Age of the Mega-Alternatives

Two ambitious chains are glbbling up independent weekly newspapers. Can in-your-face journalism survive?

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After years of trumpeting their independence from the bottom-line mentality that characterizes mainstream media, the alternative weeklies are finding themselves caught up in a sudden frenzy of mergers and acquisitions that raise important questions about their role in the culture.

In late April, Seattle Weekly, one of the oldest alternative weeklies—it has been publishing since 1975—was sold for a reported $9 million to Stern Publishing, owner of New York’s Village Voice. The deal also included Eastsideweek, a six-year-old spin-off of the Weekly that circulates in the booming region around Microsoft headquarters in suburban Seattle.

In March, Stern also purchased the Twin Cities Reader, which it promptly merged with City Pages, a competing local weekly it bought a month earlier. Stern shut the Reader down in one day, denying the staff a chance to publish a farewell issue after the paper’s 20-year history in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Stern Publishing, headed by Leonard Stern, whose family made its fortune on Hartz Mountain pet products, has owned The Village Voice since 1991. The Voice was the company’s only alternative weekly until 1994, when it purchased L.A. Weekly and its suburban companion, the Orange County Weekly. Since then it has been expanding at an aggressive pace, snapping up the Seattle and Twin Cities papers and launching a new New York suburban paper, the Long Island Voice, this spring.

Building a newspaper empire was the furthest thing from the minds of novelist Norman Mailer, psychologist Ed Fancher, and Greenwich Village bohemian Dan Wolf when they founded The Village Voice in 1955 as way to promote reform efforts within the local branch of the Democratic Party. Through the years The Voice gained influence in New York, not only for leftist political views but also for promotion of off-Broadway theater, experimental cinema, rock criticism, and the counterculture. During the ‘70s and ‘80s papers popped up in cities across the United States that borrowed heavily from the Voice’s alternative recipe.

There are now 107 papers in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). They range from the lavishly profitable Boston Phoenix to the struggling Missoula Independent. While the papers vary widely in journalistic quality and ideological alignment—some do masterful investigative reporting and political analysis and others are virtually indistinguishable from their mainstream rivals—these papers all share a similar business strategy: appealing to hip youngish readers who rarely look at daily newspapers but whom advertisers want to reach. Music clubs, ethnic restaurants, fashion boutiques, record labels, music stores, bike shops, brewers, auto dealers, movie theaters, video outlets, personal ads, and, in many cases, phone-sex lines provide lucrative advertising revenues. This success has sparked the recent flurry of high-stakes business deals.

“Alternative weeklies are still growing,” explains Ron Williams, who founded and owns alternative papers in Detroit and Orlando. “Dailies have not been doing well financially for a while, and now monthly city magazines are facing problems. The alternative newsweekly is still a going market.” Indeed, according to AAN, overall circulation of alternative weeklies has doubled to 6.3 million in the past six years.

Until recently the vast majority of weeklies were locally owned, usually by people with close links to activists or the arts community. But that picture began to change in the late ‘80s, as existing papers moved into Sun Belt cities where alternative weeklies were a newer phenomenon. The Phoenix New Times, an Arizona paper that harshly rejects any suggestion of an ideological mission for the alternative press, was particularly aggressive. After buying papers in Denver, Houston, and Dallas, and launching one in Miami, it then moved into even larger markets by purchasing the SF Weekly and mounting a challenge to the venerable San Francisco Bay Guardian, which has been publishing since 1966. New Times also set its sights on Los Angeles and, after losing out to Stern in a bid to capture L.A. Weekly, bought two other smaller papers and merged them into New Times Los Angeles.

In fact, Stern and New Times seemed to be locked in an expansion duel. “If New Times has been the 400-pound gorilla of the alternative press world,” quips Williams, “then Stern is now the 600-pound gorilla.” When it looked like New Times would buy the Twin Cities Reader and wanted City Pages to sell to them as well, Stern stepped in to buy City Pages. That set the stage forNew Times to bow out of Minneapolis and for Stern to pick up the financially strapped Reader at a fire sale price. New Times also pursued the Seattle Weekly, until Stern weighed in with an offer.

Among the alternative weeklies, there has always been joint ownership (The Chicago Reader owns Washington City Paper); small regional chains (a long-standing one in Connecticut and western Massachusetts and a newer one in Northern California and Nevada); and even some mainstream ownership (Rupert Murdoch owned The Village Voice for a few years). There has never, however, been merging on this scale. And despite alternative editors’ assertions about how different they are from their mainstream competitors, identical business forces seem to be guiding their industry: consolidation and chain ownership.

