By 1993, Florida Sun Publications, the arm of the Toronto Sun Publishing Corp. that ran The Weekly, was losing money. According to a story in the Sentinel, it had actually been losing money every year since the Sun purchased its group of Florida papers in 1989, so it's no wonder the company was willing to sell The Weekly just a few years after it was founded.
In 1980, Ron Williams and Laura Markham had just moved back to Detroit after graduating from Antioch College. They had $5,000, and they used it to found a newspaper called the Metro Times, an alt-weekly publication that distinguished itself by putting investigative and counterculture reporting at the forefront. After a few rocky years, they not only hit their stride – they started making money.
"By 1993, we were profitable, and we decided to expand from Detroit into additional markets," says Williams, who today is the executive director of Free Speech TV, which calls itself "the alternative to TV networks owned by billionaires, governments and corporations." At that time, he says, the alternative newsweekly business was growing, and there were strong, active weekly papers in all of the top 25 media markets in the country.
It would have been foolish to set up a publication to challenge an existing alt-weekly in a top market, he says, so he and Markham analyzed cities that were lower down the food chain instead.
"Orlando was one of the cities that rose to the top of our list," he says. "One, because it didn't really have an alternative newsweekly. Two, it was one of the fastest-growing cities in America."
In 1994, the media company that Williams and Markham had formed, called Alternative Media Inc., purchased The Weekly. In 1995, the company redesigned the publication and christened it Orlando Weekly. Per the Sentinel, AMI had studied the Central Florida market and decided to focus mostly on music, arts and entertainment; Williams says he quickly realized that wasn't necessary – there was plenty of fodder for the same kind of aggressive alternative news coverage that set Metro Times apart in Detroit.
"Before I came to Orlando, I dismissed Orlando as having no 'there' there," he says. "I thought that the theme parks created a lot of visitors, and that those visitors had no authentic connection to the city. They were passing through, spending a lot of money and isolated around the theme parks. But once I got into it, and we started publishing, I discovered there was an emerging hipster scene that ironically was taken to a whole new level by the frustrated creative community of the theme parks."
Williams says he was surprised by the number of highly talented artists who were employed by the parks by day, "but at night they let loose," giving the city an unexpected countercultural dimension.
"The creative community and theme parks really enriched the arts and cultural scene, and they also really moved the political scene in a more liberal, progressive direction," he says. "Otherwise Orlando could be very conservative. We actually found Orlando to be pretty liberal. There was a large LGBT scene, and I think a lot of that is that the theme parks were this magnet for fairly well-paid creative types who lived in Orlando and helped transform the city."
Orlando Weekly hired an investigative reporter named Edward Ericson Jr. (who is today a staff writer at City Paper in Baltimore) to delve into the darker side of this sunny city, and he established a structure in which the editor of the publication didn't answer to the paper's publisher – instead, he says, Jeff Truesdell (who kept his job as editor through the transition and into 2002) answered directly to Williams, just as the publisher did. That way, he says, the editorial department never felt pressured by the interests of advertisers and held true to its investigative mission. The publication cultivated a bold, progressive editorial voice that questioned everything.
"Doing this kind of agenda-setting, serious investigative work actually turned out to provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace," he recalls. "It was good for ad sales and business. We differentiated our publications by distinguishing ourselves with this kind of thing. It turned out that even though it was expensive and unusual, it helped us to break out and distinguish ourselves in the broader market."
It wasn't going to last forever, of course. By 1999, Williams says, he was tired. He'd worked in the industry for nearly 20 years and was ready for a break. He and Markham sold all of their publications, including Detroit Metro Times, the San Antonio Current and Orlando Weekly – to another media company, Times Shamrock Communications in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for around $20 million.
"We felt they would be good stewards of the situation, and that they had a sensitivity to our social mission," he says. "It was a good bet. They allowed those publications to continue for quite some time to move forward with the same kind of editorial vision and many of the same people we had put into place. I think some of the publications did their best work after we sold."
Tough as the media market may be, Williams says he thinks there will always be a place in the community for an alt-weekly, as long as the publication stays true to its founding mission.
"My challenge to Orlando Weekly as you make this transition is that I'd love to see you guys commit to the fact that alternative newsweeklies can be very powerful forces for change in their local communities," he says. "If alt-weeklies reinvent themselves under a very small number of owners, and reinvent themselves as profitable businesses, but don't reaffirm their social mission, then these publications are soulless. ... Embrace the outsiders. Embrace the disrupters."