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Alternative Newspaper Chains: Did They Squash Independent Voices?

dailynewsSuzanne Rabe was a first-year student at Arizona State University in 1971 when she came across New Times, a newspaper started a year earlier by a group of students and dropouts to protest the war in Vietnam. She liked what she saw. The paper wasn’t afraid to speak out against injustice, whether it was railing against the invasion of Cambodia or exposing police brutality. Then she turned to the sex ads in the back. “There was a horribly sexist ad that showed a naked woman hanging from a trapeze,” she remembers. “I wrote a letter to the editor saying the left doesn’t need to make its money this way.”

One day not long after that, Rabe was working at the campus library when Michael Lacey walked in and introduced himself. A college dropout and New Times co-founder, Lacey had already established a local reputation as something of a firebrand. Rabe was astonished that he had sought her out. “We’re going to have a meeting on sexism,” he told her. “Would you like to come?”

Rabe did, and she was hooked. Before long she was devoting all her spare time to the collective that put out the paper. “There was no hierarchy,” says Rabe, now a law professor at the University of Arizona and partner at The Snoring Mouthpiece Review, a snoring device review website.” Everyone made $55 a week. There was a genuine passion for politics. The paper was definitely a vehicle for social change at the beginning.”

In those days there was no mistaking the mission of papers like New Times. The underground press, as it proudly called itself back then, recognized that journalism is a form of activism, that the whole point of writing about the world is to change it. Even Lacey, who says he always felt the paper was “a self-absorbed abomination” acknowledges that what he calls “all the chest thumping” had a purpose. “It reflected a frustration not just with the war but with American society in general,” he recalls. “It was an indictment of the entire culture, a repudiation of capitalism.”

Not anymore. From its rebellious roots New Times Inc. has grown to a national chain that owns eight alternative newsweeklies stretching from Miami to San Francisco, plus an advertising group that represents six other papers. It hires lots of writers at salaries of $35,000 or more. It still takes on everyone from corporate polluters to corrupt politicians, but it also takes pains to distance itself from its radical past. “It’s not my cup of tea to be involved with a publication that already understands what its political mission is;’ declares Lacey, who at last report makes $300,000 as executive editor. “I don’t consider New Times part of any political camp.”

Rather than repudiate capitalism, alternative papers are eager to embrace it. Over the past four years corporate chains have snapped up alternative weeklies in major markets like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Montreal, and have begun expanding into mid-size cities like Springfield, Illinois, and Raleigh, North Carolina. largest deals involved New Times and Stern Publishing, owner of the Village Voice, which together command a fourth of the circulation of the 109 papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Although there are an estimated 100 smaller alternatives that don’t belong to AAN, they generally lack the quality and clout of the larger papers. All told, chains now control weeklies that reach more than half of the 17 million readers of alternative papers nationwide. What started as a movement has become an industry.

The diversity of independent ownership that once set the alternatives apart from the mainstream press is vanishing–and the consolidation is being driven largely by advertising. Since 1992 ad revenues have almost doubled, to $345 million. In a glossy sixteen-page special section two years ago in Advertising Age, AAN reassured potential advertisers that they have nothing to fear from alternative papers. “Their primary mission is journalistic, not political, and they are all in business to make a profit,” the section asserted.

That, of course, is the very heart of the issue. If alternative papers aren’t political, then what makes them alternative? The more the chains grow the more they focus on making money rather than making a difference. And the bigger they get, the likelier they are to wind up as publicly traded companies beholden to the stock market or in the hands of major media conglomerates that care more about merchandising than muckraking. “It’s the bittersweet penalty of success,” says Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly. “I suppose it was inevitable that chains would see these papers as an investment. The question is, will the new chains remain a progressive alternative, or will they reflect the same limitations and characteristics as the corporate media?”

