished.

            “William Stage wrote a column I liked; I enjoyed Richard Byrne (who covered the news media) even though he accused me of plagiarism – groundlessly. I miss Jeannette Batz’s column, especially since there’s such a dearth of female columnists in St. Louis. I guess in that sense the paper has gone down,” McClellan says.

            “The long cover stories are often very good. I always intend to read them but it’s like the New Yorker. You put it aside intending to get to it later, but you don’t always. I guess it’s better journalistically than the old formula, but it’s going to take a while to get used to it.

            Norman W. Pressman, a lawyer and newspaper groupie who edited the student newspaper when he was an undergraduate at Washington University and published a tabloid during a Post strike in the 1970s, says he hasn’t even noticed too many changes, though he too misses the columns, especially Byrne. He said he likes the long cover stories.

            Fred Faust, a former Post business reporter who now publishes a newsletter on gambling, is equally undismayed. “My impression is the changes are pretty minor, though I miss the columns, especially Byrne. The cover stories are still liberal-leaning, which I like, though some of them could use a little more editing. But that’s not new.”

            One reader, begging for anonymity, said he likes the long articles because, like those in New Yorker, they give him something to read while enthroned in response to the call of nature – a mild antidote to constipation.

            Ahmed vigorously defends his decision to eliminate the columnists. “I’m opposed to opinion columns as opposed to reporting columns. I may reinstitute columns but I want a media critic who does more than just watch the 10 o’clock news. I want a media critic who calls up people. Yes, I want him to be provocative, but I want news.”

            And it is possible to be both reportorial and opinionated, Ahmed maintains. It was the media columnist at the New Times weekly in Los Angeles who disclosed that the Los Angeles Times was splitting the profits from a special supplement on the new stadium with the stadium developers. The story made the wires.

            “But opinion alone is worthless,” says Ahmed. “It’s all over the Internet. It’s a growth industry.

            Complaints about story length – or more precisely that the stories are longer than they need to be for what they convey – infuriate Ahmed. “Ever read a magazine? Ever read a book? It’s the most stupid, obnoxious criticism I’ve heard. If you mean boring, a 10-inch story can be boring.

            “I’d rather hear that we’re too long than that we’re inaccurate. We don’t do follow-ups like a daily newspaper so we have to be right the first time. And we almost always are. I can’t remember the last time we had to run a correction.”

            This is in accordance with the New Times doctrine, Ahmed continues. “We see eye-to-eye on doing well-written, well-researched stories. A feature writer can spend a month on a story. We want our writers to report from a position of authority, not just regurgitate quotes, many of them beside the point, as is typical of the Post-Dispatch.”

            Neither Klose, Ahmed’s lieutenant, nor Lacey, his commander, is quite so argumentative. Without actually saying so, Klose appears receptive to the lament that the cover stories tent to be ponderous and prolix. Without saying so, he appears ready to acknowledge that writing could be more disciplined.

            Under the current arrangement, editing is divided among himself, Ahmed and assistant managing editor Cliff Froehlich, Klose says. Klose edits the work of D.J. Wilson, C.D. Stelzer, and Bruce Rushton; Froehlich, Eddie Silva and William Stage; and Ahmed edits Laura Higgins, Melinda Roth and Jeannette Batz.

            Lacey is more revealing. “Yes, I think the stories in the Riverfront Times are too long. But I’m not editing the paper. Safir is.”

            (Originally published in the St. Louis Journalism Review 5/2000).

Riverfront Times Turns 30

            Dozens of writers have come and gone at the Riverfront Times since Ray Hartmann founded the free weekly alternative newspaper in 1977. 

            Hartmann and co-owner Mark Vittert sold it for an undisclosed amount in 1998. At the time, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies quoted estimates that, based on the paper’s annual gross revenues of $6 million, New Times paid about $10 million for the St. Louis newsweekly. With the purchase of the RFT, New Times then owned ten newsweeklies. The firm is now called Village Voice Media, is based in Phoenix and owns 17 papers, including the Village Voice.

