Mara Shalhoup described the former atmosphere at Creative Loafing in one word: tense.
At the time, the alternative weekly newspaper that’s been an Atlanta staple was under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and its editor had been fired.
Not to mention the staff had been cut back through layoffs, and the editions were getting thinner and thinner. That was 2008.
Enter Atalaya Capital Management LP, the New York-based private equity company that was the newspaper’s biggest creditor.
A judge declared Atalaya the new owners last August after it beat out a $2.3 million bid from Ben Eason, the newspaper's CEO, who has been trying to hold onto the chain since it filed for bankruptcy the previous year.
Atalaya’s executives immediately began meeting with the publishers at Creative Loafing and the others in the six-newspaper chain.
Shalhoup said they came in, with editorial advisers, and asked Creative Loafing’s 13-person staff one basic question:
What do you want to do?
“It seemed to take a lot of fear out of the staff,” Shalhoup told the AJC. “They are interested in building the paper back, and they need to make their money back.”
As with other media outfits, the way Creative Loafing makes money is going to be different than it was in the pre-recession days.
Shalhoup, 34, has additional places to put her energy. She was named editor-in-chief three weeks ago. In an open letter to readers last month, Shalhoup vowed to rebuild and reinvent Creative Loafing, adding the investigative stories, profiles and longer articles that have for the most part disappeared.
“The in-depth, investigative pieces, they take time, and they take resources, and right now those are two things that can be of short supply,” Shalhoup said.
“We were under the gun to build page views and have a bigger presence online. We couldn’t do both at the same time.”
But having a slimmed-down staff forced Creative Loafing – which was publishing online just once a week – to add blogs on arts, music, news, politics and food. It also did not sacrifice its coverage of politics, something that Shalhoup said has helped build a better online audience.
She’s hoping Creative Loafing can tell those stories a different way, through video and other multimedia forms online.
And, she will be able to hire more staff. Slowly. Atalaya executives assured her they are committed to those hires.
Shalhoup said she hopes those things will help push Creative Loafing beyond the traditional “alternative weekly” format of being a weekly list of what’s going on around town, to something that people pick up and read over coffee or a slice of pizza.
Bloggers, startup media outfits that have maybe one or two reporters who double as videographers may be what’s “alternative” today, she said.
“Alternative is what’s used to describe ourselves, but that’s becoming increasingly meaningless,” she said. “Alternative to what? It’s going to stick because it’s a label, but I don’t think it applies.”
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