Express Train Wreck
Three years after it was founded in 2000, Express Gay News and its glossy sister, 411 Magazine, were swallowed up by the largest gay-lesbian weekly newspaper chain in the country, Window Media.
In Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors, an area with one of the largest per-capita gay populations in the nation, this was not small news. Window Media owned the Washington Blade, the oldest and largest gay paper in the country. But under new management, would the Express turn into a bland rag with nothing but recycled national content and entertainment blurbs, or would it continue to report real, local news?
To the relief of its readers, the newspaper's purchase turned out to be a good thing. Writing improved. Typos showed up less frequently. And the paper continued to cover local news, including exposés on closeted antigay activists.
Credit Express Editor Mubarak Dahir, who had been brought in by Window Media after the paper's purchase in 2003. Dahir had freelanced for Time for seven years and had written columns for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Advocate. He hired new writers and wrote a column that sometimes ran in all five Window Media newspapers. His salary jumped from $42,500 to $60,000 in just three years.
But now, Dahir is out of a job. He approached New Times recently, clearly bitter about his termination but also concerned that changes at the Express have led to changes that could threaten the paper's credibility.
In August, the Express came under a new publisher, Kevin Hopper, a former sales manager in his late 20s. And Dahir says he was surprised at Hopper's first request that the newspaper should have fewer words and more pictures.
The promotion of Hopper, who did not respond to numerous messages from New Times, also coincided with the resignation (or ousting, depending upon whom you ask) of Chris Crain, the chain's executive editor, who had hired Dahir. Crain's position was eliminated by Window Media President Peter Pomplino, who told New Times that he believed the chain's five newspapers and three glossy magazines would benefit from more local control.
Dahir says that after Crain's termination, his biggest advocate at the company was gone. And he complains that the new publisher at the Express didn't seem to understand some of journalism's most cherished ideas about a separation between the newsroom and the sales force. At newspapers that covet their credibility, a firm firewall is established between the crew that gathers news stories and the people who sell the paper to advertisers. When that wall breaks down and sales executives have more influence over what a newspaper writes, the less the public can count on the integrity of what it's reading.
But Hopper, Dahir claims, hadn't gotten the memo. "He [Hopper] began dictating story ideas that had nothing to do with editorial content," Dahir says, asserting that Hopper wanted stories written that were "clearly aimed at trying to woo advertisers."
The best example, he says, was a piece Hopper requested for 411 Magazine on vodka, saying that it was the preferred drink of gay men. Dahir says he was skeptical of the idea, but because he's something of a teetotaler, he gave Hopper the benefit of the doubt and assigned the story to his features writer. Dahir says she came up with a newsworthy piece that explored how the first vodka print ads began appearing in gay publications and how several sexy ads sometimes featuring gay artists like Andy Warhol targeted gay men. Dahir was ecstatic. "I remember telling her, 'Wow, I can't believe you turned this into a real feature for us. '"
But he says Hopper didn't share the enthusiasm and asked the writer to rework the story.
"He said, 'I had something in mind with pictures of different brands of vodka bottles and a little blurb about them,'" Dahir says. "In other words, he envisioned an ad."
Dahir says that soon after that, Hopper asked him to stop writing restaurant reviews. Dahir was told that the features writer would start a new column called "Go Stuff Yourself" and that it would be strictly positive. Instead of running in the Express, it would run in 411 Magazine, and if a restaurant wasn't good, the magazine simply wouldn't review it.
Dahir says things came to a head in January when Hopper tried to kill one of his columns, which Dahir considered uncontroversial. Dahir says he complained, telling Hopper that he'd overstepped his bounds. Later that day, Hopper fired him.
Dahir says he was told his termination was over two main problems: There were too many typos in headlines (Dahir claims Hopper had never mentioned this before) and Dahir had "anger management" issues.
Dahir acknowledges that he has a tendency to get into heated discussions with other employees, particularly Managing Editor Phil Lapadula, the new editor. In September, Dahir and Hopper had a meeting about it, and Dahir says that after that, he never raised his voice in the newsroom again. Lapadula chose not to comment for this article.
President Pomplino wouldn't comment on Dahir's performance, but he says the firing wasn't over editorial control. He also points out that Dahir had never voiced a complaint. "All I can tell you is Mubarak never called me," he said. "We handle any employee concerns to complete satisfaction."
Pomplino also says that although he doesn't have a newspaper background, he's aware that newspapers should absolutely have a line between editorial and advertising.
As for Dahir, he'll be going back to freelancing for a while, and he might write a book. He doesn't plan to continue reading the Express and wonders if he'll be the only one. "I don't think the gay community here simply wants cotton candy," he said. "It's a sophisticated group that wants to know more than where the drag queens and go-go boys are performing."
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