Have Mac, will publish; today's alternative papers are surprisingly good. Here's why.
For years children died painfully and unnecessarily in the working-class neighborhood of Phoenix called Maryvale. They died of leukemia. They died often: At least 28 succumbed between 1961 and 1985, twice the national rate. Even though state health officials knew about cancer-causing groundwater contamination in Maryvale, they refused to investigate. And local elementary school officials covered up, fearing disclosure's impact on enrollment. The daily papers missed the story. Ditto local TV news.
It was the Phoenix New Times that nailed it. That alternative weekly broke the story in June 1987. Within weeks the scandal attracted politicians, health officials, and dailies like the Phoenix Gazette and the Arizona Republic. Within months the bandwagon stopped. And today only two constants remain: Maryvale's groundwater is still contaminated, and the New Times is still on the case, still chiding polluters, government officials, and the public.
The New Times's well-documented, heart-rending, and consistent coverage represents journalism--alternative or otherwise--at its best. Alternative papers often do. This may come as a surprise to those outside the journalism fraternity, but on the inside it is well-known. In fact, one of the mainstream media's dirty little secrets is the frequency with which reporters on daily papers crib ideas, quotes, and more from their alternative counterparts.
When you look at some of the great stuff that shows up in the alternative press, that's hardly surprising. Like last December when the L.A. Weekly described how, in 1976, as director of the CIA, George Bush defied orders from President Ford to release documents vital to a Justice Department investigation of CIA involvement in covert domestic operations. Two months passed before the same incident got the attention of The New York Times.
These stories don't just happen; they come about because alternative newspapers are in a position to do things that the big boys no longer have interest in or feel comfortable with. Most of the alternatives are financial upstarts and hence tend to be freer from the corporate and Chamber of Commerce mentality that so often gets in the way of the real stories. Especially the local ones that Knight-Ridder or Cox overlook because they are not usable in multiple markets. Being more financially marginal also means that these papers attract writers who come to a story for reasons other than money--reasons like they care about their subject, or are pissed-off about a misdeed. It also means the alternatives are more open to writers without the "right" Journalism 101 credentials. Although this produces reams of purple prose and painfully twisted syntax, it also undoubtedly spawns freshness in content and style. And alternatives can report on mainstream newspapers with great effect.
None of this is to say that the alternatives don't turn out their share of lousy journalism. They have for instance, a tendency to be longwinded. A recent East Bay (Berkeley) Express cover story jumps to pages 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19--at which point the writer pauses to offer a loving exegesis on animal excrement. A promising story on women working their way through college as strippers in the Chico (California) News and Review is likewise digressive--for some reason, half the story's space is given over to a writer's personal breast flashbacks.
And the alternatives are no stranger to irresponsibility. In February the San Luis Obispo New Times ran a story headlined "Parole Denied" in which California prison officials were ripped for not supporting the release of a convicted kidnapper. Yet it turns out that the author never spoke with the allegedly reformed prisoner, and her scathing critique was based exclusively on comments by the kidnapper's attorney. And don't forget sophomoric: Rhode Island's weekly New Times refers to the daily Providence Journal as the "Providence Urinal."
So admittedly, alternatives are erratic. But they offer a glimpse of what more big-time newspaper journalism should and could be: interpretive, reflective, and iconoclastic. They remind us of the limits of the five W's school of journalism and the value of point of view. As many dailies either fold or become homogenized members of a national chain or enter into quasi-monopolistic joint operating agreements, the alternatives stand apart, siren-like, daring dailies to be different.
Growing in a generation from a lone voice in Texas to more than 100 papers with a weekly readership in excess of three million, alternatives are an emergent and in some ways revolutionary force in American newspaper journalism. Even if at this stage much of the force is still just potential, it's a very promising potential.
From the start the alternative press has been liberal. It began in 1954 when a group of Texas Democrats approached Ronnie Dugger about starting a weekly paper. "In the mid 1950s people in Texas were in despair about the daily press," recalls Dugger. "[It] was racist, anti-civil liberties, a black hole culturally." His alternative, the Texas Observer, was and is unabashedly populist and purely political. No sports. No crossword puzzles. No cartoons. It's always been a classic muckraking journal.
