Meltdown at the Free Times

Years of internal combustion may finally drive the paper under.

When we last left the Free Times in September, it was caught in a bitter union drive that pitted management against labor, writers versus sales. It was no doubt an embarrassment to this beacon of Coventry Road liberalism, which now faced the unbecoming task of crushing a union -- not something pleasantly discussed over brie and multigrain crackers.

"Management pressured people who were neutral or pro-union to sign a statement saying they were anti-union," says Dorothy Schneider, who worked in advertising at the time. "The rest of the sales staff was terrified."

Adds a former writer: "Salespeople were making signs in crayon in the lunchroom about how unions suck. It was just constant name-calling."

The Free Times eventually repelled the union drive. But given its current state, management may be longing for the days when life was as simple as an intra-office firefight.

Since then, Publisher Matt Fabyan has fired Editor Lisa Chamberlain. News Editor David Morton left for Washington City Paper. Music Editor Franklin Soults resigned, as did all but one staff writer. Even Art Director Bill Ramsey -- the unfortunate schmuck who was hired in January and quickly found himself serving as de facto editor amid the chaos -- quit last month, not long after Soults threatened to punch him out in a bar.

Ramsey, whose failure to write a story on time led to the would-be fisticuffs, best sums up sentiment among the dearly departed: "I would like to erase the whole thing."

Unfortunately, none of this bloodletting could have happened at a more precarious time. September 11, a softening ad market, and declining morale all factored into the paper losing "a shitload of money" last year, in the words of a former staffer. The situation has become so troubled that Fabyan has told staffers the Free Times could close within a year.

Now the paper is banking its resurrection on new Editor David Eden, a former PR man whose self-proclaimed gift for irreverence is already backfiring with staff. "He's one of those guys who thinks he's funny but is painfully not hip," says one former writer. "He's sort of laughably bad."

It's the tale of a gang that just couldn't shoot straight.

Three years ago, Lisa Chamberlain, a former aide to Congressman Dennis Kucinich, was promoted to editor to "clean up" the paper and "raise quality," she says. Compared to other big-city weeklies, the Free Times had established itself as a reliable underperformer. The occasional sparkling story more often gave way to dogmatic prose, lazy reporting, and a breathtaking naïveté planted in organic tomato liberalism.

"The Free Times had a tradition of letting everybody do what they want," says Chamberlain, and touchy-feely management did not good business make. "When I took over, it was pretty dysfunctional. There had been perpetual upheaval. There was just really low morale."

For a time, Chamberlain was able to alter the course. She hired talented if inexperienced writers. Coverage grew more ambitious. "I think the Free Times did do some decent stuff," says former writer Kevin Hoffman, who now works for Scene.

Yet Chamberlain herself was a mercurial figure. Older staffers believed she was in over her head. Younger staffers considered her a poor editor. And the newsroom remained an outtake from a Jerry Lewis film. "There was definitely a sense of flailing, grasping at straws," says Hoffman. "It just wasn't very well organized. You would go into these meetings, and if you had a bad idea, I guess we're running a bad idea this week."

Yet Chamberlain says she was in a no-win predicament. "I wasn't given any real power to hire and fire," she says. "This created the untenable situation of having to cajole, pressure, and finally nag people who weren't up to par . . . In many instances, the harshest criticism was coming from Fabyan, which I was responsible for passing down . . . So the fact that some people thought I was a bitch isn't terribly surprising."

A former writer backs her up: "Fabyan used Lisa as a scapegoat for everything. He claims the huge drop-off in ad revenue was due to the editorial side. But the ad department has had huge turnover as well."

Chamberlain says her days became numbered late last year when she decided to run an uncomplimentary story on Care Alliance, a nonprofit health agency. What she didn't know was that Fabyan's father sat on the agency's board. "I got a call Sunday night at home," she says. "Fabyan said, 'We can't run the story.' He claimed it would be a conflict of interest. I said, 'That's not a good reason to kill the story. It's unethical.' And he said, 'We're not running the story, period.'"