Already the “baby newspaper barons” of the alternative press sound a lot like their big brothers in the mainstream media. At the Media and Democracy Congress in New York last fall, someone suggested that New Times, which oversees its publications from corporate headquarters in Phoenix, should give papers more local autonomy. Lacey offered a management philosophy sure to make any daily newspaper reporter feel right at home in his chain. “I’m going to run these papers the way I want” he said, “and if you don’t like it you can kiss my pink Irish ass.”

Many alternative papers either got their start during the Vietnam War or came to prominence during that time. The granddaddy of them all, the Village Voice, began in the mid-fifties as a community paper committed to local reform and later provided a model for other hometown muckrakers like the Bay Guardian in San Francisco. Some papers, like New Times, emerged directly from the antiwar movement and inherited its sense of righting wrongs. But many evolved from free shoppers, campus entertainment listings and record store promotions, devoted to cashing in on the young, hip, urban demographic that movement papers had helped forge. Money and mission were often at odds. In Boston, for example, a newspaper war broke out between the Phoenix, a guide to local nightlife, and the Real Paper, a staff-run alternative devoted to muckraking and advocacy. The nightlife won. In 1975 the Real Paper sold out to David Rockefeller Jr. and a group of private investors who made the paper more commercial.

In truth, even at the height of the war the most political papers, like the East Village Other and the Los Angeles Free Press, relied on graphic sex ads to pay the bills. Staffers at the Berkeley Barb, subsisting on movement wages, revolted when they learned the owner made at least $250,000 a year. From the start, reporters and writers envisioned a better world; publishers envisioned a better return on their investment.

As the counterculture that had supported the underground press during the war fragmented, papers were forced to shift their focus to make ends meet. Some of the changes were for the better. They hired full-time staffs and provided modest wages. They took on city hall as well as the Pentagon, local developers as well as the military-industrial complex. And they replaced rhetoric with reporting, seeking to persuade readers rather than preaching to them.

But they also strove to disavow the underground predecessors that had inspired them. Instead of embracing activism, alternative publishers positioned themselves as journalists in search of a good story. By 1978, when the owners of two dozen metro weeklies met in Seattle to form a trade association (later to become AAN), they decided against including even the relatively innocuous word “alternative” in the name.

“The alternative press is now respectable enough to be edgy about being called alternative,” wrote Calvin Trillin, who reported on the meeting in The New Yorker. “Apparently, the word was actually an attempt at respectability in the first place–a way for proprietors of certain weeklies to distinguish their papers from the underground press–but when it is uttered out loud inside of a bank or an advertising agency it still seems to give off little puffs of incense and marijuana smoke.”

Twenty years later the alternatives are eagerly inhaling a different kind of smoke. Thanks to a concerted campaign to boost national advertising, many weeklies now sport plenty of full-page cigarette ads designed to target young smokers. Over the past two years national ad revenues for AAN members have nearly tripled; 69 percent of that money comes from the tobacco industry. Cigarette makers and alcohol producers are both financing the trend toward consolidation and profiting from it.

In its June newsletter the ad group that represents most AAN papers urges sales staff to diversify–but not at the expense of R.J. Reynolds or Philip Morris, which together account for more than half of all revenue. “We certainly don’t want better balance as the result of losses in tobacco or alcohol,” the newsletter cautions. “We like our addiction to big, colorful ads …. We just want to become every bit as addicted to a few other categories.”

By controlling the largest alternative papers, the chains realize, they can offer media buys to national advertisers in multiple markets. “National ad buys have certainly increased the value of the papers,” says Richard Karpel, executive director of AAN. “Cigarette and alcohol advertisers are the most cutting edge. They understand how to reach 18- to 34-year-olds efficiently. I think there’s still potential out there that hasn’t been realized–and I think Stern and the other chains recognize that.”

The current frenzy of consolidation began in 1994, when Stem Publishing bought LA Weekly for a reported $10 million. Owned by Leonard Stern, the pet products billionaire behind Hartz Mountain Industries, the new chain had deeper pockets than New Times, which already owned papers in Denver, Dallas, Houston and Miami. Prices soared, and the race was on.