A year later and a world apart, Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf, and Ed Fancher founded the Village Voice. Conceived of as a writer's paper, the Voice introduced the New Journalism of Mailer and Tom Wolfe. The 1960s were, according to Geoffrey Stokes, a Voice columnist and author of the Voice Anthology, "arguably the paper's heyday, as its new writers, unleashed by Wolf, chronicled--passionately--the civil-rights movement, hippies, Yippies, dope, rock, the peace movement, Chicago...."
The Observer is restrained. The Voice is emotional. The former singularly political. The latter an innovator in arts and entertainment reporting. One sets an agenda. The other a lifestyle. They represent the alternative extremes. Newer alternatives almost always aim somewhere in between.
Interviews and punch outs
Strains of the Voice are evident in papers like the Boston Phoenix, created in 1966 as a vehicle to publish arts and entertainment listings with "news as an afterthought," says Katherine Fulton, editor of The Independent in Durham, North Carolina. Others, taking their cues from the Observer, were all news. The Phoenix New Times, for instance, began in 1970 "as a reaction to Kent State and the coverage of it locally," says Michael Lacey, its founder and editor. Lacey recalls how at that time construction workers were converging on local campuses to impose their own vision of America on students. "Our first story was on a construction worker who interrupted the interview to punch out a student--he knocked his front teeth out--before coming back to finish the interview."
Today the alternative press is thirtysomething and it shows. Publishers range from sixties radicals to eighties Yuppies. From people like L.A. Weekly publisher Jay Levin, who believes "the mass media is so inaccurate and distorted that true journalism is the mission," to Syracuse New Times publisher Art Zimmer, who explained in a recent issue that "I bought the paper to keep you...informed on the latest ski information."
The result? Vast differences of opinion about editorial direction. At the Chicago Reader, an extremely successful 18-year-old paper patterned after the Voice, planning sessions are eschewed and freelancers relied upon. At The Independent, weekly editorial meetings with staff reporters are the norm. While Boston Phoenix editor Richard Gaines prides himself on always being "in the competition to break hard news," Express editor John Raeside believes "a lot of alternative papers suffer from crusaditis."
But there is at least one point alternative publishers and editors seem to agree on. "Our newspapers have nothing in common with the underground press" of the 1960s, protests Richard Meeker, publisher of Willamette Week and president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). The common misperception is that alternative papers simply evolved from that counterculture genre, which advocated unlawful behavior, and was fraught with radical babblings and unwholesome helpings of the ideological flavor of the week. "The underground press was published by people who had given up on America," Meeker says. "We believe we can change America and have as big a stake in the system as anyone."
This doesn't mean that the alternatives are completely free of the characteristic flaws of the old underground papers. Some alternative journalism looks like it was never read twice, much less edited. In Milwaukee's Shepherd Express, we learn that a female police officer's harassment "complaints may have never went beyond [the chief's] desk. Officials from the Police Internal Affairs allegedly told [her] there was not enough sufficient evidence..."
And there's often incredible close-mindedness. A recent Los Angeles Weekly story compared southern women to a bird that "determinedly bashes its tiny brain into car windshields," life in Los Angeles to life in East Germany, and dismissed as too conservative anyone unwilling to be assaulted--literally punched in the face--by someone living below the poverty line.
Crybaby billionaire publishers
Some alternative writing is way too conspiratorial. "If Khomeini succeeds," opined San Francisco's Bay Guardian in an editorial on the Salman Rushdie affair, "why won't politicians and big corporations update and renew their political and economic death threats to their enemies?"
Paranoia of this magnitude is not new to Bay Guardian editor Bruce Brugmann. For 23 years, he has obsessively pursued three issues: the Manhattanization of San Francisco, the cozy relationship between Pacific Gas & Electric and local powerbrokers, and joint operating agreements between newspapers. In Brugmann's overstating hands, publishing executives become "crybaby billionaire publishers" and the lack of a public electric company becomes "the worst scandal in San Francisco history." Although Brugmann's concerns are valid, his world is just a little too full of "secret talks" and "sleight-of-hand deals."
