Merger Was The Case That They Gave Me

If Scene And Free Times Can Live Under One Roof, Then Anything's Possible

In 1970, a fluffy weekly called Cleveland After Dark folded after just a few months. Even then, small papers faced longer odds for survival than restaurants, and the demise of yet another local rag would be wholly unnoteworthy but for what came next. Richard Kabat, who was running a promotions business at the time, saw an opportunity and launched The Cleveland Scene with a loan from his brother. He couldn't have known just how prescient his move was. He and his inexperienced staff held on long enough to catch one of the last waves of money to wash over Cleveland, the rock-and-nightlife boom of the '70s and '80s. Scene and music would become almost synonymous.

Two decades later, history borrowed from itself, if not quite repeated.

After temporarily ceasing publication twice in eight years, the Cleveland Edition, a rabble-rousing alternative weekly, closed for good in 1992. Attorney Richard Siegel, who was incensed by the publicly financed Ponzi scheme that was the Gateway project, recognized the void that the fearless Edition's demise would leave in oligarchic Cleveland. So he started a paper, the Free Times. The Free Stamp, which was new at the time, was controversial and Siegel liked that.

In 1998, both Free Times and Scene were bought by rival national chains. The immediate effect was the expansion of Scene beyond its music-centric focus, making it and Free Times direct competitors. At the time, advertising revenue practically rained from the heavens, and all that alternative weeklies had to do was run around with buckets. But you wouldn't have known that from watching the two papers battle for dominance in Northeast Ohio. The competition was fierce and at times nasty, even when it wasn't playing out in the pages. Scene's owners eventually bought the Free Times and left it for dead, only to see it return and resume the fight, like a scene in some business-themed horror movie.

So the merger has been . . . strange? Yeah, we'll go with strange - for all concerned, even those, like me, who had worked at both papers. A month ago we were enemies, hunkered down in bunkers and trying to will each other into starvation or surrender; today, we share the same fax machine and make small talk in the elevators. And between deadlines and the seemingly endless details inherent in merging two operations - packing and unpacking, integrating computer systems, finding the goddamn coffee - there's just been no time to nurse grudges.

Even if there were, what would be the point? The war is over. Neither side won, neither side lost. We can mourn the colleagues who are no longer with us, whether by choice or the harsh realities of consolidation. But what matters most now is figuring out what to do with this rare opportunity - in the Rust Belt, at least - to leave behind the hand-to-mouth, week-to-week existence, the paranoia and bitterness, and figure out how to make the most of a more stable future.

AT THE RISK of blowing any credibility I may have earned in my five years as a Clevelander, I'm going to talk about Red Sox fans for a moment. Please bear with me.

In 2004, the Boston Celt-punk band Dropkick Murphys recorded "Tessie," a variation on a century-old Broadway tune that held a special place in Red Sox lore (Wikipedia has the whole story). The Murphys' version is a raucous, bombastic, sprawling number, itself a potential showstopper that soars on guitars, bagpipes and unwavering, unapologetic adoration of a baseball team and its city. It's obnoxious and thrilling, and every time I hear it, I sing along and imagine living in a place with so much pride and self-assuredness. (But I still hate the Sox - I swear.)

Of course, Bostonians' reliance on hubris growth hormone is hardly a fitness plan Clevelanders could or should emulate. We'd sprain something. But surely we could figure out our own ways to work the same muscles. Yes, we are poor and fat and laughed at, underemployed and overwhelmed, foreclosed and forsaken. But despite all that, we are still here, and that's something. Others have sought warmer climates and cooler scenes, and that's their right. But we really need to stop thinking of them as the lucky ones.

As I typed up a cursory introduction to the 2006 Free Times Best of Cleveland/Readers' Choice issue, I wrote this line: "Cleveland is what we make it." That line stayed with me and became a sort of personal shorthand for my own notions about what an alternative newspaper can be.

Here's another: On my first day of my first job at an alt weekly, almost 12 years ago in Philadelphia, a co-worker welcomed me by noting that I was now "free of the shackles of community journalism." I celebrated by writing a brief item about something I'd witnessed the previous weekend: a naked man masturbating while driving at about 70 miles per hour on a major highway. True story.

Seriously, though, my colleague's remark may have been boastful (he was a Boston native, now that I think about it) but it was also accurate. Alternative newspapers operate on the belief that it's not only possible but vital to write with passion or sarcasm or outrage, with tongue in cheek or hammer in hand, while simultaneously adhering to traditional journalistic standards for accuracy and fairness. Other media may choose to wrap themselves in so-called objectivity and admire themselves in mirrors; that's their business (and frankly, business is bad). For many reasons, alternative newspapers can't. This one certainly won't.

Those of us fortunate enough to be part of the new Scene (version 3.0?) are now charged with carrying on what Richard Kabat and Richard Siegel started. Though they hailed from different backgrounds and launched different papers at different times, they succeeded for the same reason: They connected readers to scenes, to their times, to each other. They offered conduits for the creative energy generated by the exchange of ideas and information. We stand now on their shoulders, and the view is much better than it was in the bunker.

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