            Hartmann, who can be described as a liberal Republican, wrote a popular weekly column that continued for a time after the paper was sold. At the time of the sale, it was announced he would be a spokesman for New Times, promoting its papers and the noteworthy articles published in those papers. It was a role that never really materialized for him, though he continued to write his column for the paper until 2002.

            Hartmann remains a regular on the KETC (Channel 9) “Donnybrook,” as was Vittert. The two now own St. Louis Magazine.

            More than a few ex-RFT employees accepted their severance pay from New Times on the condition they not speak publicly about New Times.

            That said, a phrase uttered back in the early ‘90s by a New Times staffer seems to sum up the experience of many of the former writers: “It was a dream job that turned into a nightmare.”

            On the surface, talk of more resources, more time to spend on an article and more space to run it all sounded good. Yet the long distance control of the paper by owners in Arizona and second lieutenants in Colorado soon took its toll on the locality and feel of the weekly.

            There was also concern that the aging baby-boomer readership had to change, so efforts were made to appeal to a younger audience. 

            There was not an immediate house cleaning when New Times bought the money-making RFT, except for the departure of long-time staff writer Thomas Crone. But once the New Times paper in Los Angeles folded in 2002, attention and action were directed at the St. Louis property. It was around this time that Jeannette Batz, Eddie Silva, C.D. Stelzer, Melinda Roth, D.J. Wilson, Geri Dreiling, Rene Spencer Saller, Cliff Froelich and Safir Ahmed all left – some leaving of their own volition, others being jettisoned.

            As of 2007, the circulation of the free RFT has dropped to 87,000 from a reported high of about 100,000 when New Times bought it in 1998.

            As was shown in the Kristen Hinman stories on Vashon basketball coach Floyd Irons, the paper can still fill the coverage gap when other media ignore or under-report stories. However, those instances are increasingly rare. The paper shows an aversion to in-depth reportage or any attempt at explanatory journalism about difficult social topics. It seems to prefer to pursue long features about people or trends intended to appeal to a younger demographic.

            As the staff has changed, the RFT reads as a paper not only owned by out-of-towners, but also written by them. For other New Times towns – Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Miami – that just-pulled-into-town perspective from a writer is not that detrimental since those places are growing at a much faster rate than St. Louis, which is much more insular. However flawed and polemical the old pre-New Times RFT was, it had a touch and feel about St. Louis that is lacking in the current product.

            Demands for provocative and outrageous stories, including hoaxes, are dictated from editors more than a thousand miles away. The idea is not to produce quality journalism, but to “create a buzz” that brings attention to the RFT – good or bad. They do the same thing with their other weeklies.

            Jeannette Batz, now Jeannette Cooperman, won national writing awards for the RFT before and after its sale to New Times. She voted with her feet in 2002 when she decided the new regime had become exceedingly boorish and vacuous.

            “New Times is a seductive organization,” Cooperman says. “It lures writers with the rare and intoxicating promise of time – a full month to do real research and write a long-form narrative piece. New Times  (I am trying very hard to keep this an objective assessment of the company and not the aggressive blowhards who run it.) makes good on that promise, and the experience can be deeply satisfying, even euphoric.

            “But you sober up fast when you’re exhorted, as we were, to ‘bitch-slap ‘em off the barstool’ – in other words, use the kind of tactics, language and approach that will win the company what it most craves – attention. That’s not the kind of journalism I ever wanted to practice, not if I had all the time in the world.”

            She was an RFT staff writer from 1993-2002. She is now a staff writer for St. Louis Magazine and, until earlier this year, was its editor.

            C.D. Stelzer, a freelancer and staff writer for the RFT for more than 10 years, said: “I should have sensed a sea change at the newspaper when I overheard the editorial assistant struggling to hear what Ray Hartmann was saying to her over the phone.

            “Hartmann was asking her to look up one of his old commentaries on the stadium issue. He was scrambling to write his weekly column, which was normal. But she couldn’t hear what he was saying because he was calling on his cell phone from Miami Beach. The ocean surf was drowning out his words.”

            (Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 10/2007).

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