Aug 07, 2023, 06:29AM

Arizona’s Sorrow

A tribute to Jim Larkin, a remarkable newspaperman and First Amendment champion who was persecuted by the government for his efforts.

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Like an untold number of men and women in the publishing industry, I was stunned last week upon learning that Jim Larkin—embroiled in a lengthy and vindictive federal trial aimed at him and longtime business partner Mike Lacey—took his own life. He was 74, and leaves a legacy as the most significant individual, working in concert with Lacey, in the history of alternative newspapers.

On Aug. 2, Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown, wrote a superb, and very sad, account of Larkin and Lacey’s persecution by the government and politicians who, in retribution for the pair’s dogged investigative reporting over decades, were singled out as “sex traffickers” for their now-defunct online website Backpage. In speaking to Larkin last March, Brown wrote, quoting him: “’If the government decides to point its finger at you, there’s really no question that they’re going to try to ruin you.’ And “given the system and the way it’s set up,’ principled resistance could only go so far.” (Stephen Lemons, a prolific freelancer in Phoenix, who edits Front Page Confidential, wrote several articles for Splice Today about the legal travesty.)

The New York Times and Washington Post, alleged First Amendment absolutists, have yet to publish a story about Larkin’s death.

Mike Lacey released a statement last week, which, in part, read: “I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life. I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory.”

My friendship with Jim Larkin goes back to 1979, in Boston, when we met at the second annual convention of alternative newspapers. Larkin and Lacey’s Phoenix New Times was starting to bust out as a free weekly in that city, and at that three-day conference I remember him listening intently to the experiences of other publishers, notably The Chicago Reader, which was a few years ahead of New Times. (As time went on, the Phoenix duo had a friendly competition with the four owners of the Reader, as both franchises branched out to other cities.) We had a few drinks, kept in touch by mail, and fostered a long professional and personal association that was active until I sold my third newspaper, New York Press, in 2002. I was out of the business then, but we saw each other on occasion, gabbing about baseball and newspapers, as he traveled around the country.

Larkin was the most valuable mentor in my journalistic and publishing career. (That’s no slight to Tom Rehwaldt, Tom Yoder and Bob Roth of The Reader, who bought 80 percent of our Washington City Paper in 1982, a lucrative deal for both parties.) The advice he gave, at no personal gain, to my Baltimore City Paper business partner Alan Hirsch and me was vital in the success we had. I recall one conversation, late at night, beers knocked over on a table at Portland, Oregon’s Benson Hotel, and after two days of receiving compliments on CP’s editorial content, I complained to Larkin that we hadn’t broken the hump of advertising. He took me aside and said, “Stop whining, and do something about it!” The next morning he said he didn’t mean to be harsh—that was unnecessary, for his admonition was not only well-intentioned but accurate—and said he’d be glad to offer any help on business side that we wanted.

City Paper did eventually thrive, beginning in 1983, and Alan and I became good friends with Larkin and Lacey. One time in 1986 the two of us took a red-eye to Phoenix at Jim’s invitation, got picked up at the airport and promptly went to play golf at seven a.m. Larkin laughed his ass off that I was wearing a linen suit and no shoes on the course. Alan and I were blown away by the business set-up of New Times: the training given to sales representatives, the tests they’d have to pass to get hired. It seemed that all of Larkin’s business staff spoke the same language and could finish each other’s sentences.

In the following years, we saw a lot of Jim and Mike, whether at conventions or their trips to Baltimore or New York, where they got to know our staff, including Michael Gentile, Michael Cohen and Michael Yockel (who went on to work for New Times, Inc. in the mid-1990s) and along with other friends from the industry we instituted an annual croquet tournament. We palled around with New Times stalwarts like Patty Calhoun, the late Dewey Webb, Jim Mullin and Scott Spear. It was a heady time for those in our business—free weeklies were accepted as reliable vehicles for advertising, classified and display—before, at the end of the decade, the internet started to encroach upon business, notably the cash-cow of personal ads.

I’ve no intention of canonizing Larkin, for he could be irascible and short-tempered, and we had a brief falling-out in 1995 after I convinced Ron Mann (who was an ace businessman at Miami’s New Times) to remain at New York Press as publisher after Jim had recruited him for his start-up SF Weekly. At that time, there were a lot of talented men and women who were poached by other weeklies—I did it on many occasions—and the resulting acrimony wasn’t pleasant, but that’s business. After some huffing and puffing on both sides, we patched it up.

In any case, Larkin and I traveled together—Macau, Hong Kong (where the above picture was taken in 1989 on an airport bus, after we’d celebrated New Year’s Day by betting at the local racetrack), Bangkok, two Dublin trips—and we attended each other’s weddings, mine in ’92 in NYC, his in San Francisco in ’93 (the “bachelor party” was taking in a Giants game at the old Candlestick Park), and on the occasion of my son Nicky’s first birthday in 1993, he sent a pair of kiddy cowboy boots. I visited Jim and his wife Molly’s house outside of Phoenix in 1998, was flabbergasted by the desert view, and a bit skittish seeing rattlesnakes as we sat outside. Larkin said, “Russ, don’t be a pussy, just step around them.”

In 1987, Larkin invited me for a road trip to Miami, where he and Lacey were about to buy what became the very successful Miami New Times, saying he wanted my input. I think he just wanted to have some fun—and we did, cruising the Everglades, going to Santeria shops—since he and Lacey were resolute in their plans. I should stress that the nature of the two owners’ partnership was extraordinary: Lacey was a tough reporter who instilled that in his staff, and Larkin never shied away from backing Mike on his award-winning work. Larkin and Lacey agreed that if a story, or hiring decision was important enough, money wasn’t a concern. That’s unusual.

In 2012, after my brother Jeff passed away from a vicious and fast-acting neurological disease—I didn’t write about it at the time—Jim found out and sent me a heartfelt, hand-written condolence letter, concluding, “Jeff was a better man than me.” That was a generous gesture—Larkin knew all of my family, from dinners and (ultimately fruitless) business negotiations—that was appreciated.

Larkin had varied and intense friendships with many people around the country, and I’m just one of hundreds. That doesn’t lessen the blow of seeing a good and accomplished man destroyed by the government.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • Having only met Jim a few times, I can say that I found him to be a boisterous force masking, a genuinely nice fellow. I was 18 or so the first time I met him over a celebratory weekend. I was somewhat intimidated by his loud nature but the moment he engaged me in conversation, he treated me like an adult, (as a college freshman that was unusual). He listened to my thoughts and opinions, while also imparting his sage advice on how to achieve those goals. I know he had a bit of a reputation, but I'll remember him as good guy who treated me well. RIP

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