No one knows what Nashville Scene publisher Albie Del Favero's announced resignation will mean for the city's alternative newsweeklyand that's as much a testament to the man as it is to the hazards of chain ownership.
In 1999, Del Favero and Bruce Dobie entered into a complex deal in which they partnered with Weiss Peck and Greer, a private New York equity firm. That gave rise to a new holding company called City Communications that then bought Stern Publishing, owner of the Village Voice, LA Weekly and several other alt-weeklies. Together, they formed the new Village Voice Media, a chain of seven newspapers. Got that? Don't worry: few people did. But the important thing was that the Scene, long a critic of Gannett and chain newspapers, had been sold and was now itself part of a New York-run newspaper chain. Parker Posey meets Jerry Bruckheimer.
Still, for nearly five years, even while Dobie and Del Favero no longer owned a majority share in the paper they co-founded, they more or less ran it independently. No drippy initiatives from New York, a la Gannett to The Tennessean. But now, with Del Favero's departure imminenthe leaves in December or when a new publisher is hiredthe paper's most important decision in years will for the most part be handed down from out of town. Schneiderman, the CEO of Village Voice Media and a former Voice editor, will name the next publisher of the Nashville Scene.
Sure, Del Favero and Dobie will have some say. But ultimately, it's Schneiderman's call. And while he's certainly as capable of making that decision as anyoneshameless suck-up alertthe fact remains that the fate of a paper founded in reaction to remote corporate ownership will be decided in Manhattan. Ironically, it's at times like these that Nashville journalism could use an Albie Del Favero and a Bruce Dobie. Or at least incarnations of their former selves.
Since Del Favero and Dobie reinvented the Scene in 1989, turning it from an irrelevant shopper into a well-read, profitable weekly, a lineup of journalism entrepreneurs have tried to launch their own publications. Nearly all of them failedor are headed in that direction. Meanwhile, Del Favero thrived. In 1996, with the paper highly profitable, Dobie and Del Favero bought out the local investor group and became sole owners of the paper. Then in 1999, they turned their paper into cold, hard cash when they sold most of their equity in the Scene to form the holding company that purchased Village Voice Media. Selling at what might have been the height of the Scene's profitability, Dobie and Del Favero have never publicly said how much they made when they cashed outbut here's a hint: Dobie bought a million-dollar home on Whitland Avenue and Del Favero has moved to Belle Meade. So don't cry for me, Argentina.
Of course, selling out is never a win-win. When Del Favero and Dobie chose to become a part of Village Voice Media, they also chose to cede control of the paper's fate. At the time they bought the Scene from their original investors, the paper was at the height of its profitability, netting, by some estimates, over a $1 million a year, which the Dobie and Del Favero tandem used to repay bank loans. The Scene was thriving; Dobie and Del Favero were riding high, if temporarily indebted, and everyone was happy.
But they wanted more. It would be easyand not entirely inaccurateto suggest that pure greed accounts for their decision to sell the newspaper. But Dobie and Del Favero also needed a new challenge. Being a part of a fledgling alt-weekly chain probably made them feel like it was 1989 all over again. Del Favero helped author the chain's new national sales strategy and became group publisher of not just the Scene, but weeklies in Seattle, Minneapolis and Cleveland. Dobie meanwhile took over the day-to-day publishing duties of the Scene.
But they didn't exactly take to their job switches. By 2002, Dobie decided he didn't like playing publisher. And Del Favero returned to take back his old job. In the meantime, the paper struggled. Page counts were down, staffers were laid off and went unreplaced while readers harped, rightly or wrongly, that the Scene had lost its edge. A slumping national economy and stagnant local retail sales didn't help the paper's fiscal health.
Del Favero admits that by late last year he became restless. Last month, he told Schneiderman that he would not renew his contract when it expired in December. After his announcement was made, the question that kept surfacing inside and outside the newsroom was, was Albie fired? The answer, by all credible accounts, is a resounding no, but the fact that so many people would ask it speaks volumes about the position Del Favero and Dobie put themselves in.
"It was absolutelyit was entirelyhis decision," Schneiderman says. "He told me he was burned out and wanted to do something different."
Del Favero says that he's not sure what he'll do next, although he strongly doubts he'll return to publishing. That's a shame. If The City Paper had hired him four years ago, the start-up daily would be in the black and breaking stories every day. Unlike anyone else in Nashville, Del Favero and Dobie know how to build a paper. Unfortunately, they also know how to sell one.
On Monday, Schneiderman talked to Scene associate publisher Julie Rutter about replacing Del Favero. Rutter, who is widely respected, said she wasn't interested in being considered, that with a five-month son, she couldn't commit to up to 70-hour work weeks the job would require. In any case, that Schneiderman would solicit Rutter is encouraging, showing that he has some sort of feel for the paper's talent.
Not all chains are created equal, and nobody here is comparing Village Voice to Gannett. But for the first time in the Scene's 15-year history, someone other than Del Favero and Dobie will be making a decision vital to the paper's future. Let's hope that when Del Favero looks at the Scene 10 years from now, he won't have the same dejected feeling that John Seigenthaler must have when he picks up The Tennessean.
There's no link to the NYT story.
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