Quite a bit of alternative fare is just plain weird. "Sitting at a table littered with books like The Coelum Pholophorum...I ask [the bagpiper] what the connection is between alchemy, writing, and piping," Bryce Milligan wrote in the San Antonio Current. `I'm not sure there is a difference,' he replies."
The most common failing of the alternative press, however, is its tendency to attitudinize. Yes, some alternative journalists let their reporting speak for itself. But too many report softly and shoulder a big chip. Consider a January cover story in Washington City Paper on D.C.'s congressional delegate, Walter Fauntroy. In it Mary Ann Blouin writes that the third-ranking Democrat on the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee has acted in a way that should make "voters wonder if he isn't in the banking industry's pocket." But Blouin's own reporting shows that the facts hardly confirm this. She chastised Fauntroy for taking $15,000 from bankers' political action committees, yet acknowledged this is less than one-tenth the amount given by bankers' PACs during the same period to former committee chairman Ferdinand St. Germain. She listed all the PACs that have "kicked in" money to Fauntroy, only to point out elsewhere that the $62,000 he took in this way recently was less than one-third the House average. As for the influence all this money has had on Fauntroy, Blouin could find none. Indeed, she pointed out Fauntroy's support of an antibanking piece of legislation and quoted a lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America who said Fauntroy "can be counted as one of the small bloc [of votes] that we have."
This kind of story illustrates the alternative tendency to preach to the converted. Sometimes alternatives forget that challenging, even engaging, readers is a central concern. With some alternatives you're lucky to get an outquote--those enlarged snippets of copy run alongside the story--you can understand. "In the emerging Gaian politics," begins one blurb in the L.A. Weekly, "the isolated citizen once represented by a politician will be exchanged for the participatory individual living as a symbiotic organelle..." (This is typical of the L.A. Weekly's pseudo-intellectual bent. Pseudonyms in a recent Weekly story on being poor in Hollywood weren't the likes of "Ralph" and "Joe"--they were names of characters from the German film Berlin Alexanderplatz.)
The `Y' word
That alternatives often think too narrowly of their readership makes the financial success enjoyed by some all the more amazing. The 10-year-old L.A. Weekly, for instance, grossed $7 million last year. Between 1984 and 1988, annual revenues for Baltimore City Paper quadrupled from $1 million to $4 million. Last year the Village Voice earned $5 million on almost $20 million in gross revenue. In 1987, Rupert Murdoch sold the Voice, founded with an initial stake of $10,000, to Hartz Mountain pet-product magnate Leonard Stern for $55 million--$40 million more than he had paid for it nine years earlier.
Of course, revenues at most alternatives do not approach this level. Primarily political papers like the Observer are with few exceptions consistent money-losers. The money-makers are the ones like the Boston Phoenix, which tap pop culture's pocketbook. Founded as an entertainment guide, the Phoenix, originally Boston After Dark, provided Boston's many college students with listings of what was going on--movies, theater, restaurants. It was an immediate success. Annual revenues grew from $17,000 in 1966 to $540,000 in just four years--the equivalent of nearly $2 million today.
From its inception the Phoenix was a crassly commercial venture, the brainchild of two college kids and a student at the Harvard Business School who identified a market, calculated its need, and supplied the appropriate product. It was, says William Henry, a former Boston Globe reporter now an associate editor at Time magazine, "one of the earliest and shrewdest examples of hip, if not hippie, capitalism."
Many other alternative publishers were equally hip, in terms of both production and distribution. Starting almost without exception on a shoe string and sweat equity, alternative publishers could not afford to build circulation patiently through subscriptions. They needed advertising revenue immediately, and, to get more than a negligible amount, they needed to show market penetration. They got this overnight by taking a page from the extremely profitable suburban newspaper chains that had for years handed out editorially weak but ad-rich weeklies known as "shoppers." The alternatives followed suit by giving papers away for free and making it up on volume. "We needed to offer volume circulation right off the bat," says Jim Larkin, the former publisher of the Phoenix New Times. "By giving the paper away we immediately took a section of the market."
