Who's Copying Whom? p. 15

By: M.L. STEIN ASK DAN Pulcrano if alternative newspapers are becoming more like the mainstream press, and he regards you tolerantly and replies: "No. It's the exact opposite. Mainstream papers are becoming more like us."
By "us" he means the San Jose-based Metro Newspapers, of which he is president/executive editor, and the other members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which recently held a regional meeting in San Francisco.
Pulcrano was backed up by AAN executive director Richard Karpel, who said: "It's fairly obvious the mainstream papers are getting closer to us. Ten years ago, the dailies did not have those weekend arts and entertainment sections and now almost every paper has one. They are generally trying to attract young readers and are looking at the success of the alternatives."
Some dailies have even copied the alternatives' freer writing style, he contended. Karpel, who is based in Washington, pointed to the Washington Post, whose Style section has become "more irreverent as it tries to be hip. But they haven't gotten it right yet."
Jim Nintzel, editor of the Tucson Weekly, concurred, saying, "The dailies are borrowing our form but are not succeeding in producing the same kind of content. They almost seem like faux alternative newspapers." The trio's observations reflected the upbeat mood of the conference. The day has long passed when publishers and staffers of alternative newspapers felt the need to apologize for their brand of journalism. Many of AAN's 109 U.S. and Canadian member papers sport impressive profit margins along with a devoted core of readers. The organization is so well-established that it routinely denies membership to papers that do not meet its standards. Further evidence that the alternatives have arrived lies in the chain ownership of some of them and the fact that several are audited.
"They feel that ABC membership gives them credibility," said Marsha L. Enrici of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
And, from time to time, metro dailies pluck staffers from the alternatives, just as some daily reporters have decided they would be happier going the other way.
"We have a specific product that you can't find in daily papers," said Jeanah Morris, classified manager of Boise Weekly. "There are people who read us who don't read a daily."
Yet, the conference program reflected two days of sessions that would ring familiar to any mainstream publisher, advertising manager, or editor: "Question-based selling," "Design and Production," "Great Customer Service," "Creating Revenue and Advanced Sales Techniques," "Freedom of Information and Libel/Privacy," "Electronic Publishing," and "Breathing Life into Corpses of Stories," to name some.
The only difference, perhaps, is that the level of the discussions is more basic than the same topics covered at mainstream newspaper conferences, given that alternative folks are generally younger, less experienced and paid less than their daily counterparts.
Most of these themes facing alternative papers were developed by the mainline press before the birth of the alternatives. Who was first to do what isn't too important to Steve McNamara, editor and publisher of the Pacific Sun in Marin County, Calif., one of the nation's first alternative tabloids, emerging in 1963.
"There is no alternative way of approaching the business side," said McNamara, who once wrote for the San Francisco Examiner. "On the business end, we have moved in the direction of mainstream papers. But in terms of editorial content, the dailies have become kind of anomalous. Their penetration rate is half of what it was 50 years ago so you've got to wonder at the astonishing profit margins they're able to sustain. And it looks as if they're able to maintain these levels from a limited number of outlets. In the equivalent period, the alternatives' circulation has more than doubled. Where the dailies have become more like us is in explanatory journalism. They can't make it on breaking news anymore."
Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, allowed, "We're drifting toward the mainstream in the sense of being more profitable and ? God help us ? more professional. We're growing up. We have papers that pay living wages, that are professionally managed, and have professional sales and marketing projects. We have become a mature industry."
However, among some alternative papers, the swing toward the establishment press includes editorial content as well.
"In the smaller towns, the alternatives have really become community newspapers while those in metro areas have stuck closer to their roots," said George Thurlow, publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent. He suggested that the smaller papers made a wise choice, claiming that many metros have only a 10% penetration in their cities compared with small-market alternatives whose readership is equal to that of the dailies. The Chapel Hill (N.C.) Independent garners 25% of the ad market, said sales manager Jessica Stern.
Thurlow's assessment is borne out by a sample of the small-town alternative weeklies. The Colorado Springs Independent gave prominent play to a story about a city council-appointed group of developers and Realtors that will study the state of the city's drains, roads and infrastructure. Another piece reported on a police-sponsored gun safety program.
The Eugene (Ore.) Weekly featured a lengthy story on community efforts to cut down on teen-age crime. Other stories told of the city manager's first year in office, a local speech by the governor, and a complaint filed by conservation groups over a planned coyote hunt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Palo Alto (Calif.) Weekly has given extensive overage to a three-month civil trial involving a suit against a local church, a bid by a cable company to be bailed out of debt by a city-backed bond issue, an alleged gang rape and profiles of six candidates for the city Planning Commission. Indeed, the twice-weekly Weekly competes almost head to head with the Palo Alto Daily News for local news.
Even though some alternatives may be leaning toward mainstream content, the AAN board seems determined to maintain a distinction from the establishment press. The board last year initiated a termination procedure against the Montreal Mirror after it was bought by Quebecor Inc., a big Canadian publishing conglomerate that owns several major dailies. Thirty-three AAN members voted to boot the Mirror out, and 31 voted against the proposal, which lost because it lacked the required two-thirds majority.
And even the smaller alternatives continue to offer ample arts and entertainment sections, one of the founding staples of alternative journalism. What most of them don't offer is "Ask Isadora," a graphic ? some might say raunchy ? sex advice column by Isadora Alman, a San Francisco psychotherapist who appears in the Bay Guardian, Columbus (Ohio) Alive!, Detroit Metro Times, Now Toronto, Time Out New York, Baltimore City Paper, Sydney (Australia) Hub and six Advocate papers in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut.
Alman provides explicitly candid advice on subjects ranging from oral and kinky sex to body hair and homosexual relationships. "When I'm writing for the alternative press, I have to use a certain hip lingo," she said. "I get so much feedback that every sixth column consists of responses to other readers' problems. On my radio program, I spoke quite differently."
Her column would not fit into the Boise Weekly, however, said Jeanah Morris. "The city has a conservative side, and we would get a lot of objection, especially about the gay and lesbian material."
Still, the continued success of the alternatives, according to Redmond, depends on "trying things no one else has tried and going places where others have not gone."
?("When I'm writing for the alternative press, I have to use a certain hip lingo. I get so much feedback that every sixth column consists of responses to other readers' problems.") [Caption]
?(-Isadora Alman, San Francisco psychotherapist whose "Ask Isadora" sex advice column runs in a bunch of alternative papers.) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: February 21, 1998)


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