On an enchanted evening late last month, Geoff Robinson and his wife, Reihana Robinson, were in a celebratory mood. The previous week, Geoff and his ex-wife, Christine Austin, had announced they were selling the five Advocate weekly newspapers, which they'd published for 26 years, to the Hartford Courant. Now the Robinsons were marking the occasion with a quiet dinner at a Northampton-area restaurant.Soon they were spotted by author Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action), who had worked for the Advocate chain in the late '70s and early '80s. Harr and his old boss exchanged pleasantries and talked about the sale; Robinson insisted that he hadn't done it for the money."He said there were other buyers that wanted to pay more money," Harr recalls. "But he sold to the Hartford Courant because he thinks they're the ones who are going to do the best job keeping it as an alternative voice." Harr pauses before continuing, "I don't know where he gets that idea."If Robinson didn't do it for the money, he did pretty well nevertheless. According to one estimate, he and Austin split $17 million to $20 million. And, of course, they had every right to cash in.But by selling to the Courant, which in turn is owned by the Times Mirror Company, one of the country's largest media conglomerates (its flagship is the Los Angeles Times), they have struck fear into the hearts of their staff, abandoned their readers to the whims of monopoly media, and dealt a blow to the alternative press that could have dangerous long-term consequences."If he's smart, he'll never step into this building again," a bitter Advocate staffer says of Robinson. (Robinson, reached at home, declined to discuss the sale with this reporter. Austin could not be reached for comment.)In a media nation in which virtually every daily newspaper is owned by one of a half-dozen or so megacorporations, and nearly every major city is served by just one daily, alternative weeklies such as the Advocate papers serve a crucial role as a critical, independent voice. But the Advocate has now been neutered. Nowhere is that more true than in Hartford, the largest city served by the chain. The Hartford Advocate has morphed overnight from the Courant's nemesis into a marketing tool for clueless Courant executives trying to figure out how to appeal to those crazy twentysomethings with their coffee addictions and body piercings.Even worse, the acquisition of the Advocate -- the first time a major daily chain has purchased its alternative competition -- could be the start of a sad trend. Rapacious media executives will no doubt take note of how easily the Advocate was silenced and start looking at those pesky, and economically attractive, weeklies in their own backyards. "We live in a monkey-see, monkey-do media world," says Danny Schechter, a veteran progressive journalist and media activist. "If the Times Mirror Company, powerful as it is, starts buying up community papers, then other chains are going to think they have to do it in order to stay competitive." Adds Ben Bagdikian, author of the classic critique The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, 1997): "The alternative paper as a distinctive, progressive, cutting-edge medium is rapidly disappearing."Despite the anti-competitive implications of the Advocate sellout, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission waved the deal through last week -- hardly surprising in an era when bank and telecommunications megamergers encounter little more than speed bumps from government regulators.Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal has pledged publicly to investigate the sale, but he doesn't sound eager to piss off his state's largest, most influential newspaper. "Our review is ongoing, and we hope to conclude it in the near future," says Blumenthal. "I really can't comment further."Indeed, at this point, the only obstacle standing in the way of Times Mirror's monopolistic quest is a quixotic lawsuit bankrolled by Bruce Brugmann, the iconoclastic owner of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and an outspoken opponent of chain ownership. The suit -- filed in federal district court on behalf of an auto dealer and a Connecticut woman -- claims that the demise of competition will do irreparable harm both to advertisers and to readers."I'm mad as hell about this. It's the worst threat to face the alternative press ever. It's horrible," says Brugmann, whom Robinson has cited, ironically, as a role model. "If alternative papers sell to the local daily competition, they no longer have any reason to exist. And pretty soon they will not exist."Just a few weeks before Geoff Robinson became a very rich man, he was telling folks that his papers weren't for sale. But though the timing -- and the identity of the buyer -- were a shock, few observers are surprised that he and Austin finally decided they'd had enough.The Advocate chain was born in 1973, when two young editors at the Courant, Robinson and Ed Matys, quit their