That section consists primarily of the 18- to 30-year-olds whom daily papers have trouble attracting and whom advertisers love. Alternative publishers market their papers specifically to this audience. The Reader, for instance, circulates exclusively along Chicago's north lakefront, a haven for the young and upwardly mobile. The New Times in Phoenix is similarly focused. "We seek out locations where white collar people go--certain supermarkets, restaurants, places those people frequent," says Scott Spear, the paper's publisher.
According to The Alternative Press 1989 National Ratebook and Directory, weeklies have secured an affluent readership in city after city. Readers of the Rochester, New York City, for instance, live in households with a median income of $40,000. Ditto for the Worcester Magazine in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers of the Maine Times ($42,000) and the Hermosa Beach, California Easy Reader ($54,000) are even more prosperous.
The image of the alternative press as favored reading in the BMW set is one many editors and publishers know cuts against type. "You had us all believing that you were quietly...waiting on tables in vegetarian restaurants and that you [drove] a VW bus," begins an ad in Atlanta's Creative Loafing designed to catch the eye not of the reader (who presumably knows what type of car he drives) as much as the potential advertiser. "But now we know you were really climbing your way up the corporate ladder, having power lunches, and making business calls from your BMW. We won't stoop to using the `Y' word. The truth is quite shocking enough."
Perhaps most shocking of all is that conservative business principles--low start-up costs and overhead, high volume, and non-union labor--rather than liberal editorial policies are primarily responsible for the expansion of the alternative press. Being poorer and out of the official loop has meant that alternatives have been financially creative as well. It was the alternative papers, not the big dailies, that pioneered such cash cows as personal "in search of" ads and ad rates supported by guaranteed free distribution. Such practices have made publishing more accessible to entreprenuers. In 1986, for instance, Steven Moss cashed in the $4,000 he had saved up in his IRA, bought an Apple Macintosh computer, and printed out a mock version of his dream paper, the San Luis Obispo New Times. He used it to solicit ads from local businesses and within months was giving away 30,000 papers a week. For the most part, A.J. Liebling was right: The power of the press belongs to those rich enough to afford one. In the world of daily newspapers, TV, and even radio that means being both rich and powerful. But today, as when Dugger began the Observer 35 years ago on borrowed money, the alternative press more often than not belongs to people who are neither. In an era of multi-billion dollar media mergers like that just concluded between Time Inc. and Warner Communications, and of newspaper giants like Gannett Inc.--which employs 37,000 people--you can't overstate the importance of being able to extend the media's bully pulpit to people like Steven Moss.
The same low overheads and quick start-ups that can democratize the press this way can also detract from editorial content. While some alternatives go to excruciating lengths to differentiate themselves from daily papers, lots of others simply copy dailies and other mainstream publications. For example, a story on housing activist Bertha Gilkey, which ran last January in St. Louis's Riverfront Times, was essentially the same story that appeared more than a year earlier on Gilkey in The New York Times and on "60 Minutes." The Massachusetts Valley Advocate regularly reprints the Harper's Index. Even USA Today's "Voices" section--head shots of average Joes answering questions of the day--is a fixture in many alternatives.
As for the common complaint that as part of the Gannetting of America, daily papers have become too homogenized, many alternatives have as well. Syndicated columns ranging from "News of the Weird" to Hunter S. Thompson appear in many of AAN's 54 member papers. Almost all run the same cartoons. AAN even has its own Washington-based wire service.
It's also true that lots of alternatives have lousy editors. Some would-be disciples of the Voice refuse to sharpen their blue pencils on the vague and oh-so-convenient principle that theirs are writers' papers. Others confess to less lofty reasons. Moss, publisher of the San Luis Obispo New Times, says gaps in reporting made him uncomfortable running the "Parole Denied" story. "But we had to go with it or be in trouble," he says. "We didn't have any other copy."
But somehow the alternatives keep cranking out hits. In February 1988, in the mainstream San Francisco Examiner, Philip Matier wrote a front-page story blasting a city supervisor for allegedly constructing an illegal rental apartment behind his house. Six months later the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian revealed that Matier had also built an illegal unit. The Bay Guardian published a picture of the unit, tweaked Matier for his double standard and questionable ethics, quoted the contractor saying Matier had stiffed him for the final $1,800 payment, and even got the managing editor of the Examiner to explain how Matier was eventually taken to task by his own paper for his indiscretion.