What impact will these changes have on the quality and independence of the alternative weeklies? The jury is still out. Christine Triano, program director of the Institute for Alternative Journalism, a nonprofit group founded by alternative weeklies to promote independent journalism, predicts that it will affect the character of the papers in subtle ways. “How does nonlocal ownership affect anything?” she asks. “It’s a homogenizing influence. It removes the local imprint.”

Mark Zusman, longtime editor of the Portland, Oregon, Willamette Week, a fine example of the independent local brand of alternative journalism, disagrees: “L.A. Weekly is probably one of the best in the country. It’s owned by a chain that put a lot of money into it and let it be a Los Angeles paper—not just a Village Voice West. And I think the Seattle Weekly will also benefit from being owned by Stern.”

So far, Stern has practiced a hands-off approach to its new papers, neither setting editorial policy nor making major staff and management changes.New Times, on the other hand, frequently brings in new people to run a new paper and institute its trademark editorial formula: witty feature writing, and detailed investigative reporting. The New Times papers also share a similar design. The owners also make it clear that they do not endorse candidates or promote any kind of progressive agenda. But that doesn’t mean the papers are necessarily political namby-pambies. Westword, a New Times paper in Denver, for example, broke headline-grabbing news of misdeeds at the Rocky Flats nuclear arsenal, and embarrassed Denver’s two dailies in the process.

There are also signs of a powerful national alternative network in the making. This spring 65 alternative weeklies agreed to coordinate their coverage of the slashing of welfare benefits. With help from the Institute for Alternative Journalism and AAN, all of them published stories the first week of May about the effects of new federal welfare regulations in their communities. This is the first time the weeklies, who reach and estimated 15 million readers, have tried to exert national influence on a political issue. Some papers get an infusion of cash when they’re purchased—allowing them to do more thorough reporting and boost scandalously low wages—but this shift in the world of alternative weeklies is not fueled by the altruistic pursuit of journalistic quality. It is powered primarily by the pursuit of profit, and as Williams points out, there is the danger that chains will leverage themselves to the hilt to buy new papers and then cut costs to stay afloat. In fact, according to the mainstream Arizona Republic, New Times has overextended itself financially with all its acquisitions.

These potential risks have yet to slow the buying frenzy. Zusman, of Portland’s Willamette Week, says it’s not inconceivable that mainstream chains may be drawn to some of the more profitable weeklies—especially now that many of the ‘60s generation publishers who own these papers are beginning to think of their own 60s and retirement.

Some mainstream papers have already tried to spawn their own arts and entertainment weeklies, dubbed “McAlternatives,” to compete with the alternative papers. By and large, they have posed little threat, but a new competitor looms in the minds of some alternative publishers: the Internet. Microsoft will soon launch Sidewalk—an online guide to arts and entertainment already up and running in Seattle—in about a dozen cities coast to coast. And Yahoo and America Online also have launched local entertainment websites.

“This is a lot of ballyhoo about nothing,” says Richard Karpel, executive director of AAN, of the Sidewalk project. “I don’t think America is crying out for an online source of arts and entertainment information. It’s not like it’s a burden to pick up a paper and flip through it. Maybe 20 years from now this will be a problem for weeklies, but not now.” He admits, though, that alternative weeklies’ revenues from personal ads have slowed in the past two years, possibly as a result of competition from singles sites on the World Wide Web. Larry Smith, a consultant with San Jose Metro's online, says that while Sidewalk doesn’t pose an immediate threat to alternative weeklies, it may hurt their efforts to develop online. In fact, some have already signed up with Microsoft to provide content for Sidewalk.

Karpel and Williams both point to two other sources that might provide competition—or opportunities for expansion: suburban alternative papers and Generation X papers aimed at connecting with the cultural sensibilities and tastes of younger readers. In both cases, just as with Sidewalk, Seattle has been the proving ground with the suburbanEastsideweek and The Stranger with its twentysomething attitude. Alternative press publishers are certain to be watching the results.

Taken all together, these events point to the most significant changes in alternative weeklies for a generation. These papers survived the political and cultural lethargy of the 1970s with their alternative spirit intact. They’ve thrived as a voice for progressive thinking during the right-wing led by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Now, the question is whether they can keep their integrity and independence in the face of another challenge: profitability, and the business machinations that accompany it.