Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Dayton Voice and A.J. Wagner

Allies in the good fight

A.J. Wagner is the only county auditor I've ever known, or heard of, who managed to inject his social justice values into the business of managing public funds. Years ago, when Marrianne and I ran the Dayton Voice, A.J. made the decision that Montgomery County, Ohio was paying far too much to run legal notices in the Dayton Daily News (DDN). He reasoned that the requirement that certain official notices be published throughout the county in general circulation publications could be met by placing the notices in a combination of small newspapers that, in the aggregate, covered the county.

In doing so, A.J. argued, the cost of publication would be greatly reduced. And, though A.J. got sued by DDN, he eventually got the News to sign a five-year contract for publication of all notices at two-thirds the rate the paper had been charging. In the process of reaching the agreement, the county ran a couple of multi-page listings of tax-delinquent properties in the Voice at a rock-bottom price that was, nevertheless, manna from heaven for our paper.

Of course, A.J. would argue that one cannot manage public funds responsibly without having strong social justice values, but DDN was a powerful entity at the time, one that most politicians in its circulation area wouldn't have considered offending. No matter, this is my blog and I've got a different bone to pick with A.J.

In the years since he served as Montgomery County auditor, he has been a Common Pleas judge and, more recently, a blogger on legal issues for the Dayton City Paper, a direct descendant of the Voice. Wearing his blogger hat, A.J. wrote a column about the decision we made at the Voice to change our name.

It was a good post. I just disagreed with parts of it, so I e-mailed A.J. to express my disagreement with some important parts of his column, "A rose by any other name."
Here's my message:

"Hey, A.J.,
It's been awhile since you were Montgomery County Auditor and Marrianne and I were Dayton residents. I don't know if the '90s count as the good, old days in Dayton, but the memories work for me. You're still my all-time favorite county auditor, anywhere.
I have a blog of my own on the way to mentioning the Dayton Voice in a post, I googled the paper to see how it presented on the web.
Pretty weak, I'd say, but I did come across a mention of the Voice on your Dayton City Paper blog and decided I wanted to object to your description of how we came to change the paper's name from the Dayton Voice to Impact Weekly.
No question that it was a lamentable decision. The name Dayton Voice was almost iconic regionally, while Impact Weekly was an awkward handle that had none of the same grit.
Your column looked at some legal issues related to trademarks, noting in particular the time when the Village Voice asked us to stop the use of a name to which they claimed to have exclusive rights.
You wrote: "The courts will uphold exclusive use of a trademark name if another business uses it in a like or similar manner that 'is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive.' The Dayton Voice was prepared to argue that no one would confuse a small weekly entertainment paper in Ohio with the New York weekly that was high on production values, big on investigative reporting, larger in size and catering to a totally different market. But alas, David could not find the needed rock to slay Goliath. The Dayton Voice, short on cash and, thus, lawyer power, became philosophical and decided the name change might be good. They settled with the Village Voice and became Impact Weekly." 
Later, referring to the Cape Cod Voice, which did not change its name, you wrote, "I wish there were a legal case that set forth the law on all this, but the Village Voice never took these cases to court. They scared off the Dayton Voice and others with letters from lawyers. Cape Cod Voice refused to back down to the letters and that is where it ended."
But, A. J., they didn't scare us off, at all. We printed the letter from their lawyer and printed one of our own. Our letter treated the Village Voice with deliberate disrespect and asserted that our decision to name our paper the Voice was out of respect for Michael Moore's Flint Voice, with no thought, at all, about any other paper, New York-based or otherwise.
We prayed to be taken to court. It would have been a PR coup for us that might even have had a positive effect on the business side of our operation. But we couldn’t even pay our printer at the time, a more immediate concern to be sure.
Sometime after Thanksgiving I got a call from the publisher of the Village Voice who actually expressed admiration for our response and offered to pay us to resolve the matter in their favor.
They paid us an amount big enough to pay our printer (for about 8 more issues, if I recall correctly). Our public position was that we needed to avoid a court fight and that there was something to be gained by changing our name to Impact Weekly. We stopped calling the paper by the name it deserved and got a few pieces of silver. Call us sellouts, if you like, but don't call us chicken.
And don't call us merely "a small weekly entertainment paper," either. Had we been an entertainment weekly, we might have been able to pay the printer regularly, but our desire to make an editorial difference pushed our costs higher than we could manage.  
The Village Voice had a much higher percentage of its pages in personal ads, and in tobacco and liquor advertising. We wouldn't carry any personal ads that objectified women or bordered on sex trade advertising. Believing that tobacco companies were racketeers who deliberately and knowingly misrepresented the nature of their product, we wouldn't take tobacco advertising, either.
Fully one-third of our paper each week was editorial copy, covering politics and community issues (including covering local bands as grassroots art-generators). No other alternative weekly at the time committed so much space to editorial. And our mission was always explicit:
To treat working people, communities of color, women and the LGBT community as subjects, audience and sources for the news.
As I said, we would have loved for the Village Voice to take us to court. After all, we were totally judgement proof. And we would have argued, on our own behalf, not that they were "high on production values, big on investigative reporting, larger in size and catering to a totally different market," but that they were a grasping, avaricious, corporate entity who were not in our league.
Like you, I wish we had gotten the chance. But we gave that chance up in favor of taking their money and paying our printer.
It was probably a bad decision at the time. I never got to apologize to readers or to staff for it. And I'm sure not proud of it. I loved the Dayton Voice."

