When The Sun announced its purchase of the alt-weekly City Paper in February, it felt like when a major label scoops up your favorite indie band.
Launched as City Squeeze in 1977 by Russ Smith, who grew up on Long Island reading the Village Voice, and Alan Hirsch, who worked with Smith at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, the paper’s mission initially was to stay afloat. But it was also personal and City Paper’s modus operandi—harsh critiques of politicians, vigorous arts coverage, narrative storytelling—grew out of Smith’s contrarian nature. “I didn’t want my stories cut by editors who didn’t know what I was doing,” says Smith, who sold City Paper for about $4 million in 1987 and also launched the Washington City Paper and New York Press. “[I] wanted control of how a paper looked.”
Now that control is up in the air, as City Paper editor Evan Serpick (a former Baltimore senior editor) admits, “We don’t know exactly how this will play out.” The early signs are mixed. Staffers were at least buoyed by the fact that Jennifer Marsh—a Sun niche products director, who worked for decades at City Paper—has been named the publication’s general manager.
But, the first changes came a week after the deal’s announcement, as eight City Paper employees were fired, including creative director Joe MacLeod, who worked at the paper for 25 years. Then came a censorship blowup that played out in the national media after City Paper’s previous owners, Times-Shamrock, spiked several stories. Still, Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, says all is not necessarily lost with the purchase of an alt-weekly by a city’s major daily. She points to the Chicago Reader, which was purchased by the Chicago Sun-Times and is thriving thanks to additional resources.
Smith, however, true to form, remains skeptical: “There’s no best-case scenario, save for the people who at least get to keep their jobs.”