This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

November 5, 2001 — The death, two weeks ago, of Lingua Franca, the great magazine about intellectual and literary life in the academy, was not only sad news for the magazine's followers and admirers — it was a shock.

The "apparent demise," noted David. D. Kirkpatrick in a New York Times report on October 18, "elicited exclamations of dismay in the world of letters." ("Eggheads are anguished," began the lead in the Chicago Tribune's story four days later.) Adding to the surprise was the odd way the news first broke — not in a company announcement or a press release or even in reported rumors but in a hurried, three–sentence letter (scroll down) written by the magazine's managing editor, Andrew Hearst, and sent the day before the New York Times story to Jim Romensko's MediaNews website. It read like something being filed from a battlefront: "I'm writing to let you know that as of today, Wednesday [October 17], Lingua Franca has suspended operations," Hearst wrote. There had been, before that, no indication the eleven–year–old magazine was in trouble.

Indications were, in fact, quite the opposite — Lingua Franca seemed to be the foundation for a steadily growing mini–empire of publications related to the academy and the world of letters. First it had grown to include a website version of the magazine. Then, in 1997, founder and editor–in–chief Jeffrey Kittay had spun off a new magazine, University Business. Subsequently, University Business expanded to include a daily online edition. Along the way, some impressive board members were brought on, such as Mark Edmiston, former president of Newsweek, who was made chairman. And, in what might have been the most impressive move of them all, last year the company reputedly spent over $1 million to purchase the enormously popular website Arts & Letters Daily.

Covering Lingua Franca's tenth birthday, Norah Vincent in a November 22, 2000 Village Voice report called all the expansion — into a conglomerate now called Academic Partners LLC — one measure of Lingua Franca's success. But "More impressive still," she said, "is LF's solvency."

Less than a year later, however, that solvency is apparently gone. In fact, Jeffrey Kittay told both the Times and the Tribune something quite different from what the Voice reported — LF hadn't been exactly solvent, he said, but rather depended on a lone financial backer who had abruptly pulled out. Why?

Kittay told the Trib, "The demand [from readers] is still there. Our advertising is quite steady. But looking over the long term, we couldn't say to our backer, 'If you keep us going for two more years or if you do this or do that, things will turn around.'"

The shut–down, then, wasn't because of a loss of advertising or readers. The Times and the Trib left it at that. Both also noted without any further apparent inquiry one other mystery: that Kittay had "declined" to identify the backer.

In short, the articles raise more questions than they answer, and heighten the mystery they purportedly solve: Who killed Lingua Franca, and why? What's more, given that Kittay mentioned to the Trib that the next issue — the December issue — is usually the biggest issue of the year, with the most ad revenue, another question might be: Why now?

While the identity of the mysterious financial backer may be the most obvious question, after further investigation the question of timing may be the more pertinent one, in light of the revelation of a $16.5 million lawsuit filed against Academic Partners, as well as Arts & Letters Daily founder and editor–in–chief Denis Dutton, just days before the news of Lingua Franca's "demise" broke.

The suit is being brought by former Arts & Letters Daily executive editor Nancy Strickland, who is being represented by attorney Roger Simmons (well–known in media circles for representing television producer April Oliver in her suit against CNN, which had fired her over a controversial program she had produced on the Tailwind scandal; that suit was settled out of court). Simmons filed Strickland's suit in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on October 12, and Dutton was served notice on October 16 — the day before Lingua Franca editor Hearst wrote his hurried letter to the MediaNews site. In it, Dutton and Academic Partners are accused of having "appropriated for themselves the fruits of Strickland's intellect and labor," and Dutton is called "a highly polished con–man" and "a cyber–predator of the most insidious sort."

The suit claims Dutton "bamboozled" Strickland by asking her to work gratis in return for being a full partner and receiving a significant share when he sold the site, but that he then cut her out of the deal when he sold ALD to Kittay's Academic Partners for an amount "substantially in excess of $1 million." (The suit says Dutton also negotiated for himself the "additional consideration" of a "lucrative side–contract to continue with ALD at the same time he was negotiating to sell the ALD site to AP.") The suit backs up its claims with numerous e–mails Dutton wrote to Strickland wherein he seems to refer directly or indirectly to some form of partnership between them as they tried to sell the website to various other publications, including Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Lingua Franca. "We're a team," Dutton writes in one. "Don't worry, I'll see you're included in the sale." Also, "There's another deal possible that would put money in our pockets. Keep the faith, Nancy." In one e–mail he even speculates as to how they would split the money of a prospective deal: ". . . plus $135,000 over three years for you plus your bonus — and then a million for me . . . "

Did the pending multi–million dollar lawsuit prompt Lingua Franca's secret benefactor to sever his connection to the publisher?

"It had absolutely nothing to do with the decision," Kittay told me in a phone interview, adding that he'd hadn't even known about the suit until after the decision was made at a board meeting to stop publishing LF.

But when I asked Kittay if Dutton — who is still editor of ALD — had informed him of the suit when he was served on the 16th, Kittay said, "No comment." In fact, saying he had the suit on his desk but hadn't read it yet, Kittay declined all further comment on the suit and its allegations . . . even when I read him a passage that referred to him as "a man previously found to be untrustworthy and lacking respect for fiduciary duties by at least one court in New York."

(The reference is to a decision handed down in the United States District Court in New York in 1984 against Kittay and two other family members who were the executors of the estate of Kittay's father, Sol Kittay. In that case, Jeffrey Kittay and the other executors had contested the payment of promissory notes for loans Sol Kittay had taken from a Cayman Islands bank for $2,450,000, and for $5,310,280 from Associated Trust S.A. The "untrustworthy" characterization made in the Strickland suit is an apparent reference to the fact that during the 1984 case, Judge Milton Pollack sought a "total freeze" on the "conditions" of the Kittay estate until deliberations were over. In the end, he found that "all purported defenses raised [by Sol Kittay's executors] were spurious, legally baseless, irrelevant, or without evidentiary support.")

Kittay was more willing to discuss the future of the magazine, about which he was clearly still hopeful — he insisted it wasn't the death of Lingua Franca, but merely a "suspension of publication," and said he'd already talked to two potential new backers. He also said that he'd expected a possible lessening of funds from the previous backer, but had been surprised when the long–time funder had pulled out entirely — because of becoming too "uncomfortable with the economics of the magazine," Kittay said.

Further questions as to who Lingua Franca's secret money man might be, however, got me nowhere, although Kittay did deny it was one of the people I'd heard speculation about — Academic Partners board chairman Mark Edmiston. When I asked about another, former Brill's Content publisher Steve Brill (who also founded American Lawyer magazine, which Kittay told the Village Voice had been the model for LF), Kittay said, "Thanks for bringing a little levity into my day." He then said, "I am not going to comment on any more names" before I could ask him about the last one on my list — himself.

Hanging up the phone from Kittay, I moved on to an attempted contact with his co–defendant in the Strickland suit, a man who actually figures far more prominently in that narrative, and whose version of a "no comment" gave the story another puzzling twist: Denis Dutton.

PART 2 . . . Who is Denis Dutton, and why won't he talk?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.