Can't beat 'em ...

By: Lucia Moses The Hartford Courant acquires its feisty rivals

The Hartford Advocate, the alternative weekly that for a quarter century has parodied, taunted, and skewered The Hartford Courant, the city's only daily, will be sold to the Courant, pending approval by federal regulators.
The deal, expected to close in May, includes four sister alternatives, all free weeklies with a combined distribution of 270,000. The purchase is aimed at reaching new and young readers and is part of the Courant's strategy to broaden its market through acquisition.
Included in the deal are the New Haven Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly in Connecticut, the Valley Advocate in Hatfield, Mass., and The Westchester County Weekly in New York, all owned by Hatfield-based New Mass. Media. No immediate changes are planned.
The purchase - the terms were not disclosed - is part of an effort by parent company Times Mirror, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, to add related media properties. Earlier this year, it bought a preprint advertising company serving Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and started a bulk ad distributor serving the Hartford area. The timing is right, as analysts are looking for the company, which sold off assets in 1998, to start acquiring new ones.
While the newest purchase may not be big enough to boost Times Mirror's earnings per share, it's still a smart one, says Gerald D. Reilly, a newspaper consultant and broker.
"This is a strong effort by them to engage some younger readers, which all mainstream papers are trying to do," Reilly says, adding that the chain is profitable and will be easily administered because of its proximity.
Skepticism runs high among Hartford Advocate staffers and observers who wonder how the alternative will maintain its feisty independence when its traditional foe becomes its owner.
Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, says he knows of two other times that a daily has bought the local alternative but says this is the first time a mainstream newspaper company has done it as a strategic move. He hopes it's not a trend, warning that mainstream ownership may gut alternatives of the essence that makes them valuable.
But Geoffrey Robinson, a co-owner and founder of New Mass. Media, says the Courant's high journalistic standards, leadership, and local ties made him comfortable with the deal. He says while the privately-held company is profitable now, with revenues between $14 million and $15 million last year, the fast-changing new media landscape would have eventually forced it into a partnering arrangement.
Courant deputy publisher Lou Golden says the Courant and New Mass. Media will be run as separate companies, with the Hartford Advocate continuing to compete and keep the Courant on its toes. "I think that's what the public wants," he says. "It would be very foolish of us to change that formula."
Advocate publisher Fran Zankowski promises to maintain the weekly's liberal, progressive tone. "The proof is going to be in our reportage, and that's going to take much time for people to see consistency remains, because everyone's going to be skeptical for a long time in our market," he says.

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