South Carolina’s media landscape got noticeably smaller last week with the announcement of the purchase of the Columbia alternative newsweekly, the Free Times. The good news, in so much as there is any good news to report when media outlets consolidate, is the alt-weekly wasn’t purchased by McClatchy, the corporation that owns The State (who likely would have closed it, as is often the case these days). Instead, Charleston’s Evening Post Industries, the family-owned parent company of The Post and Courier, picked up the paper for an undisclosed sum in a deal apparently in the works before the death of longtime Free Times publisher Charlie Nutt earlier this year.
As for the reason behind the Evening Post’s decision, it would appear that the media company wants to get firmly planted in the heinous business of reporting on the comings and goings of the state’s political class. For years, The Post and Courier has tried to maintain a presence in the Statehouse with varying degrees of success, but the company apparently decided it would be easier to buy a paper whose presence is already well known to the capital crowd. This is what is known as a good business decision, although whether or not it’s a good decision remains to be seen.
The bad news about this deal is how it continues a decades-long consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer corporate hands. And make no mistake, the Evening Post is a corporation, all this talk of “family business” aside. In addition to its numerous print holdings, the outfit owns 15 television stations. Then there’s the interactive companies, the marketing firms, the real estate agencies, and, why not, a healthcare company. But it’s all OK, because it’s a family-owned business. Just like the British Empire.
Now, that’s not to say that the folks at the Evening Post are despotic overlords bent on total domination of South Carolina print media, even if it looks like that is exactly what they want to do, especially if all of those papers share writers, editors, and copy. It builds a bottom line though. Sharing staff and content makes the company the most money possible with the fewest number of employees involved. As such, it’s not hard to imagine stories written by P&C staff ending up in the pages of the Free Times and vice versa.
One could take comfort in the proclamation that Post and Courier Publisher P.J. Browning made about the move being part of the Evening Post’s “mission to build community,” that is if one overlooks the fact that the Free Times has already been a community institution for 30 years. For the people of Columbia, the buyout may look more like an invasion, to be honest with you, although I’m certain that to the people at the Evening Post it’s more of a liberation — namely liberating the alt-weekly’s ad revenue to be used to poke a sharp stick in the eye of the Columbia daily, The State, which is but a pale shadow of its former self.
Speaking of the Capital City daily, Evening Post poached long-time State political reporter Andy Shain to serve as the editor for both the Free Times and the P&C‘s PalmettoPolitics.com, a political website that at the moment is no more than a redirect to The Post and Courier‘s political reporting section. Hiring a single individual to oversee a robust alt-weekly, in addition to a group of political reporters producing content for a website, might seem to indicate that the Evening Post management wizards don’t view either of those positions as full-time jobs. I feel pretty confident that my editor would gladly spend hours explaining how putting out even one paper a week is indeed a full-time job — and then some.
Then again, all of this could also be a sign that there’s more trouble brewing. Take for instance the news of a hilarious little culture clash first reported by former City Paper and Free Times reporter Corey Hutchins in the Columbia Journalism Review about an initial meeting between Mr. Shain and his new staff. According to Hutchins, the incoming editor showed up in the offices of the Free Times wearing a tie, much to the shock of the editorial staff who take a far more casual approach to office wear.
Even more surprising, the announcement of Mr. Shain as the new editor of the Free Times was greeted with all sorts of accolades online, and not just from colleagues and media professionals, but politicians and political operatives. I don’t know about you, but it should be somewhat disconcerting that Mr. Shain’s getting congratulatory messages from the very people he covered for years and will likely, as benefitting an alt-weekly, now have to skewer in print. If anyone expects the Free Times to maintain its reputation as a confrontational, watchdog newspaper, this isn’t a good sign.