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Hold Fast podcast shows why Backpage, New Times founder Mike Lacey never backed down from a fight

For years, alt-weekly newspapers like the Phoenix New Times were able to pay their bills thanks to lax content policies when it came to their ads, which ran the gamut from used boats to escort services.

Many Phoenicians know how that story ended — with New Times owner Mike Lacey spinning off the ad business into a separate company called Backpage.com, for which he was later indicted and accused of sex trafficking by the federal government.

But a new Audible podcast tells that story from a different perspective: what it was like to work at one of Lacey’s newspapers. Michael Mooney is a co-host of the series, and he spoke with The Show’s Sam Dingman.

Full interview

MICHAEL MOONEY: We would do 10 5,000 word stories a year, and you got five weeks to do each one, and it was an extensive reported and carefully outlined and written story.

SAM DINGMAN: Yeah, and New Times was a place where you could do that kind of reporting about people and places that might not get greenlit elsewhere I know you, for example, wrote about like swingers clubs in South Florida if I’m not mistaken.

MOONEY: That’s right. Yeah, a lot of the types of stories we were writing in all weeklies were about subject matters that were not going to be covered by other journalism outlets. It was kind of a Shangri La of longform journalism.

DINGMAN: So let’s put this experience that you had in the context of Lacey as a character and how he got started with doing this. Tell us a little bit about his early days in Phoenix.

MOONEY: So the Phoenix New Times, which was the first paper of what eventually became a 17-paper empire that he built, was essentially started as a student newspaper in 1970. The first stories that they started doing were anti-Vietnam war stories and very quickly transitioned into really hard journalism aimed at the power brokers of Phoenix. So the police chief, the local sheriff.

DINGMAN: And speaking of Vietnam, one of their other early targets was John McCain.

MOONEY: That’s right. Starting around John McCain’s run for the Senate.

DINGMAN: The reason I bring up this example in particular is because for me — and I’m curious to know if you agree — it’s an interesting illustration of what seems to be Mike Lacey’s kind of moral imperative when it comes to journalism, which he describes at one point in the podcast as getting paid to perform daily castrations. Doyou think it’s fair to make a connection there?

MOONEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely I think all of the papers — even more than I realized at the time when I worked there — all of the papers were a reflection of Michael Lacey as a person.

DINGMAN: The other element in all of this is that in order for a group of journalists to feel that degree of freedom, there has to be some way that that kind of work is being funded. And there’s an amazing scene in the podcast that I wonder if you could expand on a little bit. The scene is coming into work at the office in the morning — I believe that either Miami New Times or one of the other Florida papers — and seeing a line of sex workers in the hallway waiting to place their print ads?

MOONEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That was a regular experience for almost all of the papers in the chain. Usually it was Tuesdays, I think, in South Florida, but sex workers would line up to deliver their cash and place their ads for the paper that week.

DINGMAN: So, one of the reasons that this scene stuck out to me is because many years ago I used to work at Limewire. I don’t know if you remember Limewire.

MOONEY: Oh, I do remember Limewire. I downloaded some wonderful, wonderful music and some videos off of Limewire.

DINGMAN: Yes, and I’m sure that you were exclusively downloading material that was not copywritten.

MOONEY: That’s right. It was only stuff that I’d already had at home, and it was really just getting backups. That’s the only reason I was ever on Limewire.

DINGMAN: Yes, of course, of course. But most people who used Limewire were using it to illegally download music, and everybody who worked at Limewire knew that that’s what Lime wire was doing. And we would kind of sit around the office and talk about how at some point this was all gonna come crashing down on our heads.

Was that the case for writers at New Times? Like, did you wonder about the sustainability of this business model?

MOONEY: Honestly not that often. Just because the business side of the newspapers was kept so separate from the editorial side most of the time.

DINGMAN: But if I’m not mistaken, you have some firsthand experience with the period where the journalism sort of hit the ceiling of what was possible, and this was in connection with the story you were working on about the so-called pill mills.

MOONEY: Yeah, that’s right. So in 2009 and 2010, the 50 most oxy-prescribing doctors in the world were all in Florida, and the prescription drugs were going all over the world, but especially into places like Ohio and Kentucky and West Virginia and ravaging these communities.

I really wanted to tell the story in complete form. I spent months on it, and at some point I was told that this story was not going to happen. And it was killed, and I was never really given an explicit reason why.

But 10 pages of the paper at the time were dedicated to selling ads for these places. I had written about sex clubs and sex workers and nobody had ever approached the idea of something being off-limits for any kind of business reason. And so I was really stunned.

DINGMAN: A lot of this series is the story of Lacey’s ambition, first as a journalist, as we’ve already talked about. But over the course of the decades, he becomes more and more of a business mogul. And in fact ultimately he ends up divesting from the editorial side of New Times and focusing completely on Backpage.com, which is the website where he let people sell adult services.

It struck me in listening to this that he sort of became, over time, the type of figure that he got into journalism to, as he puts it, “castrate.” Would you agree with that transition?

MOONEY: Not necessarily. I think he would certainly take umbrage with the idea that he was ever anything other than a hard-hitting journalist. But the facts are when the pressure surrounding Backpage became so intense that they decided to split the company, he and Jim Larkin did go with Backpage and not the newspaper company.

They could have sold Backpage and funded the newspaper company for a decade or two, at least just from the sale. But they went with the sex ad company. Lacey frames that as a free speech fight.

DINGMAN: Yeah, I think one of the reasons that that narrative felt emergent — at least to me in listening to Hold Fast — has to do with some information that you reveal somewhat late in the story about Lacey’s father. Can you tell us a little bit about that dynamic?

MOONEY: Yeah, absolutely. So the show is called Hold Fast for a couple of reasons, but Michael Lacey has tattooed on his knuckles, the words “hold fast.” H-O-L-D F-A-S-T across the front of his knuckles. He says he was kind of making peace with his father.

His father was a mafia enforcer, an incredibly violent man. And Lacey’s father had the words “hold fast” tattooed on his knuckles as well. And Lacey says that that’s the part of his father he saw the most: his knuckles.

You know, it probably wasn’t super common to think this way in the ’60s and ’70s. But now we understand the way that that kind of trauma can affect somebody, like a Lacey who has spent his entire life fighting people. But in many, many ways, he’s spent his entire life fighting his father.

DINGMAN: You say at the end of the podcast that for all of Lacey’s faults, things felt safer in his hands. I believe the implication there is things felt safer for journalists. Do you ever imagine an alternate version of the narrative where he didn’t divest from New Times? Do you think the outcome or the implications for what would have happened to the papers and to the medium would have been different?

MOONEY: It’s really hard to imagine any reality where Mike Lacey was not going to take on the biggest fight he could.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.