'Rambunctious Teenagers' No More p. 14

By: TONY CASE TIMOTHY LEARY'S DEAD ? and so is the scattershot business approach of the alternative press.
Once a loose collection of scrappy, leftist weeklies for which long-range strategy meant covering the next month's phone bill, these papers have gotten their act together ? steadily growing their ranks and revenues, putting together a successful national advertising network, launching an online syndication service, establishing a central office and marketing themselves with a slick, $60,000 advertorial insert in Advertising Age.
Their strong, local franchises are so enviable that the staid, struggling dailies ? desperate to attract younger readers and stanch their circulation slide ? have started copying them, and software behemoths the likes of Microsoft and America Online are grabbing at their content.
Several larger markets ? including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston ? have two or more alternatives duking it out. And while the weeklies have long railed against the evil media giants, today they have their own, ever-expanding chains, including Phoenix-based New Times Inc. and Village Voice owner Stern Publishing Inc., which also puts out two Southern California papers.
At the 19th annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Salt Lake City last week, over 500 publishers, journalists and advertising and production people gathered to talk shop, revel in their newfound success ? and ponder the difficulties of growing their underground operations into millionaire media institutions.
The group's 100-plus member papers enjoy yearly revenues totaling $300 million and a combined circulation of about 6 million.
This is small potatoes compared with the dailies. The big boys take in $46 billion annually, and the circulation of the five largest daily newspapers surpasses that of all the alternatives. But consider that whereas the circulation of the dailies plummets with every Audit Bureau report, the alternatives' reach is always advancing ? this, despite the fact that, like their larger counterparts, they face higher newsprint costs and mounting competition from all sorts of media.
Then there are the readership numbers. The demographics of the weeklies ? 80% of their readers are between the ages of 18 and 49 ? are enough to make the dailies drool.
For years, the alternatives have aggressively combated the establishment media in local news coverage and the quest for ad dollars. But only lately have they begun truly to act as an association, working hand-in-hand to build their businesses and boost their image nationally.
Opening the Washington, D.C., headquarters last year and hiring executive director Richard Karpel were a big part of AAN's plan, as was promoting the Alternative Weekly Network, an advertising cooperative in which 80 alternative papers are involved.
"The goal of the national office is to identify us as an industry, rather than just isolated, good papers throughout the country," said AAN president Jeff Von Kaenel, publisher of the Sacramento News & Review.
Scott Spear, New Times executive vice president and past president of AAN, who was instrumental in the decision to set up a main office and hire a director, added, "There was a conscious effort to move AAN from simply a group with a convention to a group that supports the business of the newspapers."
Spear, whose company owns publications from Miami to San Francisco, noted that the alternatives perfected the free-distribution scheme, long before software makers took the idea and ran with it ? and made zillions.
"It just goes to show that if the product is good, people will want it," he said. "Everybody gives away everything on the Internet now. In the beginning, the alternative press had no capital funding, and we couldn't compete with the dailies. Free distribution was a slow, ponderous process. The proliferation of free software was prefaced by the free-circulation concept of our papers."
Patricia Calhoun, editor and founder of Denver's Westword, which is now part of the New Times organization, added, "We had to make free distribution acceptable, and we spent a lot of time and energy convincing people that a free paper had value.
"At past AAN meetings, the issues were how the individual papers could survive ? and how the industry could survive," she said. "Now that our future is more secure than it used to be, we have to decide what we want to be when we grow up."
Calhoun notes the extent to which the alternative newspaper business has changed since she started her paper 18 years ago.
"People are disappointed when they find out we don't pull all-nighters anymore, that we don't work 80 hours a week," she related. "They're stunned to discover we're paying a living wage that rivals the dailies. But that's what you have to do if you're in for the long term, if you're committed to putting out a good paper and treating your people right ? and treating your readers right."
But she's quick to add that the weeklies still possess the wildness that sets them apart from the daily press.
"We're past the rambunctious-teenager stage, we have our own apartment and we have to pay our own bills," she quipped. "But we're not grown up. Most of us feel that if we grow up, our papers will suffer."
"To people like me, it's most gratifying that we're growing," Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the standard-bearers of the alternative set, said at the convention.
Brugmann noted that when he got in the weekly game 30 years ago, one-newspaper towns and JOAs were already becoming the norm, "and it became obvious that we were the alternative to the daily monopoly."
Sounding a familiar criticism of the dailies among alternative publishers, he contended, "Their level of public service is nonexistent, and now their declines are almost irreversible ? and it's sad, because I'm an old daily newspaper guy."
Brugmann thinks AAN's unique, something-for-everyone convention program ? with sessions for ad salespeople and Web mavens and investigative reporters alike ? illustrates that those who toil in the alternative press are committed to working together to grow their enterprises.
"At the first convention in Seattle, advertising, circulation, editorial, the publishers all got together and talked, and we're all still together," he recalled.
This is a contrast, Brugmann maintains, from daily newspaper conventions ? which tend to be more focused, aimed at either classified ad people or tech folks or ranking editors or purchasing managers.
"The dailies are more of a class society," the publisher from San Francisco observed.
So, the alternatives have come of age. But a number of conventioneers expressed concern that as the genre matures, these papers risk going the way of the dailies. They wonder whether these papers will become complacent and predictable in terms of editorial matter, putting profits and self-promotion before that which propelled them to where they are.
Sandy Close, founder of Pacific News Service, an alternative syndicate, worried that the weeklies are ignoring one of their original and loftiest missions: promoting a variety of views.