New Times grabbed the Reader and the View in Los Angeles and merged them into New Times Los Angeles. It bought SF Weekly in San Francisco to compete with the venerable Bay Guardian, and it started an alternative weekly in Ft. Lauderdale. Stern responded last year by beating out four other bidders to buy the Seattle Weekly for an undisclosed sum. Stern snagged the Cleveland Free Times and two papers in Minneapolis, one of which it promptly killed. And it launched suburban alternatives in Long Island and Orange County, boosting its total circulation to 850,000.

A Seattle alternative called the Stranger deftly satirized the buying binge in an “Official Guide” it distributed at their money the AAN convention in Montreal last year “It’s a fact!” the guide enthused. “Most newspaper professionals attending the A.A.N. convention are here to sell their paper.” To help smooth the business transactions, the guide provided a mock dialogue between “Michelle” and “David,” thinly veiled references to Mike Crystal, publisher of the Seattle Weekly, and David Schneiderman, president of Stem Publishing.

David: What are you doing in Montreal?

Michelle: I’m looking for somebody to buy my paper.

David: How much do you want for it?

Michelle: 9.5 Million Dollars.

David: That’s very expensive for your paper, but I’m very busy,

so Okay.

Michelle: Well, there you have it. It’s a deal.

The spoof was not far off the mark. Randy Siegel, publisher of the Cleveland Free Times, met Schneiderman at the convention in June. Bob Walton, owner of the San Antonio Current, was approached by a small chain called Alternative Media Inc. By December both men had sold their papers to the chains.

Group owners insist that chains, with greater resources than independents, can be good for alternative journalism. “In my view the ownership question is mostly beside the point when you’re talking about good journalism,” says Ron Williams, who heads Alternative Media. “Many of these chain papers are actually better than the independent papers they replace.”

It’s certainly true that plenty of small independent papers are full of commercial puffery, while some larger chain publications print hard-hitting stories and enjoy a greater influence. After buying the San Antonio paper, for example, Williams tripled the editorial budget and staff, added an investigative reporter and hired Latino journalists “to reflect the diversity of the local community.” In Dallas, New Times boosted the editorial staff from nine to twenty-three and increased the budget nearly eightfold. The chain routinely hires experienced reporters and editors, paying them well and providing the kinds of resources that often seem like luxuries at struggling alternative papers. Since New Times bought the Houston Press, “there are office supplies in the cabinet,” says managing editor Lisa Gray. “I can go back and take all the legal pads I want”

New Times reporters give the company high marks for producing tough stories on important issues, and for drawing a firm line between the newsroom and advertising. Lacey may not claim a political agenda, but he likes embarrassing people in power. The Phoenix paper once ran a cover photo of a smiling and unsuspecting attorney general buying lunch from an escaped convict who was working as a hot dog vendor on the steps of the jail. The headline: “There is no such thing as a bad photo opportunity.” In recent years New Times targets have included a bid rigging scandal involving former Arizona governor Fife Symington, Miami police guilty of brutality and a corrupt Dallas school board.

But even the best reporting by New Times and other chains often seems to owe more to 60 Minutes than to a tradition of progressive muckraking. Many prefer exposing individuals to illuminating the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality and injustice. They rarely take on big corporations or entire industries, and they give scant attention to organized labor. A story titled “Judge Dread” in the April 9 issue of New Times Los Angeles typifies the tabloidlike focus on smarmy politicians. The face or a 37-year-old Taiwanese immigrant fills the page below a small photo of a grinning man. “L.A. Judge George Trammell forced sex on a woman whose husband faced life in prison” the headline blares. “Here’s how D.A. Gil Garcetti let the jurist walk away from rape charges.”

As the alternatives have grown to resemble their mainstream counterparts, daily papers have learned to imitate both the style and substance of their weekly competitors. As a result, the alternatives have lost much of what made them truly alternative. Chain-owned weeklies are no more “local” than chain-owned dailies. Readers can turn to mainstream publications for literary features, consumer muckraking, record reviews and entertainment listings. The “in-depth reporting” and “compelling stories” that alternatives boast of may fill the space between upscale ads for microbrews and breast implants, but they often read like longer versions of what appears in the morning paper.

