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McPaper Co. wants smallfries with that. (Alt-Weeklies).

Can the king of corporate go alternative?

Berl Schwartz, who spent more than 30 years working for other people as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and magazine publisher, saw a chance last year to be his own boss while filling a void in the Lansing, Michigan, media market. Schwartz launched City Pulse, an alternative weekly newspaper. "I guess I've always had a passion for giving the establishment a hard time," says Schwartz, the editor, publisher and sole owner.

But not long after founding City Pulse, Schwartz discovered that the establishment might be giving him a hard time right back. The nation's largest newspaper company, the $6.3 billion media conglomerate Gannett Co., was also launching an alternative-style free weekly in Lansing through its daily there, the Lansing State Journal. That's the very title to which City Pulse was supposed to be the alternative.

Gannett's officials, including Mimi Feller, senior vice president of public affairs and government relations, declined to comment to AJR on the firm's alt-weekly intentions. But they confirmed in an article published this summer on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Web site that Gannett weeklies are in the works in Lansing and Boise, Idaho. Though the company said there weren't plans for more, alternative weekly publishers see Gannett's move as an experiment that could be expanded to other cities, and they fret that daily-owned weeklies will undercut them on advertising by offering combination daily-weekly ad packages.

In 2000, Gannett formed a task force to study ways to reach younger, primarily 25-to 34-year-old readers who are increasingly ignoring its 94 daily newspapers, as well as everyone else's. The task force suggested that a paper modeled after alternative weeklies might be one way to do that.

In contrast to the typically sober, newspaper-of-record tone of dailies, alternative newspapers often boast an irreverent attitude, lots of arts and entertainment coverage, and graphically frank sex advice columns. They don't flinch at using four-letter words and routinely pillory the local daily media. That's why many in the alternative weekly business scoff at the idea of something that looks like an alternative weekly coming from Gannett, a company often lambasted for its cookie-cutter approach to publishing.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the 121-member Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, says that attempts by dailies to capture younger readers with quasi-alternatives have a mixed record. "None of them have been very successful from a journalism standpoint. They tend to shy away from controversy," Karpel says. "They are marketing driven. AAN papers tend to be started by people who come at it from a journalistic standpoint."

In mid-September, Schwartz got his hands on a prototype of the Gannett tabloid, dubbed Noise, which featured a cover story about the local bar scene. "It's very glitzy looking," he says. "To a certain extent it looks like a hip, alternative newspaper, but it has nothing smacking of news." But Schwartz's real concern is the ad prices: He says the rate card for the new paper offers a month of quarterpage ads at roughly a third less than the City Pulse rate--and Gannett is offering full color instead of City Pulse's black and white. "The ad rates are just shockingly low, which is what I've been afraid they would do," Schwartz says. "I'm not making a profit yet at the rates I'm charging. How to compete against that, I don't know."

Schwartz went on the offensive in an August editorial, charging that Gannett is targeting Lansing because his own paper is still in its infancy: "Gannett wants to feed on the guppies before it heads to the deeper waters of Nashville, Des Moines and Louisville," he wrote.

In September, Schwartz threw a fundraising bash to raise awareness of his paper and to collect money for a marketing campaign against Gannett. About 300 people attended, but the cash generated won't provide much in the way of a campaign.

Lansing State Journal Executive Editor Michael K. Hirten downplays the suggestion that Gannett's new title will compete directly with City Pulse. "It's not alternative in the sense of the Village Voice or New Times or that kind of paper. Ours is designed differently," he says. "It's alternative in that it's not conventional newspapering."

Hirten says that while modern alternatives appeal to broad audiences, Gannett's product will target 25-to 34-year-old readers. He hopes to launch the new weekly by late October and projects an initial circulation of 20,000 copies. Schwartz's City Pulse has a circulation of 15,000. Hirten also says that the new title will be "essentially independent" editorially from the 72,000-circulation State Journal.

Nearly 2,000 miles due west of Lansing, Bingo Barnes, copublisher of the 26,000-circulation Boise Weekly, is girding for the expected launch of Gannett's free weekly under the aegis of the company's Idaho Statesman. Barnes and his wife, Sally, bought the 10-year-old Boise Weekly in August 2001. As of late summer, Barnes didn't know much about Gannett's strategy. "It seems like there's a gag order to some degree," he laments. "We can't find anybody over there who will talk to us about it." Statesman Publisher Margaret Buchanan declined to comment to AJR.

Companies that own dailies are increasingly looking to expand into nondaily publications. Craig McMullin, executive director of the Idaho Springs, Colorado-based Association of Free Community Papers, says 80 percent of AFCP's more than 3,000 member papers are owned by companies with daily papers. The Tribune Co. owns stand-alone alt-weeklies in Florida and New England. Cox Communications owns 25 percent of the Creative Loafing chain of alternatives in the Southeast. And both Las Vegas dailies are in the alt-weekly business. (see Free Press, May 2001.)

The war of two weeklies in south Florida could offer a harbinger of battles to come as more daily-oriented companies jump into the alternative game. City Link, founded by Tribune in 1991 (see Free Press, June 1993), competes with New Times Broward-Palm Beach, launched in 1997 by the Phoenix-based New Times, the nation's largest chain of alternatives. City Link, published by South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, puts out 55,000 copies and averages 160 pages a week; New Times publishes 75,000 copies, averaging 104 to 112 pages.

City Link Publisher Michael Farver says that his paper has succeeded where other daily-owned "alternatives" have failed because it boasts editorial independence from the daily. "We are pretty much in the mold of the traditional alternative weekly," Farver says. "We have a separate editorial voice." The paper does not, however, feature a media column critical of the daily.

Crosstown rival Chuck Strouse, editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where criticizing the local media is a mainstay, doesn't think much of City Link's independence. "I'm not belittling what they do," he says, "but they're in a kind of weird situation: They're kind of pretending to be an alternative and they're not one." He adds, "The question is: Can you be an alternative if you're owned by the big daily paper in town?"

Back in Michigan, Schwartz warily awaits the arrival of Gannett's weekly. "I don't think they're going to beat us in any way in content, but they have the means to make all kinds of advertising deals," he says. "What Gannett's doing changes the whole ballgame. All bets are off."

Gilyard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and frequent AJR contributor. He is a former staff writer for two Minnesota alternative weeklies, the Twin Cities Reader and City Pages.
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Title Annotation:Gannett Company's competition with alternative journalism
Author:Gilyard, Burl
Publication:American Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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