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UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
DIVISION OF THE FOURTH ESTATE
WASHINGTON CITY PAPER, et al. ) Case No. 1982-2008-RIP ) Chapter 86 ) Debtors ) (Content Reorganization Requested) __________________________________) ) WASHINGTON CITY PAPER, et al. ) No. Adv. 28-25 Plaintiffs ) ) v. ) ) OUR READERS, LLC ) Defendants ) __________________________________)
VERIFIED COMPLAINT BY WASHINGTON CITY PAPER FOR
CHAPTER 86 CONTENT REORGANIZATION AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF AGAINST READER EXPECTATIONS
1 The Debtors in these proceedings are Washington City Paper (“City Paper”), to include its Web site, washingtoncitypaper.com, and providers of Editorial Content, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 133(w), 157(e), 221(s), 232(u), 334(c), and 486(k).
THE BANKRUPTCY CASE AND THE PARTIES
- On Oct. 9, 2008, the Debtors filed petition for relief under Chapter 86 of the Content Bankruptcy Code, Alternative Weekly Provision, in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Fourth Estate.
- Debtor, City Paper, is an alternative newsweekly devoted to coverage of news, features, arts, and listings for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area (“Washington, D.C.”)
- Defendant, the Readers of City Paper (“Readers”), are residents of and visitors to Washington, D.C., with expectations of well-reported long-form narrative journalism (“cover stories”) in addition to comprehensive and critical coverage of music, film, theater, visual arts, happenings, et al. (“arts coverage”).
A. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
4. City Paper is a weekly newspaper based in the District of Columbia and printed at a plant in Fayetteville, N.C. The newspaper reaches 680,000 readers each month through its Web site, washingtoncitypaper.com, and via print distribution throughout the Washington, D.C., region.
5. The gradual rise of the Internet as a conduit for all the sorts of information provided by City Paper—from classified ads through news—has buffeted the paper’s business, as well as that of other print publications. City Paper has suffered through a typical onslaught of industry downtrends, including declines in circulation, display advertising revenues, and classified advertising revenues.
6. The journalism/content of City Paper has also undergone a significant upheaval in the age of the Internet. Even before City Paper began placing its stories online, its journalists suspected that perhaps not a great multitude of readers were reading their work. Specific concerns clustered over the paper’s cover story, often a long piece of narrative journalism exceeding 5,000 words. Other questions about reader popularity attached to smaller news stories as well, which often related to landlord-tenant disputes, police misconduct, and, once, the rise of chai.
7. Web traffic numbers have confirmed the editorial department’s concerns. In early 2006, for instance, a City Paper staff writer began a written correspondence with a federal inmate named Thomas Sweatt, who was serving a life sentence for setting a series of fires in the Washington area. The letters continued for more than a year, as did a parallel investigation into the damage done by Sweatt’s fire-setting. The investigation turned up two deaths from Sweatt’s rampage that the public did not know about. The story would later win the Livingston Award. The paper posted the story, titled “Letters from an Arsonist,” on washingtoncitypaper.com on June 1, 2007, since which point it has attracted 5,748 pageviews. Meanwhile, an item on the paper’s blog titled “Obama, You’ve Got Something….” has attracted 10,128 pageviews in the past five weeks alone. The blog item was a commentary, written in a ranting style, on the appearance of a fragment of saliva on the face of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama during his 2008 convention speech.
8. The foregoing has significant ramifications for the editorial operations of City Paper. As disclosed in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last month, City Paper’s parent company, Creative Loafing Inc. (CLI), is seeking protection from its creditors, most important from lenders who hold $40 million in CLI debt. As part of an effort to restructure some of its debt, CLI promised to achieve specific improvements in Web-related revenue, an initiative that is ongoing for newspapers in the CLI chain. (CLI owns alternative-weekly papers in Washington, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, Sarasota, and Tampa).
B. THE DEBTORS EXECUTED FORBEARANCE AGREEMENTS
9. On or about July 24, 2007, Washington City Paper was acquired by CLI. Over the next five months, the paper underwent a staff- and cost-cutting program that left it with a diminished editorial department. On or about Dec. 12, 2007, the editorial division signed a forbearance agreement with its readers. The purpose of the agreement, signed by reader representatives and City Paper executives at Tryst Coffeehouse*Bar*Lounge, was to give the paper’s reporters and editors time to execute a plan to deliver decent journalism with a depleted resource base.
10. Subsequent to the execution of the Forbearance Agreements, the Debtors complied with all material covenants and requirements therein, ensuring, for example, that popular features such as “Savage Love” and “News of the Weird” would continue to be easily findable in the paper.
11. Debtors sought to preserve customized coverage of local news and arts. Among the first costs cut were the $8,000 per annum spent on comic strips and comic illustrations, a decision generally unremarked upon. However, the paper did hear a backlash from fans of Savage Love illustrator Robert Ullman, who called upon readers of his “blog” to mount a letter-writing campaign.
Some of the resulting complaints criticized City Paper for no longer being “alternative,” an attack that weakened the paper’s standing among “hipsters.”
12. City Paper attempted to repair this relationship with the July 12, 2007, publication of “Members Only,” a humorous cover story about the social network Late Night Shots, which reassured “hipsters” that City Paper was still on “their side,” repositioning the paper as a source of “alternative” news and snide commentary and resulting in a spike in Web traffic courtesy “blogs,” some of whose authors sarcastically suggested irate Late Night Shots members “sue [author Angela Valdez] for being mean!”
