Sacred Disorder | Cliff Bostock's blog – 'Finally, I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind' (Rimbaud)

Creative Loafing and the media wags

The bankruptcy drama at Creative Loafing continues, with Atlanta Magazine and the Sunday Paper tracking the depressing details on their websites.

I’ve resisted commenting on the latest developments for a number of reasons, but primarily because the unfolding story’s narrative style is just another expression of journalism’s decades-long death throes everywhere. The drama isn’t bringing out the heroic in anyone.

More on journalism and CL below. First a summary of where the discussion stands:

Most of the commentary on the Atlanta Mag “Resurgens” Blog is dishy, personality-oriented crap with certain former CL writers and editors declaring one another the best and brightest in the firmament of Atlanta journalism, forever and ever, amen.  The Sunday Paper’s peeps make the same claim.

Nearly everyone posting reviles Ben Eason, the owner of CL, for both alleged financial mismanagement and continuing the long habit of trying to solve economic problems by heavy-handed tampering with editorial content. Eason most recently infuriated many when he fired editor Ken Edelstein, leaving the paper with literally no editor in charge.

Eason submitted a reorganization plan last week. The main creditor wants the court to eject Eason, which it refused to do in the most recent hearing. If Eason is eventually excommunicated, many are hoping that Edelstein will be rehired. John Sugg, CL’s former senior editor, seems meantime to be teaming up with the Sunday Paper, where he published a column that turns out to have been rejected by CL because it did not disclose his own competing plans.

Patrick Best, publisher of the Sunday Paper, has made the absurd offer to buy CL for $1 million while also announcing that he is going to expand into the Charlotte and Tampa markets, further nailing shut the CL coffin with – what? — columns by Ann Coulter, comic pages and weather maps.

Commenters on the Atlanta Mag site point out that Best can barely meet his Atlanta payroll – he’s apparently behind on paying freelancers – even as he assumes the empire-building ambition that is part of the reason CL is in such trouble to begin with. Naturally, he says it’s different when he does it. He does make the appropriate utterances about the importance of content. But, believe me, the same utterances have been made over the years at CL.

Myopic analysis

Much of the discussion on Atlanta Magazine’s website is painfully myopic. The newspaper publishing industry’s problems began well before the current recession. The usual reason given is the continued rise of (not-so-) new web-based media.

Some of the commenters at Atlanta Mag are making absurd claims that Eason has an “old-man” mentality and failed to respond to trends by instantly creating the perfect online presence. These commenters also blame current web staff, the CL bureaucracy, the business model, ad infinitum, for CL’s economic woes. But the fact is that practically no existing print publications have made a successful transition to digital presence. Almost all publications, regardless of web presence, have suffered huge losses in staff and income.

A more salient critique is Eason’s decision to borrow $40 million to purchase the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper. (And why did anyone loan him that amount to begin with?)  He enraged those papers’ readers by putting the editorial staffs on an anorexic diet, firing longtime investigative reporters. Borrowing a huge amount of money to buy a publication you then proceed to castrate is a bizarre business plan.

The argument that precipitated Edelstein’s firing apparently pertained to his angrily pointing out Eason’s failure to make any cuts to the upper-management organization. Apparently, there is a thriving corporate culture at the top of the CL hierarchy, replete with all the usual perks and protections that have always made life as a publisher more secure than life as a reporter.

The expansionism and strange disregard for substantial editorial content replicate the same approach of Ben Eason’s mother, Deborah Eason, the founder of the paper. Keep in mind that Ben set up the Tampa paper back in the ‘80s, so his own participation in CL is a product of expansionist thinking. There’s also a Charlotte paper. At one point, there was a group of “suburban Loafs” in Atlanta, too. Most of this was financed with income from the Atlanta paper, which made huge amounts of money.

How huge? One of the more unpleasant memories of my tenure as editor of the Atlanta paper was sitting through many adversarial meetings with Debbie Eason over editorial salaries. My staff had independently surveyed other alternative papers in the country and CL was by far the lowest-paying. I had to find ways to supplement my income during most of the 7 years I was editor.

Meanwhile, it turned out that CL’a comptroller had embezzled in the neighborhood of  $1 million, which was not even noticed. He happened to panic and admit what he’d done. I well remembered his telling me, time after time, with a worried look on his face that he knew CL’s editorial employees were vastly underpaid but that, honestly, there just wasn’t the money there to pay them more.

Eventually, Debbie struggled to do the right thing by increasing salaries and paying more attention to editorial content. Much of what was problematic about her was also her asset – persistence, loyalty to longtime contributors and staffers, and, seriously, a visionary attitude toward the Internet.  I have plenty of respect for her.

Another myopic aspect of the discussion is the apparent belief that CL has ignored the changes in journalism. I find this claim staggering. The reason I decided to go back to school for a master’s degree in psychology (and, later, a PhD) was because journalism ceased to be intellectually challenging and fun. I’ve raged about this too much, no doubt, but journalism has been deteriorating at least since 1982 when USA Today began publishing telegram-length news stories and analysis, all gussied up with colorful graphics.

