Chain Reaction Hits 'Alternative' World

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By: Mark Fitzgerald And Jennifer Saba Have alternative newspapers -- born in the angry Vietnam War era, often with a mission to stick it to The Man -- now themselves become The Man? Alternatives once had a lot of fun mocking their local chain-owned dailies, and a favorite insult was to note that it was the property of some out-of-town media conglomerate. There are still plenty of independently owned alt-papers, but their consolidation has reached the point that some publishers diss the biggest chain, Village Voice Media (VVM) and its 16 papers with a stinging simile.

"I think they are the Gannett of our industry," says Creative Loafing's Ben Eason. He quickly adds, though: "It's good and it's bad. There have always been different styles of alternative newspapers." Eason notes that VVM has improved the quality of its new papers, but adds that "a certain inevitably" is creeping into what has always been a "scrappy industry."

Three weeks after talking with E&P, Eason announced on July 24 that his company had acquired the Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper, growing his portfolio from four papers to six.

The 2005 merger of New Times and Village Voice Media has had ripple effects on how the alternative press does both business and journalism. But there are scores of other mini-fiefdoms dotting the landscape too, from the Creative Loafing papers (already in Charlotte, N.C., Sarasota, Fla., Atlanta, and Tampa) to Phoenix Media/ Communications Group (with properties in Boston, Providence, and Portland, Maine).

"I will tell you it's no secret within our business that it's a controversial topic," says AAN Executive Director Karpel. "It is something that divides people."

Inside the alternative press community, there's wariness about consolidation's effect on national advertising, as chain publishers are able to realize the benefits of economies of scale. Then there's the more slippery notion that the alternatives no longer have the piss and vinegar they once had, and are becoming bland and uniform.

Consolidation is a trickier thing for alt-papers than for their mainstream counterparts. Dailies are constantly regrouping as they cluster to cut back office and production costs. But even most consolidated alternatives have their individual printers.

Instead, the consolidation often takes the form of shared content. But this, too, can be controversial -- especially given the prickly tradition of the alternative press.

"If your objective is to be local, which is the only thing I think you can do," Phoenix Media's Mindich says, "you can't just have syndicated film reviews across your entire network. In the end, it's not those things that cost you a lot of money. It's the investigative stuff."

When the topic of consolidation is raised, many critics assert that the papers are becoming less "alternative" and more formulaic. The argument most often leveled against alt-weeklies in general, and VVM in particular, is that the chained papers' content is watered down, lacking opinion -- especially political opinion -- criticism, and, well, spunk. Critics contend that New Times has destroyed what was left of the troubled flagship, the Village Voice (which counted five editors at its helm since the merger in 2005), as well as the LA Weekly and OC Weekly, which fired some well known-columnists.

"The New Times template is not working," declares Bruce B. Brugmann, owner and editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which competes against the VVM-owned SF Weekly. "Here's a paper that makes no [election] endorsement, has no editorials, that takes a very cynical, libertarian point of view on the community. You get the feeling that the SF Weekly doesn't really like San Francisco."

But Brugmann says the chaining of alt- papers allows space for the emergence of a classic, left-leaning one. "Ultimately all of them will get competition, just as they've got the Guardian in San Francisco, The Stranger in Seattle, and Free Times in Cleveland," he says.

The Guardian is suing the SF Weekly for alleged predatory pricing under California's Depression-era unfair business practices. The SF Weekly vigorously denies the allegations, and in July asked a judge to summarily dismiss the lawsuit, scheduled to go to trial in October. (SF Weekly/VVM Publisher Josh Fromson did not respond to E&P's request for comment for this story.)

But Tony Ortega, the most recent editor appointed to lead the Village Voice and who has been in the New Times family since 1995, bristles at the notion he was hired to overhaul the Voice in the image of a vanilla template from the hinterland of Phoenix.

"It's easy to say we're the Gannett of the alterative world or we're the Clear Channel -- but it's really unfair," says Ortega in his windowless sixth floor office on Manhattan's Cooper Square. "Companies like Gannett are known for buying a newspaper then slashing the editorial budgets. We do the opposite. We go in and start hiring staff writers and paying them living wages rather than just having freelancers. And yeah, we get slammed because our papers tend to look alike, but I think if people read our publications they will see they are very individual."

What VVM has done to its namesake paper is focus on reporting and journalism rather than pushing a political agenda, Ortega contends.

