Ten days later, CL's new publisher quits 

After less than two weeks on the job, Creative Loafing's third publisher in six months quit last Friday, saying he and the company's CEO, Ben Eason, couldn't agree on a timetable for improvements at Atlanta's alternative weekly newspaper.

Michael Sigman, a former publisher of the L.A. Weekly whose arrival at CL was trumpeted in these pages, is now back home in California. Eason himself is relocating from corporate headquarters in Tampa to Atlanta to act as interim publisher for the rest of the year.

"The obvious questions are, 'What the hell is going on at Creative Loafing?' and 'What does the future look like?'" Eason acknowledged Monday morning before a meeting of a dozen managers.

The answers to those questions are still unclear. What is clear is that Sigman's departure has further rocked the CL boat, which in the past year has been listing in the wake of a sluggish economy and stiffened competition, including that of The Sunday Paper, which was launched last year by defectors from CL's advertising department.

Indeed, Sigman cites those very obstacles - more specifically, how quickly they could be overcome - as the impetus for his decision to abandon ship after 10 days as publisher.

"There's a lot of great things about the paper," Sigman said in a phone interview. "It's a solid business. It's not falling apart. But Ben and I were far apart on our perception of the amount of time and energy and effort it would take to achieve the ultimate goals we both shared."

He added, "The day-to-day and hour-by-hour operation of the company needs a tremendous amount of work, so that the company can be the kind of place that attracts great people and that keeps great people. I don't think that's a quick fix."

For instance, key administrative and advertising positions at CL remain unfilled. The paper's website, it's widely agreed, is a mess - poorly organized and difficult to navigate (although a new site is in the offing). And nontraditional competition, such as Craig's List, is cutting into CL's revenues.

Amid those realities, Sigman estimated it could take up to two years for the Atlanta paper to hit its stride operationally; Eason said it should be closer to six months.

"[Eason] would have the expectation that I could deliver that," Sigman said. "And I didn't think I could deliver that."

On Monday, Eason told CL's manager that the paper's weaknesses weren't as profound as Sigman described: "I don't think we're far off and I'm not bullshitting you and I'm not bullshitting myself. It's not that [Sigman] didn't have the energy. It's not that he didn't have the talent. Reasonable people can disagree about how dysfunctional we are."

Sigman's sudden departure touched off a spate of complaints. In the managers' meeting, Group Senior Editor John Sugg criticized Eason for not more aggressively looking for a publisher from within CL. Sugg also bemoaned Eason's reliance on outside "gurus" to chime in on decision-making processes.

Eason took in all the complaints. "I know there's a lot of problems here," he said. He promised to seek input from throughout CL in drawing up a job description for the next publisher, the search for whom he said would resume in the fall. Eason said he would have a "strong bias" for an internal candidate.

Later, CL Editor Ken Edelstein said all of the turmoil surrounding Sigman's resignation "doesn't affect the editorial content of the newspaper. We have a stronger editorial team in Atlanta than we've ever had. If anything, editorial has been fortunate enough to be a very stable department over the years."

Sigman's arrival was supposed to set the paper on a new course. Last fall, longtime Publisher Scott Walsey retired, initiating a national search for his successor. But Scott Patterson, Walsey's replacement, told Eason last winter that he wasn't the best fit for the job, partly because his family didn't want to move from Pittsburgh.

Eason then turned to Sigman, who for 18 years had been president and publisher of the L.A. Weekly, the alternative weekly in Los Angeles. He oversaw a five-fold increase in revenues and a tripling of circulation. But the paper's owners fired Sigman in 2002, saying they wanted a publisher with a keener eye for the business side of alternative journalism.

Asked what he would do now, Sigman said, "I have no idea. I really did throw myself into this. I'm going to have to regroup."

He's not the only one.

Publisher's note: Creative Loafing prides itself on being an independent voice for our community. From time to time, we find ourselves making news rather than covering it. When we do, we wish to tell the story as straight as we can. Senior Writer Steve Fennessy and News Editor Mara Shalhoup worked on this story independent of myself or of CL Editor Ken Edelstein. - Ben Eason

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