South Carolina’s top daily buys an alt-weekly in the state capital

Source: Fotolia

Another alternative weekly has been purchased by a big daily, continuing a trend in recent years that has seen alts come under the arm of nearby mainstream newspapers.

In 2012, the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times bought the Reader, the city’s leading alt-weekly. In 2014, the same thing happened in Baltimore. This time, the acquisition takes place in South Carolina. Free Times, the alt-weekly in Columbia, the state capital—where, full disclosure, I worked from 2010 to 2013—was sold Monday.

This deal, though, comes with a twist: The State, the McClatchy-owned daily paper in the capital city, didn’t buy Free Times. Instead, the alt has been taken over by Evening Post Industries, the family-owned parent company of The Post and Courier in Charleston, more than 100 miles away.

There are also some grim circumstances surrounding the purchase. Six weeks before the transaction was finalized, Free Times owner and publisher Charlie Nutt, 67, fatally shot himself in a hotel bathroom in Georgia. Nutt’s suicide left many in the city wondering what would happen to a paper that had been a source of alternative news coverage on politics, arts, entertainment and music since the late 1980s. Monday’s deal answers that question, while prompting others about what the Free Times will look like under new ownership.

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Under editor Mitch Pugh, who came on in 2013, The Post and Courier has won honors and acclaim in recent years: The paper won the Pulitzer for public service in 2015, was a finalist in two categories this year, and was celebrated for the way it captured the city’s response to the racist killing of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME church.

As I’ve written, The Post and Courier has also sometimes struggled to retain young, aggressive statehouse reporters. But the paper has been expanding, adding capitol reporters, partnering with the Center for Public Integrity on big projects, and exploring ways to expand its statehouse presence. The acquisition of the Free Times, which has offices just blocks from the statehouse, fits into the expansion effort. This growth comes as the McClatchy-owned Stateis in a period of retrenchment; last year, on the same day that Post and Courier journalists popped champagne corks over their Pulitzer news, employees at The State were learning of a new buyout package.

The news of the purchase also came with this: Andy Shain, one of The State‘s political reporters, will join the Free Times as editor. He will also be editor of Palmetto Politics, The Post and Courier’s politics site.

In an interview, Shain said the vision for the deal was set by Pugh, and that the P&C understood it was buying an alternative weekly that has a particular voice in Columbia. Free Times could have a cover story about local public corruption one week, and one about heavy metal— or even mayonnaise—the next.

“We’ll see that it will remain an alternative weekly,” Shain said, with the caveat that the sale had just gone through and specific plans are still being worked out. Shain said he had already shown up once to the Free Times office wearing a tie, and the staff had indicated that might not be the best look. He said his intention is to keep the office ping-pong table. One edge, though, has been sanded away: for the first time Free Times employees can remember, paperwork indicates they will have to take a drug test.

Pugh did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement, P.J. Browning, publisher of the paper’s parent company, said the “move is a natural extension of Evening Post’s mission to build community.” The purchase price was not disclosed.

Founded in 1987 by Amy Singmaster, Free Times over the years morphed from a smaller music and entertainment paper into a thick weekly publication with in-depth coverage of local government, statewide political news and analysis, and investigative journalism.

John Crangle, director of the state chapter of Common Cause and a frequent source for Free Times, said the paper had established an audience for its political reporting. “It’s not just 22 or 23-year-olds who read that paper anymore,” he says. “I talk to people at the statehouse or the courthouse, and they quite commonly will say they saw something in the Free Times.”

In late 2012, the paper was purchased by Nutt, who spent his career in newspapers and moved from New Jersey to South Carolina to run the publication. On the day he started, he told the assembled staff that he still believed in print. He allowed everyone to keep their jobs.

A straitlaced businessman, Nutt understood the optics of a buttoned-up, shirt-and-tie man in his 60s buying an alt-weekly. He sometimes joked to staff they probably thought he bought the wrong newspaper. He might sometimes ask a staffer to explain a particular cultural reference, but for the most part he allowed Free Times to maintain its edgy vibe. He read every line of copy with a ruler he held in both hands, head bent at his desk; if a ping-pong ball bounced off his shoulder, he did not complain.

Over the past year, the Free Times suffered a series of challenges. Several key business-side staffers departed; in March, editor Dan Cook left the paper after 18 years for a job writing for magazines at the University of South Carolina. A major flood last fall hurt business. Still, Nutt showed few signs of strain. In October, five months before his suicide, I saw him while in town for a conference and asked if he was happy with his purchase. He told me the past year had been difficult, but overall, he thought he made a good decision.

The sale talks, which had been quietly in the works before Nutt’s death, continued afterward. The completed deal is a step toward further consolidation of newspaper ownership in the state, where McClatchy, Gannett, and Evening Post own most of the titles; the Charleston City Paper (where I also once worked) is now the only independent alt-weekly in the state.

Crangle, the Common Cause director, had hoped the Free Times would remain in independent hands, though he also said the sale could benefit the paper.

“I think in the best case scenario, The Post and Courier is going to put additional resources into it and that could help the Free Times a lot,” he said. “On the other hand, it can create the one-voice problem.”

Other media observers in the state also said the deal could work well, under certain conditions.

Doug Fisher, who teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and was news editor for The Associated Press here from 1992 to 2000, says the transaction reminds him of the state’s newspaper wars of the 1990s, when papers from all over the state were trying to penetrate the Columbia market. What fascinates him, Fisher said, is that the P&C’s parent company bought an alternative weekly, moving beyond its traditional portfolio.

“If they make it The Post and Courier Columbia bureau I think they really stepped in it,” he said. “If they intend to keep it as a media property that’s generating decent money in the Columbia market, [Free Times] certainly has its own image. I don’t think they can re-make it.”

Dick Harpootlian, a high-profile Columbia lawyer and former local politician who helped found an alternative weekly called Osceola in the 1970s, said he expects the P&C and Evening Post will be a better owner for the Free Times than one of the corporate chains.

“If it’s got to lose its independence for financial reasons, the best place to go would be The Post and Courier because it’s still family owned,” he said. “If they’ll continue to let the Free Times do what the Free Times does well, then I think it’s going to be a great synergy.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.