Bob Fitrakis, a lifelong muckraker whose drive and talent have loaded his resume with press awards, remembers a golden age of alternative journalism in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Don’t scoff: In the early 1990s, three “alt weeklies” were in a newspaper brawl to win the hearts and minds of the state capital’s diverse mix of lefties and progressives. All three papers at the time were members of the Alternative Association of Newsweeklies (rebranded “of Newsmedia” as of 2011). With eye-popping cover story art and long-feature journalism, the three papers and their underpaid staff managed through guts and skill to outclass anything offered by the local corporate media.
Fitrakis, for instance, authored a mind-bending series of stories in the Columbus Alive! headlined “Crack Air” during the mid-1990s. The series told the story of Southern Air Transport, the CIA-founded airline caught running weapons during the Iran/Contra affair. A feisty and conservative county sheriff insisted to Fitrakis that the airline, having been lured to the Buckeye state by a $25 million tax break, was running drugs into Central Ohio, but said his department was unable to make any arrests due to federal interference. Fitrakis soon discovered, and subsequently verified via the CIA inspector general, that 11 pilots working for Southern Air Transport were convicted drug dealers.
Twenty years have gone by, and even though “Cowtown” has grown to become the 15th largest U.S. city, not a single independent weekly is serving Central Ohio. But the demise of the Columbus alternative press wasn’t due to dried-up print advertising revenue, Craigslist or stiff competition from the hyper-local blogosphere—the sort of changes that publisher Stephen Mindich cited as ending the 47-year run of the Boston Phoenix (3/14/13) earlier this year.
Fitrakis and many Columbus progressives say the papers were deliberately silenced or lobotomized by what Fitrakis calls the “daily monopoly,” or the Dispatch Printing Company, publisher of the conservative daily Columbus Dispatch, which has long been regarded as an info-war weapon for the region’s Republican elite.
Two of the alternative weeklies—the Columbus Alive! and the Other Paper (its name itself a slight against the daily)—were purchased by the daily monopoly. The Columbus Alive! was acquired by the Dispatch Co. in 2006 and turned into an entertainment weekly, recently running a cover story (6/13/13) about a local convention for adult fans of the cartoon My Little Pony, inspired by the plastic toy of the same name. The Other Paper, publishing since 1990, was shuttered earlier this year after being bought by the Dispatch Co. in 2011.
The Dispatch Co. is privately owned by the Wolfe family of Columbus, and they own a host of other local media as well, including a broadcast news station, two radio stations, two chains of suburban weeklies, a glossy monthly and numerous other specialty publications. The Wolfe family’s tightening grip on Central Ohio’s media is indeed unique and lasting. In his seminal 1947 book Inside USA, John Gunther called the Wolfe family of Columbus perhaps America’s most ruthless media monopoly.
“The Wolfe family runs a very pedestrian newspaper to cover up its vast financial holdings,” says the 50-something Fitrakis, who’s also an attorney, a professor and an on-again, off-again candidate for Ohio governor:
Their level of investigative reporting is virtually nonexistent, and I think it’s intentional, because they’re the so-called titans in town. They’re the handful of people who run Central Ohio. So they would be investigating themselves a lot. It bought these papers so no real investigative journalism could go on in Central Ohio.
One of the Wolfes’ current financial holdings is a minority ownership stake in the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets; they formerly had an investment in the team’s home venue, Nationwide Arena. Besides losing on the ice, the Blue Jackets in 2009 were reporting roughly $12 million a year in losses since the team’s inception in 2000. Hoping to save $10 million annually by not paying their rent, the Blue Jackets demanded out of their lease with the privately built arena. And like any civic-minded professional sports team, the Blue Jackets threatened to leave town if they didn’t get their way.
The public was called upon to bail the team out, a plan pushed by the Dispatch. The city and the county would purchase the arena with the condition the team remained in Columbus. But lurking was the Other Paper. The long-time rival of the Dispatch began running a series of stories bashing the team and the paper as they sought taxpayer dollars from a city with a high-school graduation rate that at the time was hovering around 50 percent.
Rallied by the 35-page alternative weekly, the public’s outcry grew, and the Blue Jackets and the Dispatch retreated, says Fitrakis. The Other Paper “stopped a quarter-a-billion dollar public subsidy to the hockey arena,” he says.
But the victory was short-lived after the Other Paper’s out-of-town owner, the Dallas-based American Community Newspapers, put the paper up for sale in 2011. Pouncing at the opportunity to capture its pesky foe, says Fitrakis, the Dispatch Co. purchased the paper. Though the new ownership kept the paper alive for two years, stories criticizing a public bailout of the arena were no more.
