By: JOANNA WOLPER
“WE’VE BEEN ON the cutting edge of journalism for 25 years and didn’t know
it,” said Frank Sennett, managing editor of New City,
a leading Chicago alternative newspaper.
Sennett told students at a College Media Advisers convention in Chicago recently that the Net has led to an information-wants-to-be-free state of mind: Most alternative papers have always been distributed without charge, and big city dailies have responded by serving up daily reports free on the their Web sites.
The panel on alternative weeklies featured staffers from Chicago’s Chicago Reader and New City ? and both boasted that the alternative market is booming.
“Alternative papers have a combined circulation of 6.4 million and our weekly readership is 11 million and growing,” Sennett crowed. “More than 70 percent of our readers attended college and their average income tops $50,000.” While dailies brood about shrinking numbers, declining circulation and aging readership, revenues for the 107 members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies have been rising on average 10% a year for six years.
Sennett admitted the 65,000 free-circulation New City isn’t the “must read” that the Chicago Reader is ? 134,000 ? but he says his paper attracts younger readers by using shorter, more insouciant stories.
The Reader is run by ex-flower children who drive BMW’s and wear corporate ponytails,” Sennett said, glancing at Robert McClory, his former professor and Chicago Reader writer for 20 years. “They’re people in their fifties who think they’re hip. The Reader is DBW: Dull But Worthy. They have a liberal political bent, and so do their readers.”
Sennett said the “new realities of the short attention span” dictate that the long-form journalism practiced by the Chicago Reader will disappear in the next 10 years. “If New City ran a piece over 3,000 words, it would have to mean [Chicago Mayor Rich] Daley had been shot,” Sennett said.
McClory, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, had to agree with his former student’s short attention span theory, since he witnessed it while riding Chicago’s elevated train. The Reader “runs one story that starts on the front page and goes on and on and on,” McClory explained. “I was on the El watching a guy read my front-page story. When he stopped somewhere in the middle of the second page, I had the urge to get up and ask him to read on.”
The white-haired McClory conceded that the Reader’s editorial section probably did appeal to older readers, but quickly added that the old guard of the hefty four-section weekly paper is hiring young staffers like Cheryl Ross, 26, another one of his former students.
Ross recently wrote her first Page One story, on an Afro-American high school principal. The 10,000-word piece took her six months, and she described the experience as more literary rather than news.
“We write stories that are novellas,” she explained. “The love and craft of writing is very important. There’s a lot of freedom. You operate on your own, work out of your home. There are no assignments. But you have to be motivated,” Ross warned students.
Before Ross joined the Reader staff, she spent three years reporting for the St. Petersberg Times in Florida and found the daily grind confining.
“You have to write a story because it happened that day,” she said. “Now if someone kills themself, I don’t have to go out and cover it.”
Ross said in-depth reporting is alive and well in magazine type journalism. “Just look at the New Yorker or Rolling Stone,” she said.
The managing editor of New City urged students to consider alternative papers but admitted a preference for freelancers who were “young and cheap.” After 12 years in the business, Frank Sennett said his paper pays $350 for a 3,000-word story.
When students heard about the pay, they asked how anybody could afford to write for free papers.
“That’s one of the big problems in our industry,” Bennett sighed. “I’ve been telling our publishers that since we are a maturing organization, we should give back to the freelancers who work for us.”
Ross makes a living on her staff writer salary, but added that she couldn’t afford too many luxuries. “It depends where you go,” Ross said. “There are papers popping up all over the country, and you can’t expect them to be doing too well at the beginning.”
Can New City’s managing editor survive on his salary? Sennett said he developed a Depression mentality working in alternative journalism, and to some moonlighting. “I also edit an education journal and work for a trade in California,” he said with a grin.
?(Wolper is a freelance journalist based in New York.) [Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher December 27, 1997)