The article was held for the time being, but Chamberlain soon met again with the publisher. She had to run the story, she told him; it was a matter of integrity. "He reacted very angrily," she says.

"But when he realized I wasn't backing down, he said, 'Go ahead.'"

From then on, Fabyan did what any wise manager would do: He simply refused to speak to his editor, says Chamberlain, though their offices stood side by side. Ten weeks later, she was fired. By then, she knew it was coming.

The paper's parent company, Village Voice Media, mistakenly placed a help-wanted ad for her job -- before she was dismissed.

Fabyan did not respond to repeated interview requests. But other staffers say he commonly alters Free Times stories to please advertisers. Former music writer Jason Bracelin, who now works for Scene, says Fabyan once killed a story "goofing on" tours starring Billy Squier, Bad Company, and Styx. The reason for barring ill talk of these noted artists: The shows were promoted by the paper's largest advertiser, Clear Channel. "He told Lisa it would piss off our advertisers," says Bracelin.

Bracelin says he was also banned from writing about Mushroomhead after giving the band a middling review. "Fabyan told Franklin [Soults] that Mushroomhead got pissed off," he says. "I was forbidden from ever writing about that band again."

In fact, the band wielded so much influence at the Free Times, says Bracelin, that when the paper failed to cover one show, a staff promotions person was pressed to write a gushing review under a false name.

Some staffers contend Soults eventually lost his job for not bowing to Fabyan's wishes. When Soults gave one "washed-up guitar player" a bad review, says Bracelin, "he was done after that. They were making no bones that they didn't want the guy there. Franklin didn't even get invited to the Christmas party." (Soults declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Current Music Editor Jeff Niesel, formerly of Scene (yes, Cleveland journalism is an incestuous world), says he's unaware of management's attempts to skew music coverage. "I haven't found that to be true." But when asked if those making the accusations are lying, he's noncommittal. "I couldn't say."

Though Chamberlain admits Fabyan manipulated music coverage behind the scenes, she says it wasn't solely to shore up a drooping bottom line. Some of the stories may have insulted Cleveland's storied taste for classic rock. "He wasn't just concerned about pissing off advertisers, but readers, too," she says. "I think he's been put in a very difficult situation and is under a lot of pressure, and that doesn't always bring out the best in people."

Still, former staffers place Fabyan at the center of the paper's decline. The buck, as they say, stops in the publisher's office. "He's the guy in charge, and look at the state the Free Times has found itself in," says one former staffer.

That tenuous state has long worried employees. For months, according to two former workers, Fabyan has warned of the paper's imperiled finances. He's also mentioned talk within the parent company of moving him to another paper, then shutting down the Cleveland operation.

Ex-employees now book the over-under on the Free Times' collapse at 14 months.

Village Voice Media CEO David Schneiderman did not respond to repeated interview requests. He did, however, offer a terse e-mail rebuttal to talk of the paper's demise: "These claims regarding the Free Times are untrue and outrageous . . . VVM is having a terrific 2002, which is rather impressive given the publishing environment in this country at this time."

Staff writer Daniel Gray-Kontar doesn't buy the gloom and doom, either. He came to the Free Times from In Pittsburgh, the losing paper in the alternative weekly war for the Steel City. "I was there, and I watched that decline," he says. "It was very evident that the paper wasn't going in the right direction. I do not see that in any way here. In fact, I see us as getting stronger."

Earlier this year, the Free Times bet its survival on a radical change in content and design. Schneiderman boasted that Village Voice Media would "reinvent" the alternative weekly industry. He wasn't happy with its present state.

"For years, as long as we were alternative and wrote different things, we didn't have to have good writing," he recently told Los Angeles magazine. "We sort of smugly thought we were just smarter and better. But it's not amateur hour anymore."