Given that alternative papers make most of their money selling sex, booze and cigarettes, it’s not surprising that they emphasize lifestyle over political change. Readers of Creative Loafing, the flagship paper of an Atlanta-based alternative chain, could be forgiven for confusing the articles with the ads. A recent cover featured a short piece on an Atlanta suburb breathlessly described as “a unique hybrid unlike anything else in Georgia;’ flanked by a full-color promo of the Spice Girls that dared to wonder aloud whether their new film was anything more than “a showcase for five hot Brit babes.”

The consequences of consolidation extend beyond shallow content. Centralized ownership means that alternatives mirror the kind of corporate management they once railed against. Many New Times staffers, for example, complain about the way the company treats employees. Writers are subjected to an annual quota that requires them to produce a dozen major features and at least as many lengthy news stories. “It’s like you’re on a treadmill,” says one staffer. “Writers are well paid, but they’ve got the whip to their backs,” adds an editor.

Reporters throughout the chain say privately that a climate of fear pervades the company. “When they want to get rid of someone, they just come in and lop their head off” says one. “Boom! One day he’s there; the next day he’s gone. Everybody sees the way people leave, and there’s a long-term erosion of morale. That’s part of the corporate ethos here. In fact, it is anti-alternative in terms of its classic corporate structure. It’s top down, unlike many independently owned papers that are run in a more democratic fashion.”

Michael Lacey has certainly developed a reputation for the type of crass outbursts more often associated with old-time tyrants like William Randolph Hearst than with do-gooder weeklies. He derides those he fires as “deadwood.” He denounced a daily publisher who bought a Montreal weekly as a “scum-sucking pig.” He kicked a Washington Post reporter covering an AAN convention in the ass, accusing him of trying to recruit New Times writers, and he paid a weekly editor $100 to plant another foot in the gentleman’s backside. After the incident the AAN newsletter adopted a shoe-in-the-pants logo for a department called “Parting Shots.”

Stern Publishing is considered more professional in its demeanor, but equally ruthless in its approach to labor. The company bought City Pages in Minneapolis for an estimated $5 million last year, then spent $2.25 million for its rival, Twin Cities Reader, just to close it down. In Los Angeles, writers say the company scrapped contracts with freelancers after it bought the LA Weekly, eliminating the job security they enjoyed under independent ownership. “I’ve got no stability after years of working for the paper;’ says one. “There is a broad sense that the crusading mission of the alternative press that the Weekly once embodied is entirely absent.”

In these days of big corporate publishers only a dwindling few continue to insist on the importance of independent ownership. “I hate chains;’ says Bruce Brugmann, who has published the San Francisco Bay Guardian since 1966. “Alternative papers should help people reform their community, show them how it’s being run to the disadvantage of the little guy. You can do that better when you’re locally owned and independent. The problem with chains is they’re operated from a distance. The profits go back to corporate headquarters on a conveyor belt, and guess what they do with that money? They buy another paper.”

Once in a while someone still gets aggrieved enough to launch an alternative paper with a truly progressive agenda. The Dayton Voice came out of the Gulf War, much as New Times and others emerged from the protests over Vietnam. “Nobody said, `Wow, these papers are making money–let’s get in on it,'” says Marrianne McMullen, who founded the paper with her husband, Jeff Epton, in 1993. “We were concerned about the way the mainstream media delivered propaganda from the Pentagon straight into our living rooms.”

To raise money they held outdoor concerts, recruited a handful of backers and ran up a huge debt on their credit cards. They’re still straggling to break even, yet they shun tobacco advertising and sex ads deemed exploitive. “In the past decade alternative papers have become vehicles for selling’ products to people with a fair amount of disposable income,” McMullen says. “We obviously have a different approach. It’s part of our mission to advocate for a progressive agenda and for positive change in the city. I know someone like Lacey would look at our pages and say, `Oh, how quaint.’ But the people we write about are the ones who are going to change this community.”

