The Free Press — Still in Business! | Bleader

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Free Press — Still in Business!

Posted By on 12.23.09 at 05:26 PM

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Minus three top staffers, the Chicago Free Press lives. Publisher David Costanzo, making one of his occasional appearances in the gay weekly's offices, told me Wednesday afternoon the next edition will come out on schedule Thursday.

The future of the Free Press was in question Tuesday, with word that editor in chief Matt Simonette, art director Vincent Lane, and senior writer Amy Wooten had walked out, and several freelance contributors were leaving with them. But Costanzo said he and general managers Jeff McBride and Bill Feld have been contacting those contributors, and everyone they've reached has agreed to stick with the paper.

It obviously helps matters that they're finally getting paid. Checks are either in the mail or they were handed out Tuesday night to anyone who dropped by the paper, said Costanzo. "Like everyone else, we've had cash flow problems," he told me, "and we've worked really really hard to manage expenses as well as revenues. We've done as good a job as anyone in the business. Throughout the entire 18 months [of the recession] we've never laid off a single employee. Other than me and a couple of other senior people still here, we never had to cut anybody's salaries. But over the last few months we had to delay some checks. We're not talking weeks or months — we're talking days."

He went on, "I'm not really upset with anybody, people have bills to pay," and then made it clear who he's upset with. "The three people who really were catalysts for the whole situation [Simonette, Lane, and Wooten] had no problem when my drivers' checks were held a few days, or when my contributors' checks were held a few days. When I didn't get paid, they had no problem. Basically, when they got paid they were happy — they didn't care about anybody else. We finally had to delay some salary paychecks — maybe we should have laid some salaried people off. That idea was floated and you'd think somebody was trying to kill them, so the idea wasn't pursued. It probably should have been."

He went on some more, "They're not coming back. They've resigned. I wish them the best of luck. I was a little disappointed the way they left, but that's their decision. But because it was the three of them all at once, we've been scrambling to get out the paper. We don't publish next week because it's the end of the year, so we have a two-week window to interview and find people. We probably won't fill all the slots but we'll probably have everything we need within a week to continue as if nothing had changed. But they're very talented people so I'm sure they'll land on their feet. But so will we. If we'd been given proper notice there'd be no problem at all. Clearly something happened yesterday because it seemed to be a coordinated effort where Bill and Jeff were talking to longstanding contributors Monday and everbody was OK and by Tuesday afternoon everyone was upset."

Staffers should have been paid last week. Contributors tell me they hadn't been paid since some time in November. A factor in the delay, Costanzo told me, was a legal claim against the Free Press that required the paper to maintain a balance of about $20,000 in its checking account. Costanzo said he found out about the problem on December 14, the day before payday — which he then missed. "I knew it was something I couldn’t resolve in a day," he told me. "I needed three days to get personal funds available."

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