Yes, We Are Owned by a Chain, Too

The founding editor of the Express reflects on what the new owners have done to it.

When a newspaper is put up for sale, its price is determined by calculating the value of its hard assets: computers, desks, newsracks, and printing press — if it has one. After subtracting its debts and other liabilities, the resulting value is typically far less than the price paid when the paper is sold. The additional sum is called “goodwill.” It’s the value attached to the newspaper’s place in the community, and the loyalty of its readers and advertisers. But then, upon completion of the sale, a mysterious thing tends to happen. Once a paper’s goodwill has been purchased, it is often disregarded. The paper becomes a platform upon which the new owners play out their own ambitions.

In February of 2001, the Express was sold by its former owners, a collection of individuals and one large alternative newsweekly chain, Chicago Reader Inc., to an even larger chain, New Times, which is now known as Village Voice Media. I was one of the paper’s owners. I was also its editor and publisher.

The Express had been publishing for more than 21 years at the time of the sale. Under its new ownership, it has published for another five. As the paper’s current staff examines the sale of dozens of Bay Area newspapers from one national chain to another, it has asked me — now an outsider with no formal connection to the Express — to reflect on what the change of ownership has meant for the paper I cofounded. What, if anything, was lost in the transition? What difference does it make who owns this, or any, paper? Are newspapers more than their nameplates and market position?

The Contra Costa Times is about to change ownership again. Does it matter that the paper had its roots in the early 1950s when a real-estate promoter named Dean Lesher flew in a small airplane over the little village of Walnut Creek and, in the great California tradition of Chandler and McClatchy, created the paper to hawk his vision of a paradise he hoped to build there? Does it matter that the Oakland Tribune, under its founder, Senator Joe Knowland, once helped turn the city of Oakland into the nation’s most productive seedbed for Republican activists from Earl Warren to Ed Meese? Or that the Tribune later had the brief distinction of being the only African-American-owned metropolitan daily in the country?

There’s a sense in which a newspaper resembles a professional sports team. It’s created daily or weekly by a team of talented and highly trained players. They play for today; one game at a time. Tomorrow the process starts over again. But beyond the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately evaluations that accompany every day’s performance on the field, a sports organization is also a living artifact of its history and traditions. Its continuing story is inscribed in the hearts of its fans. Maybe that’s what is being lost in the media world in this era of frenzied acquisition and consolidation: the sense of an ongoing organizational narrative that transcends ownership.

The goodwill that New Times purchased from myself and the other owners five years ago was the result of 22 years of effort by hundreds of participants. Many of them were freelance writers working for next to nothing out of a love of their craft and the community in which they lived and which they took as their subject.

One of the very best of them, Judith Moore, died of cancer earlier this month. She was 66. Judith came to Berkeley in the early ’80s to write. She had raised two daughters in her home in Ellensburg, Washington, and when they left home, she did too. She literally moved into a garret, a one-room apartment on Ridge Road north of campus. There she read and wrote. One of the things she wrote was a harrowing tale of being beaten as a child by her mother. In typically perverse fashion, she brought it to me as a possible cover story to run before Mother’s Day.

That story was the first she ever published. We ran it under the headline “Mommy Dearest.” It was a searing, elegantly crafted, first-person cry of rage, and it was an immediate sensation. As a freelance writer, Judith went on to produce a rich stream of personal memoirs and literary journalism for this paper. Her pioneering reporting introduced a large segment of this community to the complex, even demonic, nature of bulimia and other eating disorders. She wrote about the lives of incarcerated women felons who also were mothers of young children, and she wrote about two nuns — members of an obscure religious order charged with ministering to circus performers — whom she met when a traveling show pitched its tent near Jack London Square. She wrote equally authoritatively about meteorology and adultery, food and organized crime. Her writing was irascible and passionate, brilliant and militantly unsentimental. She is —and in my estimation will always be — in the first rank of the writers whose work has ever graced these pages.

When Judith was given a staff position at the San Diego Reader, the alternative newsweekly in San Diego, her work appeared in the Express less frequently, but she never left Berkeley. She wrote three books, Never Eat Your Heart Out, The Left Coast of Paradise, and last year’s Fat Girl. In 1999, she won the highly coveted Guggenheim Fellowship.

Judith’s obituary in the Chronicle included the following quote from Fat Girl: “Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won’t. I will not endear myself. I won’t put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get, the less pleasant I get.”

There never has been a collection of the “Best of the Express. ” If there had been, it surely would have included much of Judith’s work. When New Times took over ownership of this paper, rather than undertake the laborious — perhaps impossible — task of contacting and securing permission to display the work of the hundreds of freelancers whose work had appeared here, the online archive was purged of any editorial content that predated the sale. In an unrelated piece of bad luck, the computerized index of the old paper’s editorial content was lost when the Express moved to new offices in June of 2001. To my knowledge, to this day no index or digital archive exists that would give the current staff easy access to more than a thousand weekly issues of the Express that predated the sale.

Much has changed since the sale. This paper no longer publishes memoirs and first-person journalism of the sort that Judith Moore wrote. It no longer relies on freelance writers to generate its content. It has worked hard to include the greater East Bay into its editorial mix. It has decided to welcome the community of lonely old men into its big tent, generously providing them with “escort” ads.

But much hasn’t changed. The Express continues to rely on good writing and long-form journalism to tell this community’s story. And as long as that’s true, I’m confident that somewhere within the complicated genome of the Express, the DNA of Judith Moore lives on.

I just thought you should know who she was.

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