DETROIT, MI — The Boston Phoenix closed up shop. The Village Voice is diminished by heavy layoffs and staff disquiet. And last winter, the outlook for Metro Times, the 34-year-old alt-weekly in Detroit, didn’t look too good either. After years of declining circulation and staff cuts, the paper was put up for sale.
But in an unexpected turnaround, a newly-formed ownership team called Euclid Media Group scooped up Metro Times in December, along with the alt-weeklies in Cleveland, San Antonio, and Orlando. And rather than squeeze out what life was left in Metro Times, the new owner touts its commitment to “hard-hitting, culturally savvy alternative journalism.” A new staff member was hired for an “investigative reporter” position. Valerie Vande Panne, an award-winning journalist and former news editor of High Times, was brought in to lead the charge as editor in chief.
And indeed, Metro Times has lately been publishing much more rigorous features on the region’s most pressing news, from the controversial incinerator in Midtown Detroit to an analysis of the region’s patchy public transportation to the politics behind the building of the new, publicly-subsidized Red Wings Arena. Vande Panne is particularly proud of the Red Wings piece; she told me she heard from readers who kept that issue of the paper with them, taking in the long feature over the course of the week. (I should note here that she and I have been friendly since before she arrived in Detroit.) In comparison, when the city filed for municipal bankruptcy a year ago, the Metro Times cover story was a rehash of what other media said about the city, including jokes about Detroit told by late-night comedians.
Unfortunately, these rising editorial aspiration have at times been undercut by some unusual business-side circumstances, and a few questionable decisions amid the transition. The issues aren’t fatal to Metro Times’ long-term ambitions, but they do demand attention—and they underscore the importance of being clear and transparent about your revenue model.
To expand its clout in the region, Euclid also bought Real Detroit Weekly—a competing free publication that was heavy with ads and known more as a “party book,” as a former staffer described it to me. The owners merged the two publications under the Metro Times name in May, barely two weeks after Vande Panne began her tenure. (She doesn’t recall the potential for a merger coming up in her interview.) The deal brought new staff capacity to the “super-weekly,” especially to the business side, and it has the potential to bring Metro Times, whose average reader is 38 years old, to a younger audience.
But the deal also brought with it baggage—namely, Real Detroit’s outstanding contracts with advertisers, among them promotional packages in which companies had been promised editorial coverage.
Including, apparently, cover stories. “Elektric City: Lights, Music, and Magic” was the cover story of the June 25 issue of Metro Times. It featured a three-year-old nightclub in suburban Pontiac owned by a local entrepreneur who also owns several local restaurants, and has been a longtime advertiser in both Metro Times and Real Detroit. For a sense of the story’s blandly promotional tone, take the second paragraph:
Glowing bright, fluorescent blue on weekend nights, the marquee is a beacon to all those who wish to dance, to those who love electronic dance music, and to those who just can’t get enough of lights, confetti, and pounding bass.
The article has no reporter’s byline. Instead, it is “brought to you by Metro Times Promotions.” Nowhere does the text acknowledge that the nightclub is a regular purchaser of full-page ads in the publication.
Another story with the same byline, and the same flavor, appeared in the June 18 issue. That one spotlighted a summer concert series at a casino in Toledo, OH. (Kicker: “An all-encompassing line-up, Hollywoosd Casino promises a summer of warm nights and hot music.”) In print, that article is boxed, presented in a different font, and labeled “MT Sponsored Content”—helpful visual indicators that were unfortunately missing for the “Elektric City” cover story a week later. But those indicators don’t translate online, where, aside from the “Metro Times Promotions” byline, neither story is clearly marked as sponsored content on the article page.
I had a hard time getting someone from the paper’s business side to explain what was happening with these posts, or to even clarify what the paper’s policy is on sponsored content. At press time, Chris Keating, the publisher and one of the Euclid owners, had not responded to multiple requests for comment.