CL has for years been part of that movement. Ken Edelstein managed to build a highly competent staff that has done some great investigative reporting. I think he’s the best editor the paper’s ever had. However, I think it would be wrong to say that CL hasn’t been part of the movement away from the writing of depth that characterized much of alternative media’s original mission. (The Chicago Reader, as I recall, was infamous for printing a hugely long story on beekeeping back in the ‘70s.)

A final observation about the discussion on Atlanta Mag’s site: Back in the mid-‘80s, following my first stint as editor of CL, I moved to Houston to edit the nation’s largest regional design magazine. (It ended up merging with the city magazine.) Houston’s economy was already crashing when I got there, but it was well over a year before the magazine’s revenues were affected. This was in great part because our readership was mainly the wealthy. The crash eventually hit the magazine, too, and I lost my job.

Might we not see something of the same with Atlanta Magazine and the crop of northside publications (like the Atlantan)? They’re going to feel the effects of the tanking economy later than publications with less prosperous readers. Then, perhaps, we can blame their failure to develop the right web presence too.

Personal: Headcase

As I reported last month, the paper discontinued my Headcase column after more than 15 years in order to “save money.” I was in need of a break, so I wasn’t as upset as I might have been. I’ve been shocked by the number of people who have approached me personally to ask about my disappearance from print.  I’ve also gotten a zillion emails and I’m pretty tired of explaining what happened.

I have to say that I was very annoyed when, after so many years, Ken Edelstein did not respond to my request to write a farewell column (for free) to run in the usual online space for Headcase. I wanted to do that, so I could point people there and thank my longtime readers.

Now, I do find myself collecting stuff for commentary, so I may look for a new publisher soon. I’ve been twice contacted by syndicates in the past, so maybe I’ll look into that, too. Anyway, I appreciate all the email.

I hope Creative Loafing comes through this period. It’s been part of my life for over 20 years and, despite its ample shortcomings, I still think it beats the competition by a mile.

Comment Pages

There are 8 Comments to "Creative Loafing and the media wags"

  • suzanne says:

    great column.
    sorry to hear headcase is gone.
    hope you’re well.

  • Patrick Best says:

    I’ve always been a big fan of your writing. I’m sure there are a lot of long-time CL readers who were disappointed to see your column go. Good luck, Cliff.

  • DJT says:

    Greetings from Australia, to which I’ve returned after six mainly great years in Atlanta’s media.

    You seem more charitable to both Ben Eason and Ken Edelstein than they deserve. Maybe that’s because you are still writing your grazing column.

    Your Headcase column was unique not just in Creative Loafing but in the country — smart and unpredictable in its twists and turns. I often emailed it to friends all over the place.

    It’s amazing to me that they continued the “Don’t Panic” column after Andi resigned but eliminated yours. (At least that’s what a friend writes me.) I know it’s not a contest, but I have to say this is more evidence of the completely twisted priorities American newspapers have demonstrated during recent years. I am not surprised that CL is going kaput. It lost its way generally well before bankruptcy started. I think that had as much to do with editorial direction as the publisher’s craziness.

    I hope to see Headcase elsewhere soon. Keep us posted. I’ve subscribed to your blog.

  • Cliff says:

    Hey, thanks Suzanne (who is former arts and entertainment editor at CL). I hope you’re well…

    Thanks to you, too, Patrick. Obviously you (and the redoubtable Howard Landsman and Jeff Kremer) are doing something right to seize CL’s market.

  • Danny says:

    I’m sorry for the drama Creative Loafing’s staff is going through and I’m also sorry for the city of Atlanta’s readers. I wrote when Cliff first wrote Headcase had been discontinued that I was sorry to see the city lose a significant gay voice. There are some fin e writers at Southern Voice, but they preach to the choir. Cliff was often expressing controversial stuff to the “other side” (so to speak) that most writers are too polite to write about even in the gay newspapers.

    I’m not clear if it was Ben Eason or Ken Edlesten that decided to stop Headcase but it does show how out of touch with the “alternative” readers they are. The city needs are real alternative newspaper. The Sunday Paper is more conservative than the Constitution.

  • […] if you haven’t already had your fill of schadenfreude at our expense, you may also enjoy this essay by longtime Loaf contributor and former editor Cliff Bostock: The fact is that practically no […]

  • Cliff says:

    Thanks, Robert….I didn’t know the Sunday Paper had stopped running Ms. Coulter. That is good to know. I haven’t really looked at the paper in a long time. I did see Stephanie Ramage’s name on several posts on the Atlanta Mag blog, but I’ve never read her.

    Frank: I remember you, of course….It’s pretty natural for editors and publishers to be somewhat adversarial. After all, editors want to spend all the money publishers are making. There have been some high-profile battles between the two in the last few years at papers like the LA Times.

    Curt: Funny, I think of you as a newcomer. 🙂

    Fresh Loaf: Come on! The point of my post is not to fuel schadenfreude. If it does that, it’s not my intent.

  • DaleC says:

    Cliff – an excellent and more reasoned take on this whole debacle than I have seen anywhere else. Although I rearely agreed with your politics, I ALWAYS read your column and miss it. Your columns on personal relationships and family are some of the best that I have read anywhere. Good luck and I will keep an eye out for Headcase.

Write a Comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.