13. Subsequent City Paper stories attempted to woo back other disaffected readers with sex (“Sorry, No Russian Whores Here,” 8/15/07), nostalgia (“Home Games,” 11/19/07), and a close relative of the Late Night Shots story (“No One’s Going to Stop Me,” 12/5/07). Further, the paper broke news in late December 2007, when it reported on suspicions surrounding the Eastern Market fire (“Was This Really an Accident?”).
14. In April 2008, City Paper published its first “Best-Of” issue in 21 years. In doing so, the editorial department bowed to intense pressure from ownership, the advertising staff, and the Fairfax-based band JunkFood, which was hungry for its third “Readers Choice”-style competition for “Best Local Band.” The paper’s foray into “service journalism” was mocked by readers who contended that Wawa, not Sheetz, was the best place to stop while on road trips. Others held that JunkFood had engaged in ballot-box stuffing.
15. A second attempt at service journalism, the June 20, 2008, the “Hoods and Services” issue, was mostly ignored by advertisers and drew criticism from the copy-editing community for the conscious decision to omit an apostrophe before the “H” in “Hoods.” The edition was headlined by a map of the District of Columbia containing satirical nicknames for its neighborhoods. The paper has since put the map onto very attractive T-shirts that are unavailable for purchase on washingtoncitypaper.com.
16. “Hipsters” who viewed the service journalism as a sellout to corporate America tended to leave their expressions of disapproval on the Web sites of other publications, thus denying City Paper the Web-page views (“pageviews”) that are the currency of the new media landscape.
17. City Paper editors are nonetheless resolved to lure back such readers and have determined to subject them to fewer of the paper’s long-form narratives and more “stunt” stories (a true and correct copy demonstrating reader reaction to this plan, DCist’s 9/26 post “Washington City Paper Changes Include End of Cover Stories,” is attached). Further, the paper is prepared to offer Sudoku puzzles in addition to its long-running crossword and has commissioned several “blogs” of its own, including one about real estate and another about sex.
18. Following the news of its plans to reduce long cover stories, readers are now asserting that long cover stories are in fact why they like the City Paper and that “the reprinting of blog posts is weak.” These contradictory messages have forced City Paper to assert that readers refuse to act in good faith to lower their expectations until such time as it can at least get its sex blog linked by Fleshbot.
C: Injunctive Relief Pursuant to the Uniform Code of Expectations and Section 10 Due to Breach of Confidence in Content
19. Pursuant to Section 10-WTF of the Uniform Code of Expectations, District of Columbia, Readers owe a duty of good faith to City Paper to (i) not assert City Paper is in default of providing quality local content without first actually reading said content and (ii) negotiate a lowering of expectations outlined in the Forbearance Agreement.
20. Pursuant to Section 10-CMS of the Uniform Code of Expectations, District of Columbia, City Paper has received a mandate from parent company CLI to focus on Internet-related content. As such, readers owe a duty of good faith to City Paper to (i) understand a shift in readership away from newsprint and toward computer screens and (ii) acknowledge that this shift supports writings regarding personal interactions with critters and the recirculation of news generated by other outlets.
21. Pursuant to Section 10-DCIST, Readers further breached their duty of good faith when they wrongfully posted comments made in regard to City Paper, its content, and its compromised employees on Web sites neither owned nor operated by City Paper or CLI. To wit: Commenter “monkeyrotica,” in posting on independent Web property DCist, stated s/he picks up the paper only “to check out what’s on sale at the porno stores.” In a later comment, “monkeyrotica” suggested that if City Paper writers would “stop writing like a bunch of lofty horses asses pontificating on matters of burning import, maybe locals might start caring. Maybe!”
22. Pursuant to Section 10-DUH, Readers also failed to aid City Paper in its discovery of the existence of the World Wide Web (“Web”) and Web commentary (“Blogs”). Readers owe a good faith effort to City Paper to inform City Paper of the demands on their time and attention.
D. Action for Declaratory Relief Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2201
23. This is an action for declaratory relief with respect to the loyalty of City Paper readers in toto. The paper and its principals request that the court, using its powers under 11 U.S.C. 105(a) through 106(zz), assist the City Paper in the following manner, via a contract sub modo:
24. Protection from readers. The Debtors hereby request that the court, using its powers under 28 U.S.C. 2201, enjoin readers from doing anything that could damage the standing of the City Paper. In addition:
• An injunction barring any retail outlet in the Greater Washington region from turning down a rack of City Papers for distribution.
• An injunction barring further comments from “monkeyrotica.” If the Court should decide not to order an outright ban on such postings, Debtors would request an interlocutory order requiring “monkeyrotica” to limit his/her postings to washingtoncitypaper.com. If the Court should decide not to issue such an interlocutory motion, Debtors would request that the Court certify “monkeyrotica” as non compos mentis.
• A nunc pro tunc order exempting City Paper from all areas of libel and privacy law. Publishers and editors of City Paper, arguendo, state that their editorial content would be more lively and interesting under such order.
• A Court order, pro bono publico, committing at least one Court clerk to a regimen of 20 hours per week providing assistance to City Paper in updating its database of local events listings.
WHEREFORE, the Debtors respectfully request that this Court enter judgment (i) enjoining the Readers preliminarily and then permanently from exercising any rights pursuant to any competing Web content, including the Sheriff Peanut Craftiest Bastard announcement, the “You Sing the Who” contest, or anything that seems more enticing than a 10,000-word profile of someone they’ve never heard of; and (ii) for attorneys’ fees and costs and further any other relief as this Court deems necessary and just.
Erik C. Wemple (DCBN 0450086)
C. Andrew Beaujon (DCBN 0465103)
Jule A. Banville (DCBN 0456222)
Washington City Paper
2390 Champlain St. NW
Washington, DC 20009-2736
Proposed Special Counsel for the Debtors
and Debtors in Possession