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Death Becomes Her 

The Free Times died because it didn't walk it like it talked it.

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The day the Free Times died, Editor David Eden told The New York Post: "We were the star of the Village Voice chain."

Forgive the guy for talking like a moron. When faced with failure, it's human nature to lie to yourself. No one wants responsibility for garroting a 10-year tradition. No one wants to admit his ineptitude cost 50 people their jobs.

But when you picked up this edition of Scene, you likely noticed that the Free Times rack was empty. Delusion, like that so grandly exhibited by Eden, is the reason why.

Last week, parent company Village Voice Media shut the paper down. In exchange, New Times, owner of Scene, agreed to shutter its Los Angeles paper. The Voice also forked over eight million bucks, according to The New York Times.

To the Los Angeles Press Club, it all smacked of collusion. The gallant Free Times was sacrificed on the altar of Scene. Likewise, LA Weekly, owned by the Village Voice, would be free to rain terror on the City of Angels, now that its competition had thrown the fight. Somewhere, men with thin mustaches and beady eyes rubbed their hands with glee.

It's a tidy tale of corporate villainy and martyred little guys. Everybody loves a tale like that. It might even be believable, if not for that pesky consideration known as "economic reality." The truth, it seems, is neither as clean nor romantic.

New Times LA cashed in because it was losing the fight. LA Weekly had an 18-year head start, and the only way to catch it involved fjording a river of red ink. The Free Times died for a different reason. It lost its dominant position long ago through mismanagement, labor problems, and rapidly declining quality. Yet it continued to behave as if it were king, clinging to its boast of being "Ohio's Largest News, Arts & Entertainment Weekly," though it hadn't been true for years. Call it death by delusion.

In the end, both companies just grew tired of bleeding.

It is, of course, bad form to dance on the grave of another. Politeness dictates the deceased be lionized, that we lament The Loss of an Important Community Asset.

Yet honesty runs by a less civilized code. And truth be told, the Free Times' death wasn't unexpected or sudden. It was long, slow suicide.

The paper began as a City Hall watchdog and house organ for people who brag about how much they recycle. Its coverage was always uneven, and it lost more fights than it won, but such is the life of a scrapper. So long as you swing hard and take a good punch, there's no honor lost.

Yet the Free Times collapsed the same way a lot of businesses do these days. Instead of embracing the hard work incumbent in building a sound business, management decided it was a lot easier to simply look like one.

On the outside, the paper positioned itself as the trumpet of lefty virtue. On the inside, it paid half-assed wages, suffered ever-running labor tumult, and did its best to suppress a union drive.

Over the past year, its page numbers rose impressively. "Revenue was up 15 percent over a year ago . . ." said Eden on the day the paper died. But it was a fool's prosperity, gained from such heavy discounting that ads were sold below cost, sometimes for free. Think of the Cadillac dealer who sells Escalades for 10 grand a pop on a special Pay If You Get Around To It credit plan. Volume is up. Revenue is up. But he's losing his ass. Commerce is easy when the numbers don't have to match.

Then there was the product itself. Just two years ago, the Free Times was taking home a healthy pile of awards. If the staff was unpolished, there was no questioning its talent. Yet intra-office combat drove most away; the rest left when Eden was hired.

Here was a man who had washed out of the trade more than a decade before. In subsequent years, he worked as a corporate shill and got his ass stomped in the Beachwood mayoral elections. What the paper needed was Che Guevara; what it got was Scooter, the cashier from the country club pro shop.

Eden turned the paper into a barking poodle with no house training. It was an ornery little dog, biting whoever came within reach -- Jane Campbell, Dan Brady, Bill Mason, and of course, Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee, who played the recurring role of Antichrist. Rarely did readers get a full accounting of the sins committed. That would take work, the onerous task of collecting viewpoints from both sides. But the Free Times wasn't about work. It was only about looking feisty.

It's an old scam in the alternative weekly field: bark loud, spend little, and hope no one notices that you don't walk it like you talk it.

"There was this concerted plan to do things on the cheap," says writer Sandeep Kaushik, who bailed last spring. "The quality issue was less important than the cost . . . It was a strategy born of desperation."

So now Eden & Company are getting fitted for martyrs' robes. They were sold out by the evil parent company, they say.

It's a convenient tale, one that absolves them of blame. But the true sin of the Village Voice was giving local managers too much rope. It was Clevelanders who took the short path, the easy path, and lost their employees' paychecks in a lazy man's gamble.

In the end, the Free Times was like the dope dealer who starts shorting his customers. One day an ounce is 28 grams, the next 26, then 22. Do this long enough, and you're gonna get stomped or killed.

The Free Times had been getting stomped for quite some time. Last week, it finally got whacked.

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