VVM Executive Editor Mike Lacey insists that except for the chainwide film reviews, content is not shared across properties and there is an emphasis on local investigative work. Movie reviews are shared, he says, only because they are not market-specific. And Lacey is unapologetic about weeding out the opinion pieces -- the stuff of many independent alt-papers. "We say, 'Do your thinking after you have done your research -- don't be such a pretentious little twit,'" he says. "We want people to do that work. Otherwise, you are relying on mainstream media to tell your version of events. Our writers are encouraged to write with a point of view and an attitude once they earned that right."

The 'Cookie Cutter' Issue
Some longtime observers of the alternative press think VVM is getting a bad rap on the template issue. One VVM fan is Abe Peck, whose 1960s-era Chicago Seed was a progenitor of alternatives.

"I think the New Times guys have a good formula, in that it's about news," says Peck, now a professor of journalism at Northwestern University. VVM runs investigative pieces, and has brought a clean design to an alternative press not known for being all that innovative in that area. "And, yeah, they use a template, but only people like you and me read each of their papers," he adds. "So if you're in Denver or you're in Phoenix, does it really matter that they're using a template?"

It's not just the readers who don't notice the supposed "cookie-cutter" style, argues Beth Sestanovich, group publisher of VVM's LA Weekly and OC Weekly: "Honestly, for the most part, even the line employees don't know."

Eighteen months after becoming part of the VVM chain, not much has changed at the papers, Sestanovich says. "The biggest effect is probably on employee morale," she says. "First, everyone stands around saying, who's going to get fired? You spend eight months getting over that." And content can't be consolidated, she adds: "What works in L.A. doesn't work in Denver. It doesn't even work in Orange County sometimes."

J. Patrick Best, publisher and co-founder of The Sunday Paper weekly in Atlanta and a former advertising director for Creative Loafing -- which he cheerfully concedes is a chain -- says the contraction of alt weeklies is a way of life. "Those who are saying consolidation is not happening in the alternative press aren't living in reality," he says. He adds he has no problem with consolidation as long as papers stay local. If they don't, alt-papers will face a bigger issue, because readers will abandon them: "Readers of the paper can tell whether a paper is using editorial content as a filler for the ads."

Assuming the Competition
National advertising was partly the reason so many feared the New Times' acquisition of the Village Voice empire.

New Times owns the national ad-rep firm Ruxton Media Group. Prior to the merger, the six Village Voice publications, including its venerable namesake in New York City and the dominant LA Weekly, were part of the competing national ad organization, the Alternative Weekly Network (AWN).

New Times folded Village Voice into the Ruxton Group, leaving gaping holes in AWN's market list. With the papers it reps outside the VVM chain, Ruxton now sells for 35 alternatives across the country.

Village Voice Media chief Jim Larkin makes no bones as to why New Times wanted the Village Voice publications so badly: "There was an incredible opportunity to use Ruxton to leverage the Village Voice newspapers in our national advertising network. That proved to be a very successful part of the merger."

Larkin boasts that his company has doubled its national ad revenue between 2005 and 2006. Last year, national advertising represented 10% of total advertising revenue at the company -- doubling the 5% in 2005. During the first quarter of this year, he adds, national ad revenues are up 20%.

Meanwhile, according to the 2007 State of the News Media report, rival AWN's revenues in 2006 fell 10.7% to $9.2 million. The report, by the Project for Excellence In Journalism, noted the group was bracing for even larger declines after losing a third of its network.

"There are certainly issues in some of the markets where we no longer have papers," says Everett Finkelstein, vice president of AWN and vice president of national sales at Phoenix Media/Communications Group. "In most cases, we have been able to put strong papers against [Ruxton] papers in the market. I think we are working hard to get all the dollars we can."

The AWN represents 110 publications with a collective readership of 17 million adults. It's run as a co-operative, with each paper selling into the network. Ruxton is more centrally organized, with a handful of reps who sell on behalf of the group.

Phoenix Media/Communications Group's Mindich says he is not as worried as he once was about the former Village Voice properties switchover to the Ruxton Group. But he says it is hard at times, since Ruxton can leverage New York and Los Angeles in other markets: "Let's just say hypothetically, the AWN paper is a stronger paper in the market than the Ruxton paper. If you buy the Ruxton paper you might also get L.A. and New York."

"AWN is doing well," he adds. "I know for a fact there are buys we lose, and I know for a fact there are buys they don't get. In the beginning of the Village Voice/New Times merger there was a real concern that AWN would fall apart. It hasn't. There are some replacement papers, so we are still able to offer the market. We have a year and a half or so of experience."

Mindich says he is constantly turning over in his mind the issue of consolidation and how to keep growing. One option he's not considering: selling the company he founded 40 years ago.

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