That's the message I sent to A.J. But I'd like to add a postscript.
The truth is A.J. loved the Voice, too. And, even after he could no longer use public funds to publish legal notices in the paper, he always made a good subject, audience and source for the news. He was always a supporter of the good fight and always engaged with great zest. Now, A.J. is running for mayor of Dayton, a city desperately in need of a leader who will take on the difficult challenges with a smile. You go, A.J., the Dayton Voice (or one of its tattered remnants, anyhow) endorses you.


  1. Jeff-
    Although I think AJ is a much better candidate than the democratic party endorsed Nan Whaley, I think of AJ as a career politicians, with a boatload of baggage.
    You don't live in Dayton anymore, so you are hardly qualified to evaluate the current crop of candidates, but our current Mayor, Gary Leitzell is highly underrated.
    Not only did he beat Rhine McLin with a 1/6th of her campaign chest and incumbency, but he has served for 3 years as a quiet leader- not an attention grabbing media whore like every Mayor before. Remember, we do have the city manager form of government here.
    Leitzell is an independent, who challenged all candidates to run for less than $10K. Nan and AJ have each raised in excess of $60K already- and are going to spend much more.
    I'd have to think you'd respect that.
    Also- the part you leave out about AJ is that he's still a political animal. He quit his last elected position as Judge, so his friend Steve Dankof could get nominated by Strickland before he left office. When Dankof wouldn't keep AJ's friends and family on the patronage payroll- AJ wanted to "un-resign." They worked a backroom deal so AJ's pal could keep her job. This is what we need to put a stop to in Dayton.
    Just because AJ put some cash in your pockets- doesn't make him a good guy, or a good choice for Mayor.

  2. Jeff,
    I have very limited memory of AJ Wagner, and, so, won't comment about his character or fitness for leadership. But, I couldn't let a read of your post go by without thanking you (and I sincerely mean this) for letting me see and experience a way in which speaking truth to power and embracing diversity could be guiding principles for a business. The Voice was much more (and, I know, sometimes much less) than a business.
    I look fondly back on my years as a staff member, and I proudly remember that we paid delivery drivers $8/hr -even in the mid-to-late 90's- because we knew they were people of the utmost importance to our mission. I was proud and happy to be one of those drivers, and I was even more delighted to remain on staff in other roles, even after your departure.
    It is my hope that you and Marrianne look at those years in Dayton as important and formative, not just for you, but for a city that needed a Voice.
    It has been about 13 years since my family and I have lived in Dayton, and we've only visited a few times since moving away; so, I don't know anything about the city's issues, needs, and struggles, but I do believe countless people were changed -if even in a small way- by picking up The Dayton Voice off the rack somewhere in the Miami Valley. Awareness was given where it hadn't been before...regarding racial/sexual/gender inequality, ecological/financial negligence, and political/media shenanigans, eyes that were closed were pried open with the possibilities for local performance and visual art.
    I came into that mix of people because you invited me. I am forever thankful for that gesture on your part.
    I was ready to vomit the day it was announced that the paper's name would be changed to Impact Weekly. But, I now know that that had nothing to do with the name as much as it had to do with feeling like the whole situation made so little sense. It was like trying to fight a natural entropy that would take it's own course anyway.
    Years later, I miss my days working with and for you. I've moved on to other things (as has everyone else who was "at the scene of the crime"), but I do carry my Voice experiences with me.
    I wish you well.
    -Chuck Porter

  3. So nice to hear from both you guys, regardless of the differences in the tone and content of your messages.

    Chuck, you were always one of the most kind-hearted of Dayton Voice staffers. You are so good at seeing the best in other people.

    And you, David, always were among the most contentious and exacting of readers. We could always count on you to demand more from mere humans, a trait the rest of us don't value as much as we should.

    But about A.J. and Dayton and the Voice, itself, there is so much to say that I think it makes sense to say it in a separate post. I will add a link for it, as soon as it's up.