Editorial: The New East Bay Express: Who’s in Charge?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 01, 2007

On Wednesday we sent this letter to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ website and to East Bay Express editor Stephen Buel: 

“Well, the new ownership of the East Bay Express gets more confusing all the time, and we at the Berkeley Planet admit that we might have had some role in spreading the confusion. Based on one of those “don’t attribute it to me” sources which we all ought to avoid, the Planet first reported that Hal Brody would own “51 percent” of the new enterprise. Responding to a call from editor Stephen Buel, the story on the website was changed the day after publication to reflect what the reporter thought he had heard Buel say, admittedly with a bad cell phone connection involved—that’s where the mythical 100 investors made their brief appearance on the stage. Next day Buel called again to set the record straight one more time. Based on what he said, the following correction appeared in the next print edition of the paper and is now on the website: 

“According to editor Steve Buel, two groups of investors, each holding a 50 percent interest, are the new owners, with one group of three headed by new President Hal Brody and the second group of five investors headed by Buel.” 

Evidently Buel was still not satisfied, since he wrote a letter last Friday to Association of Alternative Newsweeklies executive director Richard Karpel to complain about information reported by Berkeley Daily Planet and picked up on the AAN website. He didn’t bother to send us a copy, but a friend forwarded it to us. Here’s what he said: 

“The actual situation is that Hal Brody and I each assembled small groups of investors who collectively each own 50 percent of the newspaper. Hal’s team consists of himself and two friends; my team consists of myself and four friends. There are eight investors in total (although currently the Daily Planet website counts 100).” 

The 100 phantoms are now gone from the web. And the only other difference that I can see between the two formulations is that Buel’s latest version does not speak to control of either group. It doesn’t say that either is “headed” by anyone.  

Now, that’s interesting. In order to make things perfectly clear, we’d like to offer Buel and his new business associates as much space as they need to explain completely, in their own words via e-mail, exactly who’s going to own the new Express, and even more important, who’s going to control it? 

We do have few more questions we’d like them to answer while they’re at it. Still not public: Who are these eight people? We’ve heard about localites Buel and Kelly Vance on one “team,” and according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian there’s a Monterey guy named Bradley Zeve in Brody’s group.  

How about the other four? Who are they? Are they local? For that matter, where does Brody hang out these days?  

One major question: What’s the form of ownership? That’s what determines who controls the enterprise.  

Is it a partnership, and if so is there a managing partner? Or is it some kind of corporation, and if so, might there be two classes of stock, voting and non-voting? Who’s on the board? If it’s a partnership, does one of the eight investors have enough ownership to have control of the whole?  

The Guardian reported that Brody told them he had a “plurality.” That might have been where our source’s “51 percent” came from— a plurality is not exactly the same thing as a majority, but similar in effect. Everyone’s equal, but some are more equal than others, perhaps? 

And what’s the relationship of the new entity’s advertising sales department to the New Times chain that it’s supposedly separating from? Various news accounts have characterized the deal in various ways, but let’s just give Buel et al one more chance to tell us in their own words just what the plan is. Advertising policy is important, because it’s at the center of the Guardian’s predatory pricing suit against New Times, which is still very much alive. 

We have plenty of room available for Buel’s complete answers in his own words to these questions, and for anything else he might like to add. If his e-mail comes in before noon on Thursday, it could even be in our Friday print paper.”  

And Buel responded promptly, if not completely: 

“Your recent article about the change in ownership at the East Bay Express contained some errors with regard to our new ownership structure. My partner Hal Brody and I have each assembled small groups of investors who collectively own 50 percent of the newspaper. Hal’s team consists of himself and two friends; my team consists of myself and four friends. Among our investors are original Express co-founder Kelly Vance, who is once again reviewing movies for the paper, and Bradley Zeve, the founder of the Monterey County Weekly. Our other investors are silent partners with no other East Bay business interests or conflicts. Hal and I are the sole corporate officers of our new company, East Bay Publishing LLC.  

“I would also like to make it clear that this is a very amicable transition between ourselves and Village Voice Media. As I noted in the editor’s note in which I announced the purchase to our readers, I am very proud of the time I have spent working for the paper’s prior owner. Under their guidance, the Express enlarged its editorial staff, professionalized its reporting, sharpened its news coverage, and tightened its writing. While we will indeed do some things differently at the new Express, it would be unfortunate if readers of the Planet were left with the impression that I have a low regard for the company that I’ve spent the last six years working for. In fact, they are the best employers I’ve ever had.”  

Lots of words expended on this discussion, producing very little new information..... Some outstanding questions: Is Hal Brody the investor-in-charge, or isn’t he? Does he have a controlling interest in the venture, whatever his percentage?  

On May 16 the Express’s East Bay Blog said that “Brody will take over as publisher of the Express,” but later reports elsewhere say the former head of ad sales for the Bay Guardian will be the new publisher. And is Brody still living in Kansas City? Is he still a commercial real estate broker there, as one web site indicates?  

Is it correct to say that the revised Express will be locally owned, or are Buel and Vance the only investors who can really claim to be local? On the Express’s East Bay Blog Buel said that the “silent partners...live elsewhere”, a data point omitted in his response to us. Does it matter who they are or where they live or how they made their money? Are they in any way connected with the former New Times chain, which has now acquired the Village Voice Media label, the “best employers” editor Buel says he’s ever had?  

And how is the joint NT/VVM-Express advertising agreement going to work? That’s a whole big can of worms which we’ll leave for the Bay Guardian to empty out as part of their suit.  

One more thing: the name of the new corporation: East Bay Publishing Limited Liability Corporation. They might want to run that choice by the East Bay Publishing Corporation, the long-time publisher of the San Leandro Times and the Castro Valley Forum. According to Claudette Morrison, the office manager at the East Bay Publishing Corporation, her company has no connection to the Express venture.