Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chain Reaction Hits 'Alternative' World

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chain Reaction Hits 'Alternative' World

Article excerpt

Have alternative newspapers -- born in the angry Vietnam War era, often with a mission to stick it to The Man -- now themselves become The Man? Alternatives once had a lot of fun mocking their local chain-owned dailies, and a favorite insult was to note that it was the property of some out-of-town media conglomerate. There are still plenty of independently owned alt-papers, but their consolidation has reached the point that some publishers diss the biggest chain, Village Voice Media (VVM) and its 16 papers with a stinging simile.

"I think they are the Gannett of our industry," says Creative Loafing's Ben Eason. He quickly adds, though: "It's good and it's bad. There have always been different styles of alternative newspapers." Eason notes that VVM has improved the quality of its new papers, but adds that "a certain inevitably" is creeping into what has always been a "scrappy industry."

Three weeks after talking with E&P, Eason announced on July 24 that his company had acquired the Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper, growing his portfolio from four papers to six.

The 2005 merger of New Times and Village Voice Media has had ripple effects on how the alternative press does both business and journalism. But there are scores of other mini-fiefdoms dotting the landscape too, from the Creative Loafing papers (already in Charlotte, N.C., Sarasota, Fla., Atlanta, and Tampa) to Phoenix Media/ Communications Group (with properties in Boston, Providence, and Portland, Maine).

"I will tell you it's no secret within our business that it's a controversial topic," says AAN Executive Director Karpel. "It is something that divides people."

Inside the alternative press community, there's wariness about consolidation's effect on national advertising, as chain publishers are able to realize the benefits of economies of scale. Then there's the more slippery notion that the alternatives no longer have the piss and vinegar they once had, and are becoming bland and uniform.

Consolidation is a trickier thing for alt-papers than for their mainstream counterparts. Dailies are constantly regrouping as they cluster to cut back office and production costs. But even most consolidated alternatives have their individual printers.

Instead, the consolidation often takes the form of shared content. But this, too, can be controversial -- especially given the prickly tradition of the alternative press.

"If your objective is to be local, which is the only thing I think you can do," Phoenix Media's Mindich says, "you can't just have syndicated film reviews across your entire network. In the end, it's not those things that cost you a lot of money. It's the investigative stuff."

When the topic of consolidation is raised, many critics assert that the papers are becoming less "alternative" and more formulaic. The argument most often leveled against alt-weeklies in general, and VVM in particular, is that the chained papers' content is watered down, lacking opinion -- especially political opinion -- criticism, and, well, spunk. Critics contend that New Times has destroyed what was left of the troubled flagship, the Village Voice (which counted five editors at its helm since the merger in 2005), as well as the LA Weekly and OC Weekly, which fired some well known-columnists.

"The New Times template is not working," declares Bruce B. Brugmann, owner and editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which competes against the VVM-owned SF Weekly. "Here's a paper that makes no [election] endorsement, has no editorials, that takes a very cynical, libertarian point of view on the community. You get the feeling that the SF Weekly doesn't really like San Francisco."

But Brugmann says the chaining of alt- papers allows space for the emergence of a classic, left-leaning one. "Ultimately all of them will get competition, just as they've got the Guardian in San Francisco, The Stranger in Seattle, and Free Times in Cleveland," he says. …

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