There is little that alternative journalists love more than sticking it to the mainstream press. And there is little they do better. Especially at the Village Voice. For years some new double standard was regularly unearthed by Geoffrey Stokes, whose Press Clips column combined investigative journalism with enticing gossip. Last February, for example, Stokes nailed the New York Daily News for petitioning a court to identify the member of Tawana Brawley's grand jury who leaked information to The New York Times. Stokes noted that shield laws are designed to protect source confidentiality and that the News had in recent years testified before the state legislature on behalf of such laws. He even got News editor Gil Spencer to admit his paper's action was "indefensible."
Ironically, Stokes's authorship of the column came about only after his predecessor, Alexander Cockburn, was done in by an expose in the Boston Phoenix. That story, written by Alan Lupo, revealed how Cockburn, who relished disclosing conflicts of interests among other journalists, had secretly accepted a grant from an Arab organization that subsidized his writing because it liked his anti-Zionist point of view. In the aftermath of Lupo's story, Cockburn left the Voice.
And in addition to tweaking the mainstream press, alternatives frequently scoop them. When rumors swirled last fall around the private life of then-mayor Henry Cisneros of San Antonio, Texas, it was the weekly Current that broke the adulterous facts. Long before pollution in the Boston harbor became a national story, the Phoenix had beaten Beantown dailies to the story. William Henry confesses that "many a Boston Globe reporter, including this one, can remember receiving from former editor Tom Winship some crumpled Phoenix article attached to a scrawled note that read, `Why we no have?"'
Although most alternative scoops involve local stories, there are times--as with Bush, Ford, and the CIA--when they beat dailies to stories of national interest. Like the matter of Dan Quayle's law school grades. Throughout the campaign last fall, the national media was on the prowl for proof of the Republican Veep candidate's scholarly indifference, but could never produce hard numbers. Finally, by somehow tapping into Indiana University Law School's computer records, the Indianapolis New Times discovered that Quayle graduated with a C+ average--something that had eluded NBC, Time, and Newsweek.
Or consider Washington (D.C.) City Paper's Bork video caper. In the fall of 1987, during Robert Bork's Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court, City Paper freelancer Michael Dolan obtained Bork's rental records from a local video store. With this document before him--dominated by Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and James Bond--Dolan spun out a tongue-in-cheek psychological profile of Bork for the benefit of the investigating senators. What a package--novel story idea, current events angle, and a research technique no one had ever thought of before. Although Bork himself may have been outraged, there wasn't much he could say about it--after all, he'd already gone on record saying that he didn't think there was a constitutional guarantee of the right of privacy. That's not to say the story didn't cause an uproar. As if to emphasize the impact a so-called small-time paper can have, Congress responded almost immediately with a law that protects itself from similar investigations--the Video Privacy Protection Act.
The sleepy judge
As downtown institutions in cities across America, daily papers are typically part of the local elite. Editors and publishers are often tied in with the Chamber of Commerce crowd, and for them the line between being a journalist and being a civic booster is, as a result, often blurred. Alternatives are not a part of this culture and one of their most valuable contributions is their proclivity for commenting on it. The San Francisco Bay Guardian has for years decried the fact that the owners of the Examiner and Chronicle, which support annual utility rate hikes, also own lots of stock in Pacific Gas & Electric. And just last April, Fred Stickel, publisher of the daily Oregonian in Portland, refused to run a column in his paper about a circuit court judge falling asleep during a murder trial. Stickel, it seems, is a friend of the judge. A week later the column ran in Willamette Week, complete with a preamble describing Stickel's fraternal censorship.
Considering the local stature most dailies enjoy, it is ironic that at most of them, metro reporting is considered grunt work. Ben Bradlee once noted that he didn't know a metro reporter who wouldn't give his eye teeth for a spot on the national desk. For the upwardly mobile scribe at even a mid-sized daily, Washington is the place to be. And not the Washington where people live but Congress and the White House.
