Capping off six months of negotiations, Nashville Scene co-owners Bruce Dobie and Albert Del Favero have announced that they are selling a portion of City Press Publishing, the Scene’s parent company, to an outside venture firm. Dobie, who has served as the paper’s editor for its 10-year existence, won’t say whether he and Del Favero will remain the majority owners. Dobie and Del Favero bought the Scene from about 30 local stockholders in the summer of 1996.
This latest transaction is a complicated one, but here’s what Dobie and Del Favero are willing to say about the deal: The New York-based firm of Weiss, Peck & Greer paid an undisclosed amount of money for its undisclosed stake in the Scene. The Scene will now become a part of a new and larger company called City Communications. Having switched some of their equity from the Scene to City Communications, Dobie and Del Favero will be among the owners in this new company.
City Communications, in part, will focus on acquiring other alternative weekly papers with financing coming from the investment firm.
Art Howe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former publisher of the Philadelphia City Paper, will lead City Communications’ drive to buy other papers. Investors in the company include Mike Craven and Jim Thompson, who were formerly in the radio business.
Interviewed in his office, Dobie seemed happy about the deal. “What’s important for people to know is we’re not going anywhere, we’re staying. We’re really excited about it.”
Other Scene employees were more skeptical. “My immediate concern,” says senior writer Jim Ridley, “is that I don’t want to see our paper diluted in an effort to purchase others.” Indeed, the question among many Scene employees is how much control Dobie and Del Favero will retain in the day-to-day operations of the paper. Dobie says that at the insistence of the new investors, both he and Albie will retain their current positions, as editor and publisher respectively.
At press time, however, not much was known about Weiss, Peck & Greer, City Press’ new investment partner. Interestingly, on their Web page, the firm lists several areas of specialized expertise, many of which seem far removed from the business of newspaper publishing. These areas include semiconductors, biotechnology, and medical devices.
The firm lists information services as areas of expertise as well. Asked how much of a role the firm will have in the day-to-day operations of the Scene, Dobie indicated there is no formal agreement one way or another.
“If the Scene keeps on operating they way it’s been operating,” he says, “[the question of control] won’t come up.”
While it’s been well-known in local media circles that Del Favero and Dobie were looking at acquiring other weekly papers, few observers ever predicted that the pair would sell off a portion of their own paper to invest in others. But Dobie says that the move is logical.
“Instead of Albie and I going into debt again, the strategy that made the most sense is to have a partner.”
But the consequences of having a partner are, to some, troubling. For one, despite having two local owners, all the owners of the Scene no longer live in Nashville. A new, unfamiliar firm, with reported assets of $16 billion, might have a role in running the company. And finally, Dobie and Del Favero, long credited with the success of the paper, will now have at least part of their focus diverted from running the Scene to acquiring and possibly operating out-of-town papers.
Dobie, however, insists that this transaction won’t affect the quality of the paper. “If we were to sacrifice our editorial franchise, we could kiss the financial side of the paper goodbye,” he says.
Nice words for sure, but in an era in which media consolidation threatens local autonomy of even the smallest papers, often what’s good for the bottom line is not good for journalism. Stay tuned.
The Tennessean continues to struggle mightily to fill its newshole. This past Sunday, readers of the morning daily woke up to an incredibly self-aggrandized front-page above-the-fold story headlined “Tennessean creates 21 Century trust to aid local charities.” The paper announced that it will contribute $50,000 to the fund, which, in association with the nonprofit Community Foundation, will make donations to help various nonprofit causes.
Sure, this is a nice gesture, but how again is this front-page news? “It’s the holidays,” responds editor Frank Sutherland, who sounds less like a newsman and more like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. “Many newspapers do the same sort of thing. It’s the season of giving.”
Asked, however, whether it would be front-page news if another company who did not have a means of promoting themselves and who earned, say, between $20 to $30 million in yearly profits made a paltry $50,000 donation, George Bailey Sutherland turned into Mr. Potter. “I can’t answer that hypothetical question,” he said.
Matt Pulle can be reached at 244-7989, ext. 445, or he can be contacted via e-mail at MPulle@nashvillescene.com.