Close contends that the alternative media too often don't acknowledge that a world exists outside college campuses and dance clubs.
"We were once the renegades, the iconoclasts, able to contemplate the unthinkable," she said. "Now, we've sort of caught ourselves with some ossified sense of what the counterculture is ? as if it's the Grateful Dead, but not the skinheads or the apostolic Christians."
Monte Paulsen, founder of the Casco Bay Weekly, an alternative in Portland, Maine, and now a reporter with the State in Columbia, S.C., said the newsweeklies are making a colossal mistake not investing their editorial product.
"It shows, and it's pathetic," he said, "and I fear that the long-term consequences will hurt your papers, your effectiveness, your readers ? and your bottom line."
While stories in the alternative press tend to be well-written and entertaining, Paulsen charged they're "rarely well-researched, rarely innovative, rarely groundbreaking and increasingly homogeneous."
The weeklies have steered away from the gritty, lengthy investigative and political pieces that were once their hallmark, the reporter observed ? and when they do hire serious journalists, they overwork them and fail to pay them a competitive wage.
Abe Peck, a professor at Northwestern's Medill School and the author of Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, agreed with Paulsen that there appears to be "a retreat from hard-hitting stories" among the weeklies.
Indeed, many alternatives seem less definable these days by their hard-hitting expos?s than by their profiles of local bands and their "SWM seeks hot, horny slut" classifieds.
Peck singled out the routine "best of" editions these papers crank out year after year, chronicling the best bookstores and coffee bars in their respective cities. It's been said that the alternative press used to want to change the world ? now it strives to find the perfect bagel.
But the journalism teacher argued that "it's not enough to be an arbiter of taste. We live in a country with massive problems, and somebody ought to step up and voice some solutions."
The Dallas Observer's Laura Miller said the alternatives were still in the best position to do the "sacred cow" stories the daily press won't touch for fear of jeopardizing their connections with politicians and businesspeople.
Once a loose collection of scrappy, leftist publications,
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has transformed into a serious, business-oriented industry organization fledgling papers across the country. That many of the current AAN publishers, editors and reporters got into the business because of reading and admiring the Voice makes its indifference even more galling."
Sam Sifton, senior editor of the Press, who attended the confab in Salt Lake City, said, "It seems to me that AAN, to some small degree, is suffering from the battered-wife syndrome, this idea that 'maybe the third time's the charm.' "
Sifton saw the association's forgive-and-forget attitude toward the Voice as a slap in the face of established alternatives that have long been strong AAN supporters, including the Chicago Reader and San Francisco Bay Guardian.
"It's remarkable that an association of alternative newspapers wants the acceptance of the mainstream," Sifton said. "It's insulting to say that the only recognizable name in alternative newspapers is the Village Voice, that that's what will bring recognition to the association."
Linda Nelson, the Voice's vice president of new media and its sole representative at AAN, suggested that the Press' campaign against her paper amounted to sour grapes.
"With all due respect to the New York Press, we don't consider them a competitor," she said. "They're threatened by our recent business decision to go free ? and that's why we want to be part of the group. Now that we have the same business scheme, it just seems right."
Nelson pointed out that Voice sister paper L.A. Weekly was active in AAN.
(Another Voice affiliate, O.C. Weekly, based in Orange County, Calif., was voted into the group last week, along with Seattle's Stranger, the Hour of Montreal and the Icon in Iowa City, Iowa.)
Sarah Goodyear, editor of the Casco Bay Weekly in Portland, Maine, said prior to the membership vote, "The Voice unquestionably meets AAN's standards of quality. But I'm disappointed they haven't been a more vocal presence at the convention. It's damaged their credibility somewhat."
Scott Spear, executive vice president of the New Times chain, quipped that the Voice ? having twice snubbed AAN ? could redeem itself by paying back dues.
Others were more generous.
"We can't vote against a paper because it's been rude and nasty to the organization ? we'd have to throw everybody out," offered Patricia Calhoun, editor of Denver's Westword.
Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, commented that the Voice had "seen the light like the rest of us" by going free. "I'm sure being in the association will work for their advantage."
In another membership uproar, conventioneers were steamed that the membership committee rejected out of hand the application of the Montreal Hour's French-language alternative, Voir ? simply because nobody on the panel understood the language.
What's worse, the paper had tried to get into AAN two times previous and, according to its representatives at the convention, was disqualified for the same reason.
What makes the situation particularly embarassing for AAN leaders: next year's convention is slated for Montreal.
"Certainly AAN does not want to stand on the side of homogenization rather than diversity," said Voir sales director Claudia Pharand.
AAN admissions chair Douglas Biggers, who is editor and publisher of Tucson Weekly, accepted responsibility for the Voir debacle.
"It was stupid not to consider a French paper because nobody could read it," he said.
At the close of the convention, AAN members were asked to examine Voir in the coming months. They will vote down the road whether to make the paper one of their own.
And another controversy arose when a contingent of AAN members ? outraged at Utah's spate of anti-gay legislation, including a recently approved ban on same-sex marriages ? voiced their disappointment that the group would hold its convention in the state.
John Saltas, publisher of Salt Lake City's Private Eye Weekly and the convention chair, responded, "That an AAN editor might believe that because we have some spineless bigots and assholes in many of our elected offices that those qualities rub off on the rest of us is simply false."
He added that his paper was "deeply committed to equal rights for everyone, period."
?("To people like me, it's most gratifying that we're growing.") [Caption]
?(-Bruce Burgman, editor and publisher, San Francisco Bay Guardian) [Photo & Caption]
June 15, 1996 n Editor & Publisher #


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