Within weeks, the Blue Jackets restarted their rumblings about relocating, and on March 30, 2012, the city, county and state purchased the arena in the name of economic development.
“With this paper gone, look what the Dispatch Co. was able to do,” says Fitrakis:
The Columbus City Council, which by the way is all Democrats, had a 15-minute discussion and voted that same $250 million in subsidies to the richest families (owners of the Blue Jackets), none of which live in the city. That couldn’t have happened if these papers still existed. There would have been big headlines screaming “Rich Rip Off Poor!”
Aaron Marshall is a veteran writer of both the Columbus alternative press and the Dispatch. A decade ago he left the Dispatch to cover the Ohio state legislature for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Marshall cited the arena deal among other Wolfe business interests that have shaped the Columbus paper’s reporting.
“The Dispatch has proved to be little more than a propaganda machine for whatever the Wolfes want,” he said.
In a 2011 interview with the city’s Business First magazine (12/30/11) in which he was declared “Business Person of the Year,” Dispatch Co. publisher and CEO John F. Wolfe was asked about “the irony” of buying the weekly newspaper that had challenged his family’s local empire with such moxie.
“That didn’t enter into the decision,” Wolfe said. “It was a business decision to do what we felt was the best interest for us long-term.”
The Dispatch Co.’s director of magazines, Brian Lindamood, was Columbus Alive!’s editor when Fitrakis was chasing a CIA-linked airline that had once run anti-tank missiles to Iran. Lindamood said his aspirations were to cast the Columbus Alive! in the mold of the Chicago Reader, but he said market forces steered the Alive! to focus more on entertainment—which is the same direction the Reader has taken, he says, after the paper was purchased by its mainstream rival, the Chicago Sun-Times.
Lindamood refused to answer questions regarding whether the Dispatch Co.’s purchase of the local alt weeklies was a premeditated move to silence them.
Marshall is concerned about the lack of media competition in Columbus.
“Absolutely Columbus is hurt by a lack of alternative voices,” he said:
The Dispatch Co. manufactures consent, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky. And now there is no one to call them on it. That’s a huge problem for people like myself who believe in robust debate and that an independent press are the lifeblood of democracy. It’s bad for Columbus.
Even before the Boston Phoenix went under in March, the mainstream media had turned the decline of alternative weeklies into a deathwatch. David Carr, columnist and media critic for the New York Times, wrote a blog post (8/20/12) with the headline “Are Alternative Weeklies Toast?”
The idea of the alternative weekly—that news would be covered absent the agenda of mainstream media and that truths would be told without paying heed to any kind of formal balance or objectivity—has all but been overwhelmed by the Web. Listings, spicy writing, coverage of the next big thing, all of that has been digitized and democratized and many alternatives have ended up looking, of all things, stodgy within this new-media context.
Fitrakis disputes that new media have overwhelmed the alt weekly. While freelancing for the Columbus alt weeklies, Fitrakis took over the city’s original underground newspaper of the 1970s, the Free Press, and turned it into a new media success story. He says that FreePress.org, financed by the nonprofit Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism, attracts so many readers during peak news cycles (like elections) that he regularly gets calls from corporations wanting to advertise on his website.
“We don’t accept their ads,” he says wryly, adding, “We were the second-largest media site from Central Ohio during the past presidential election.”
“In terms of websites, alternative media is not dead at all,” he says. “Most of the interesting reporting comes from the alternative media on the Web.”
But Fitrakis believes strictly publishing on the Web “takes away from being hyper-local.” So every month the Free Press publishes 5,000 copies of a broadsheet and sometimes delivers the hard copy directly to their readers—at rallies for workers’ rights, for instance.
He feels the Free Press, at the moment, is not a loud enough voice for a community the size of Central Ohio. “There still is a huge void when there’s no weekly paper with the finality of print,” he says. “There really needs to be a permanent weekly that’s tangible, so we can put the faces on the people that commit these acts.”
In a twist, the Dispatch during the last year transformed from a broadsheet to a tabloid. In some ways, its new look resembles the alternative weeklies they bought over the past decade.
“Look at the Dispatch these days, that little paper,” Fitrakis says. “They’re the ones that appear near death.”
John Lasker is a journalist from Columbus, Ohio. In 2010, he received a grant from the Knight Foundation to write about military sexual trauma and other issues faced by female soldiers.