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New Times' new owners aren't really new at all

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Limbo, according to some religious beliefs, is on the border of hell. It's where virtuous but unbaptized souls go to wait, a region of oblivion.

Bob Rucker, with New Times since 1998, used that term "limbo" to describe the last year and three months at the paper.

Not quite hell, but certainly not heaven.

Since the April 2005 death of New Times founder Steve Moss, controlling ownership of the paper had been in question. Basically, the publication's future hinged on who would pick up Moss' large percentage of control.

Shortly before he died, Moss wrote a draft of a trust that expressed his desire for Rucker and co-founder, part owner, and art director Alex Zuniga to own the paper but he never officially signed the document.

Rucker and Zuniga wanted to keep New Times in the hands of the people who'd invested in it for years or, in Zuniga's case, from the very first issue. Other buyers, including Gilroy-based Mainstreet Media Group, were also interested in picking up Moss' slice of the publishing pie. Months went by, drawing out suspense among the staff. Would everything basically stay the same? Or would a statewide chain step in and impose its own direction?

Zuniga said that his biggest challenge was getting through the year, especially coming to terms with what it really meant to no longer be under Moss' leadership. He also dealt with the possibility of not being able to work at New Times if another company took control.

The matter ultimately went to court.

"The first step that we needed to get was probate approval," Rucker said. "Without it, we didn't even have the opportunity to purchase the papers."

The executor of Moss' will, SLO attorney Scott Radovich, requested from the court permission to sell the Moss estate's interest in both New Times and the Sun to Rucker and Zuniga. On May 26, Judge Martin Tangeman ruled that the existing management could have the opportunity to purchase controlling interest from Moss' heirs. The next challenge came after the ruling, when the pair had to then line up the actual funding.

Rucker said that the money came through a private lender operating under a confidentiality agreement. Escrow closed on Aug. 3. Together, Rucker and Zuniga put up $1.525 million, which took them up to an 51.64 percent controlling interest in New Times. They also hold a 97 percent controlling interest in the Santa Maria Sun, a sister paper founded by Moss in 2000.

"For the record," Rucker noted, "we have borrowed the money and in no way are we in partnership with anybody. We can't be influenced by the lender. [There are] rumors out there of our becoming partners with a bigger entity, and that is not the case."

To that end, Rucker also addressed concerns over any potential changes or influence to the editorial side of New Times. As general manager, he oversees the business and sales aspects of the company not the editorial content. As an owner with a controlling interest, he and Zuniga could technically step in wherever they wished, particularly since they're now ultimately responsible for all decisions made at the paper, including hiring and firing, location, and ownership.

Still, Rucker noted that New Times has worked well under its operating model for the past two decades, which he described as a "four-lane highway" separating the business and editorial sides.

"We will continue to stay out of the way of editorial, as the paper's historically done," he maintained.

The new controlling owners are planning on making their presence known elsewhere, however. Rucker said that long-term goals include relocating the business to another building, introducing free classified ads, and strengthening New Times' web presence. The future, though clearer, still poses some challenges of its own.

"We have a huge bill to pay," Zuniga joked.

In the meantime, Rucker said that he's looking forward to getting back to publishing "a great newspaper."

"Probate took a toll on everybody here," he said, "in all departments."

"We learned a lot, business-wise," Zuniga said, reflecting on the last 15 or so months, "and found out who our friends really are. We owe a lot to those kinds of people that helped us through it."

Ultimately, Rucker and Zuniga are both ready to face the coming years and whatever they bring.

"We have a great staff right now," Rucker said. "We have a great editorial product going out there. Our design capabilities are strong. Both companies right now are in great shape. We're just ready to kick some butt.

"We'll be here to serve the community for another 20 years, like it or not."

Editor Ryan Miller welcomes his new publishing overlords. Send comments or ideas to rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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