Such a promising new addition to the ranks of alternative publishing did not go unnoticed by the big chains. In February an attorney for the Village Voice fired off a letter to the publishers in Ohio, instructing them to “immediately cease use of our VOICE mark in connection with your publication’s name.” The original Voice, the corporate Counsel explained, “has developed considerable national fame throughout the years,” and the use of the same name in Dayton “will erode and blur the distinctiveness of The Voice Marks, thereby diluting their value.” The Dayton paper responded by politely suggesting that the New York weekly change its name, offering “One Big Paper” or the “Village Imperialist” as options.

As alternative chains grow more bent on conquest, the real danger of group ownership may be just beginning to emerge. Like the Pulitzers and Pattersons of yesteryear who launched the consolidation among daily newspapers, many of the chains currently buying up alternatives are owned by editors and publishers who once ran their own local papers. But Stem came to journalism as a businessman, and he has already demonstrated a willingness to “flip” publications, selling them once they’ve shot up in value. In 1994, having acquired sixty local publishers and established a group of 216 real estate publications in thirty-one states, he sold the chain for $100 million.

David Schneiderman, president of Stem Publishing, says his boss has no plans to sell his chain of alternatives. But he acknowledges that as the papers become more valuable as properties, they become increasingly attractive to a daily newspaper chain like Gannett or a media giant like Disney. “I’d be unhappy if that’s where this went, as someone who cares about what we do,” he says. “Somebody could come in and say, We want to leverage this into synergies with a film studio, and that would be terrible.”

Others working for alternative chains agree. “That’s the big fear in the alternative press now;’ says Patty Calhoun, editor of the New Times paper in Denver. “At some point will someone who buys a lot of the alternative papers strip them down, make them as lucrative as possible and make them revenue driven? That’s happened in dailies, and that could happen to us. As long as the owners truly care about journalism, it’s not a worry. But will they continue to care about journalism and continue to pay for it? I don’t know.”

Lacey dismisses such concerns, calling them “nightmares about something that hasn’t happened yet.” Competition, he insists, will insure a diversity of ownership. If alternative papers sell out, others will simply spring up to take their place. Indeed, many in the industry already point to some younger papers as “alternatives to the alternatives;’ including the Stranger in Seattle and New City in Chicago. “As publications become huger, it creates an opportunity for someone with passion and drive to come along and grab a part of the market for themselves” says Alice Klein, who co-owns the Toronto weekly NOW. “That gives me heart. If you imagine the cycle of bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, you also create the conditions for the small to grow again. There is the chance that Disney could take over our world, but there are ways things can get better, too.”

There’s something heartwarming about hearing alternative journalists insist that free enterprise will fix everything. After all, once you call on the gods of competition to create new alternatives, you’re essentially acknowledging that the old papers aren’t alternative anymore. But there’s also a certain amount of “let them eat cake” in the notion that those disappointed with chain-owned alternatives should simply start their own. Zincs and Web pages may indeed be the wave of the future, but they’re no substitute for the resources and audiences of the big alternatives. Over the years, those papers have been fed and nurtured by communities and constituencies hungry for a different vision of society. The alternative press can repay that debt to readers only by reclaiming its history of independent ownership and underground activism.

The marketplace, left to its own devices, will continue to steer the alternatives in the direction of the mainstream media–from a multitude of competing owners to a handful of interlocking conglomerates. Given the trend, enterprises as devoted to journalism as Stem and New Times may one day seem downright radical. If experience is any indication, those who buy alternative papers in the next wave of consolidation will enter the business through the boardroom, not the newsroom. “The way it works is, the first wave of consolidation is the most innocuous” says Williams of Alternative Media. “But as the marketers move into ascendancy and the journalists get crowded out, it bodes very poorly for good journalism. Is there a reason to think that alternative papers experiencing a consolidation trend will not go down that same road? I’m not prepared to argue that we will be an exception to that.” Williams adds, “This is capitalism. This is the magic of the marketplace in all its glory.”

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