jobs, borrowed $1500 apiece, and started the Valley Advocate. Matys left early on, but the paper he helped found eventually multiplied. In addition to the Valley Advocate, which serves the Northampton and Springfield areas, New Mass. Media (as Robinson and Austin later named their company) published the Hartford Advocate, the New Haven Advocate, and the much smaller Fairfield County (Connecticut) Weekly and Westchester County (New York) Weekly. About 270,000 papers are given away free each week; the Hartford paper, with a circulation of 70,000, is the largest.During the past few years, life at the Mother Ship -- New Mass. Media's headquarters in Hatfield, Massachusetts -- has been tense. Robinson and Austin divorced several years ago, and though insiders say they have done their best to put a smiley face on their acrimonious relationship, the split left the Advocate papers leaderless -- or, to be more accurate, led in contradictory directions depending on who had the upper hand at any given moment."Their personal battle made the top management here really dysfunctional," says an insider. "It just sort of made everybody neurotic, so on that level I think it's just going to make everyone healthier for them not to be here."Thus, it's not surprising that staff members at the New Haven Advocate and the Valley Advocate are cautiously optimistic about Times Mirror ownership. Presumably, they can keep whacking away at the dailies in whose shadows they labor, the New Haven Register (owned by the bottom-feeding Journal Register chain) and the Springfield Union-News (owned by the Newhouse chain). And though Times Mirror's alternative sensibility approximates that of, say, Paul Harvey, Advocate sources say they have no reason not to believe Courant publisher Marty Petty, who has announced a hands-off policy regarding the management of her new acquisitions."Being independent or throwing on the name 'alternative' doesn't guarantee that what you read is accurate, fair, lively, intelligent, any of those things," insists Valley Advocate managing editor Tom Vannah. "I'm happier with the Hartford Courant than with a lot of scenarios I could envision. But if they start fucking with the newsrooms, see you later."A realistic take for someone enjoying the relative isolation of the Happy Valley, far from any Times Mirror properties. Not so realistic if you're editing an alternative weekly in Hartford, and the 212,000-circulation Courant (298,000 on Sundays) just went from being The Enemy to being The Boss.In a note to readers titled "Free and Unfettered," posted on the Hartford Advocate's Web site this week, publisher Francis Zankowski and editor Janet Reynolds say they intend to hold their new master to its pledge of non-interference. "We won't let them change us -- not now, not in the future," reads the note. "We may be getting sold, but we'll never sell out. We promise."Reynolds, in an interview, is, if anything, even more adamant about the Advocate's mission under Courant ownership. "We don't define ourselves as the anti-Courant; that would be too narrow. But we take potshots at them and call them to task on a regular basis. And I don't see that changing one iota. If anything, I might err on the side of doing it more," she says. And her defiance boils over when she talks about Robinson and Austin's decision to sell the paper to the very daily Reynolds must battle every week."I've been pretty measured in my public comments up to this point, but now I will use the 'betray' word," Reynolds says. "We do feel betrayed, especially here in Hartford. How could we not? The road that we have to walk on now is different from even the road our sister papers have to walk on. It is so antithetical to everything that I believe alternative journalism is about. I think it's unconscionable."Shortly after the sale was announced, Courant staffer David Daley wrote a piece for his paper's weekly "Cal" section (an arts-and-listings tab that Reynolds believes was, uh, inspired by the Advocate) lambasting the Advocate as a dull parody of an alternative paper, and referring to "talk ... of the Advocate's spirit and voice and independence" as "bleary-eyed, nostalgia-addled revisionism."Daley's critique was one of a series of newspaper and magazine articles published in recent years that have taken the alternative press to task for (pick one) indulging in its progressive-left, community-activist roots at a time when that brand of politics has become irrelevant -- or, conversely, for abandoning those roots and selling out.Daley's argument that the Courant can't make the Advocate any worse is false, even dangerous. Like all papers, the Hartford Advocate could be better or worse than it is right now. What it can't be, ever again, is an independent voice. Defining the term "alternative newspaper" is tricky, but one essential definition is this: it must be willing to take on the dominant mainstream media as the powerful institutions they are.It's one thing for Reynolds to insist that the Advocate will continue