Alternatives, by contrast, are committed to local news. In part out of necessity: "I have no confidence in our ability to do national or international stories," says Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman. "What we're good at is writing about the institutions that drive this city." Washington City Paper's editor Jack Shafer calls it the same way: "We're swimming in copy about the Federal City, but there's a real Washington in which people live. And we try to write about that. The Washington Post only rarely writes about this city as a city somebody lives in. On their Metro page, they rarely tell you what all the facts they've accumulated mean."
The suburban-metro-national-international pecking order of most dailies is on-the-job credentialism. Want to do investigative reporting? First you have to spend a couple of years covering suburban PTA meetings. Eyeing international? All roads pass through city hall. Daily reporters cover beats as a way of getting their tickets punched. At the alternative papers there are no such bureaucratic hurdles; for them, the only credential a reporter needs is curiosity.
Ironically, the best case against credentialism in journalism is made by the dailies themselves because they continually snap up reporters from the weeklies. Molly Ivins went from the Texas Observer to The New York Times and is now a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald. Former Boston Phoenix film critics Janet Maslin, David Denby, and Stephen Schiff have gone on, respectively, to The New York Times, New York magazine, and Vanity Fair. Other former Phoenix reporters are currently employed at the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Phoenix New Times has sent reporters directly to the Dallas Times Herald and The Wall Street Journal. Willamette Week has seen its graduates move on to The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Rolling Stone, and yes, The Washington Monthly. "At papers like ours, an inexperienced writer can generate the kind of clips that you can't at the dailies," says Willamette Week's Mark Zusman. "Ones that show you can think."
Maids and burglars
Alternative editors give reporters more room than their daily counterparts and more confidence, too. There is a sense that no story is too big or too difficult. That none is off limits. Such trust is amply rewarded in pieces like Todd Oppenheimer's in The Independent on inequities in the Durham, North Carolina tax system, for which he won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. Or in Eric Dexheimer's deft explanation in Willamette Week of how the New York leverage buy-out firm of Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts has, through a series of mergers, become the largest employer in the state of Oregon.
The writing styles and viewpoints produced in the alternative editorial atmosphere are also often memorable. In the East Bay (Berkeley) Express, Laura Hagar tells us what it's like to be a maid: "Being a house-cleaner is kind of like being a burglar, except the hours are better, the money is worse, and there's less heavy lifting. Both know the joys of walking alone through a stranger's empty house. Both have felt that blissful cocaine distance, that illusory invulnerability that comes from moving untouched among the possessions of others. It is almost like being a ghost, except ghosts, I am told, are bound to a place out of love or fear. Housecleaners and burglars are bound by money and quirky professional pride."
You could search a long time in your daily paper for the satirical look at political "one-liners" that comes from applying the what-if-you-never-existed principle of It's a Wonderful Life to contemporary politics. But that's what Jamie Malanowski of the Miami New Times gives you. In wondering what would have happened if Clint Eastwood had not survived the plane crash that nearly killed him before he went into acting, Malanowski spins out the following scenario: "In 1971, Frank Sinatra is persuaded to accept a part he'd previously rejected, and going against type, plays the violent Harry Callaghan in Dirty Harry. Audiences cannot distinguish this portrayal from his performances in The First Deadly Sin, The Detective, Contract on Cherry Street, or Tony Rome, and the film flops. There are no sequels, meaning that there is no Sudden Impact, meaning that "Go ahead, make my day" is never uttered. This means that President Reagan is forced to grope for a line with which to threaten Congress, causing confusion when he finally says, "Flashdance...what a feeling!"
In an essay reviewing the first five years of The Independent, editor Katherine Fulton noted that Eudora Welty had said her purpose in writing was "to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight," and went on to admit that "a [newspaper] rarely achieves that level of insight." But Fulton concluded that "it can keep trying. It can be a vital champion--determined, along with you, to keep learning, growing, dreaming."
At their best, alternatives reach out and make the reader feel a part of something--a community of ideas, a group of people who care deeply about where they live and how to make it a better place. Their continued growth and success could goad "big-time" newspapers into being more like that too.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 1989|
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