Media exec gets cold shoulder from Chicago

Sale of the city's Reader riles its fans, but Creative Loafing's CEO doesn't take it personally.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
Published August 19, 2007

The comments, posted on the Chicago Reader's News Bites media blog, were downright brutal.

Fans of the alternative newspaper were reacting to the surprising news that the Tampa-based Creative Loafing chain was purchasing the Reader and the Washington City Paper.

And the response was, um, skeptical at best.

"Get ready Chicago Reader: you are no longer a newspaper but instead officially a 'news product,' " read one missive, quoting a phrase from the press release on the sale. "It's one happy family of rags beneath a satanic looking logo," announced another post.

And perhaps the bluntest assessment: "Tampa isn't even a city. . . . It's stucco and rivers of blue-hair dye."

But ask Ben Eason, chief executive officer of the Creative Loafing alternative newspaper chain, how he felt about seeing those angry, condescending barbs directed at his company, and the 42-year-old shrugs most of it away.

Reaction to the deal has ranged from "Who are these guys?" to "What do they know about alternative journalism?" But Eason, who built Creative Loafing into a company with newspapers in Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., says it was mostly a reasonable response to an uncertain situation.

"There's this thing I'm quickly realizing, which is: You're either from Chicago or you're not," he said, laughing. "That's different than in D.C. . . . I'm a Floridian. The Jimmy Buffett will not leave my veins. And so I can't fake it. The fact is, we'll be great stewards of the Reader, but the proof is going to have to be in the pudding."

Eason won't say how much his company paid for the two newspapers - one of the Reader's co-founders told Forbes magazine it was an eight-figure deal - but he did agree to a wide-ranging interview on the circumstances of the purchase, the future of a continually consolidating alternative media and the emergence of Tampa as the unlikeliest media capital of all.

This is a huge deal at a time when newspapers are laying off people and reducing their size. Are people just excited to see someone investing in newspapers?

Most alternative newspapers haven't lost any bit of readership at all. But if that's all good, why do we feel so bad? The most vulnerable revenue is the highest: classifieds. There's a better mousetrap out there online: Careerbuilder or Craigslist or eBay. I've got my four papers, and while that's a nice publishing footprint, it's not going to let us play in the national Internet game.

Does this mean you're developing a new way to advertise in all your newspapers simultaneously online?

You want a national platform, national quality technology, that features local content. How can I help put together a consortium of great local media companies and we tie into one common platform? That way, we get national advertisers that will help sponsor the local restaurant listings.

But some people are concerned that, in talking about the advantages of this deal, you're not really talking about the content of the newspapers.

I'm saying these guys are already at the top of their game. They've got huge audiences, their brand is loved in their markets - why would you change anything? We're not here to (cannibalize) the place. We're trying to bring the online system and this infrastructure to help propel us into the next 10 to 15 years in the industry.

Will you share a lot of stories among the newspapers?

We don't have a mandate to share editorial. We're so local in our orientation, it's never made any sense to do it that way. I think we've got six or seven film critics around the company now. If you put your efficiency hat on, could one film reviewer do the same job for everybody? Perhaps, but that connection to film and the local community is something I'm proud of. I'm (more interested in trying) something that really takes this talent and creates a national Web site out of it.

I understand that the Chicago production staff found out their jobs would be moved to Atlanta by reading a story about the deal posted online. Isn't that something a mainstream media company would do?

You try to script this as best you can, but things that can go wrong do go wrong. Some wires had gotten crossed between the former owners and me. It's a terrible thing, the production crew is in the middle of intense deadlines and this story comes across a Web site. On the one hand, you get news you've got new owners, and now you're hearing you're going to lose your job. I'm just trying to reassure folks that we're good people and we're honest.

Is it tough to manage a deal this big without becoming the kind of media company you've always been the alternative to?

I think corporate is those stupid Dilbert things, the mindless policies that to some extent dehumanize people. People are looking at little things you do: Are you compassionate? This thing is doubling the employees we have, north of 300 people. I send birthday cards and anniversary cards to our staff; I'm going to have to write twice as long now. I think right now, there's a little bit of a grieving process. Our friends in production will lose their jobs, and there's a bit of a changing of an era here.

Some are concerned that a major alternative media company is based in Tampa.

That's consistent with a global company: How do you take advantage of sharp people in different markets without having to move them all to one place? That's how our company is structured now. And Tampa is a mecca for media. It's just not obvious.

So you won't move the headquarters to another city?

Headquarters is where I get to sit. I'm a Tampan. I'm a Floridian. I absolutely love it in Florida, and I couldn't think of living anywhere else. I am trying to figure out with my wife how to be a summer snowbird in Chicago.

Are you part of the establishment now?

I've got pretty decent establishment credentials, maybe embarrassingly so. I've been the chairman of several nonprofit organizations. But I am wearing tie-dyed socks right now. I know where the line is.

But are you wearing a tie?

S--- no. Maybe I'll get (St. Petersburg Times editor, CEO and chairman) Paul Tash to loan me one.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.