to produce snarky features such as its recent April Fools' Day parody; it's quite another to ponder what would happen if an Advocate reporter uncovered evidence of corruption in the Courant's executive suite. At best, the Advocate can be the court jester, lampooning the follies of its powerful lord and master. But it is naive to think that it will be allowed to do anything that would seriously challenge the Courant's power. For people such as Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes and Courant publisher Petty, buying the Advocate is an easy way of reaching youngish people who don't read daily papers. If it works, great. If it doesn't, well, they'll try something else.Geoff Robinson may have told Jon Harr that the Courant didn't offer the most money, and who knows? Maybe it didn't. Advocate staffers say Robinson and Austin were wary of selling to either of the two major alternative-newspaper chains -- the Phoenix, Arizona-based New Times or Stern Publishing, owner New York City's Village Voice -- fearing that they would cut staff to pay down the debt they would presumably have to take on. But there's no question that the Advocate papers, and especially the Hartford paper, were more valuable to the Courant than they would be to another buyer, because they help to solidify Times Mirror's monopoly. (The company also owns two other Connecticut dailies, the Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Time.)The Association for Alternative Newsweeklies estimated this week, based on inside information and some guesswork, that the Courant paid between $17 million and $20 million. That's a premium: New Mass. Media's annual revenues last year were reportedly $14 million to $15 million, and all things being equal, alternative papers sell for roughly their annual revenues.But why wouldn't the Courant pay a premium? Not long before it gobbled up the Advocate, it made a much less publicized deal, buying Valu-Mail, a direct-mail advertiser. Chris Powell, managing editor of the Manchester Journal Inquirer, an independently owned daily in the Hartford suburbs, says the Courant's ownership of the Advocate and Valu-Mail now gives it up to 95 percent of the print-advertising market in the city and a number of surrounding communities."This is monopolism in its rawest, rankest form, and the authorities should do something about it," Powell says. "We've gotten out of practice in exercising anti-trust law over the past 10 or 20 years, and it's time to get back into shape. Nobody should own Connecticut, not even Times Mirror."Later this month, at their annual convention in Memphis, the 112 members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies will face a rather momentous decision: whether to reduce their numbers by throwing out the Advocate papers. Under AAN bylaws, "alternatives" owned by dailies are ineligible to join, although executive director Richard Karpel says it's less clear what should happen when an existing member is bought by a daily.But even if the Advocates get the boot, don't look for any further bold action from AAN -- which is, after all, an organization of owners, many of whom have no doubt taken note of Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin's big payday. San Francisco's Bruce Brugmann will be pushing for AAN to fight against chain ownership. (Brugmann's Bay Guardian competes with the New Times-owned SF Weekly in addition to the daily Chronicle and Examiner -- papers that have merged their business operations but continue to compete editorially under a government-approved "joint operating agreement," an arrangement that Brugmann charges is anti-competitive.) But Karpel says Brugmann's views are likely to be in the minority. "It certainly isn't a healthy development when a local daily paper buys its only competition in its market," Karpel allows. He adds, however, that the price inflation caused by such deals "isn't necessarily a bad thing" from the owners' perspective. No indeed.Lou Golden, the Courant's deputy publisher, wants to sound reassuring. The Courant is already looking for a chief executive for the Advocate with a strong background in the alternative press, he says, and he reiterates his company's promise to leave well enough alone. "It would be incredibly foolish of us to change anything in that formula, which has provided them with that success," he says.But for the Courant, and for Times Mirror, the Advocate papers have been a mighty satisfying snack. And, like any corporate shark, Golden just can't stay away from the food metaphor. "If you go to a restaurant, if the food is good, you keep going back because you like the food," he says. "It's the same thing with a publication. If it serves what you need, then you tend to keep going back."Trouble is, what readers in Hartford and Northampton and Springfield and Fairfield County and Westchester County need is an independent media voice. That has been chewed up and swallowed. And it's not coming back.REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.