Whether the Free Times still plays the amateur stage is in the eye of the beholder. The new-and-improved version isn't so much a reinvention as it is a low-fat replacement. The previously sober, often outraged tone has been replaced by light fare and alleged humor like "Celebrity Boxing." Stories are shorter, with thinner reporting; writers often don't bother to call anyone -- including the people they're writing about.

And Editor David Eden has already run into the eternal flame of Free Times politics. Since arriving just two months ago, his news editor, music editor, and top writer, Sandeep Kaushik, have all quit.

Eden worked for dailies like The Detroit News, Minneapolis Star, and The Plain Dealer before leaving journalism a decade ago. Since then, he's worked in PR and for Barney Magazine (yes, it's about a purple dinosaur), managed his own direct-mail company, and proved a quotable gadfly in Beachwood politics for his unremitting criticism of City Hall. A popular detractor he isn't: He ran for mayor in 1997, only to get powdered by incumbent Merle S. Gorden, receiving just 500-some votes.

In Eden's debut column, he portrayed himself with comedic bravado as a badass newsman. "Unlike the out-of-town editors running Scene and The Plain Dealer," he bragged, "I know how the city works and how to handicap the players. I know where many of the bodies are buried, and even how to dig some up."

But staffers soon worried he had a greater fondness for "anonymous hit pieces," as one former writer puts it. Frequent have been his unsigned shots at Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee, though Machaskee's sins have never been explained. Last week, he even compared the publisher to Slobodan Milosevic.

Eden is "still intensely bitter about The Plain Dealer," says a former writer. "He doesn't go an hour without bringing up the evil PD."

Adds Ramsey: "He's been out of the business for 10 years. He had a big bag of gripes to bring in."

Yet Eden's former PD colleagues apparently aren't huge fans of his, either. During his mayoral campaign, the paper's editorial staff not only neglected to endorse its onetime co-worker, but was downright dismissive, noting that he would likely immerse Beachwood in "unnecessary and unproductive squabbling."

Eden's skimpy reporting practices have also scared staffers. Within his first few weeks, the editor was upbraided in a letter from Newspaper Guild Executive Secretary Hannah Jo Rayl for implying that union officers refer to Machaskee as "The Snake"; the editor never bothered to call the union for verification. NAACP chief George Forbes also lashed out at Eden for mischaracterizing a meeting Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason had with black leaders; again the editor forgot to call the parties involved.

"He gets these anonymous phone calls, and there's no effort to even check to make sure they're true," says one former staffer. "He plays out his own personal vendettas in the pages of the paper."

For a man who knows where the bodies are buried, Eden seems oddly reticent to talk; he declined repeated interview requests. He was, however, soon calling Scene Publisher Ramon Larkin, badgering him about this paper's finances, presumably for a counterattack.

Yet Ramsey, the departed art director, defends Eden, arguing that the new editor shouldn't be blamed for the paper's mass exodus, since many staffers were spoiling for a fight. "In general, I don't think he upset anybody who didn't want to be upset," he says.

And Gray-Kontar, the lone remaining writer from last September, says he's pleased with the Free Times' new style: "I truly do like the direction we're going in. We're tweaking and fine-tuning, and I think once we allow David Eden to have the time to put in place his vision, the Free Times will emerge as . . . that institution people look forward to and respect."

It's difficult to say how Celebrity Boxing and supermodel-thin reporting will reinvigorate the paper. The safer bet is that Free Times Lite is an attempt to save money -- with the hope that the unwashed of Cleveland won't notice that the meal being served is now vegetarian: no meat allowed.

"There is this concerted plan to do things on the cheap," says a former staffer. "The quality issue is less important than the cost . . . It's a strategy that's born of desperation."

Then again, despair can make for quality entertainment. Though Eden may be "completely unfunny," according to one former staffer, the Free Times' tale of relentless strife still makes for the best running sitcom in town.

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