Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Who's Copying Whom?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Who's Copying Whom?

Article excerpt

Ask Dan Pulcrano if alternative newspapers are becoming more like the mainstream press, and he regards you tolerantly and replies: "No. It's the exact opposite. Mainstream papers are becoming more like us."

By "us" he means the San Jose-based Metro Newspapers, of which he is president/executive editor, and the other members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which recently held a regional meeting in San Francisco.

Pulcrano, was backed up by AAN executive director Richard Karpel, who said: "It's fairly obvious the mainstream papers are getting closer to us. Ten years ago, the dailies did not have those weekend arts and entertainment sections and now almost every paper has one. They are generally trying to attract young readers and are looking at the success of the alternatives."

Some dailies have even copied the alternatives' freer writing style, he contended. Karpel, who is based in Washington, pointed to the Washington Post, whose Style section has become more irreverent as it tries to be hip. But they haven't gotten it right yet."

Jim Nintzel, editor of the Tucson Weekly, concurred, saying, "The dailies are borrowing our form but are not succeeding in producing the same kind of content. They almost seem like faux alternative newspapers." The trio's observations reflected the upbeat mood of the conference. The day has long passed when publishers and staffers of alternative newspapers felt the need to apologize for their brand of journalism. Many of AAN's 109 U.S. and Canadian member papers sport impressive profit margins along with a devoted core of readers. The organization is so well-established that it routinely denies membership to papers that do not meet its standards. Further evidence that the alternatives have arrived lies in the chain ownership of some of them and the fact that several are audited.

"They feel that ABC membership gives them credibility," said Marsha L. Enrici of the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

And, from time to time, metro dailies pluck staffers from the alternatives, just as some daily reporters have decided they would be happier going the other way.

"We have a specific product that you can't find in daily papers," said Jeanah Morris, classified manager of Boise Weekly. "There are people who read us who don't read a daily."

Yet, the conference program reflected two days of sessions that would ring familiar to any mainstream publisher, advertising manager, or editor: "Question-based selling," "Design and Production," "Great Customer Service," "Creating Revenue and Advanced Sales Techniques," "Freedom of Information and Libel/Privacy," "Electronic Publishing," and "Breathing Life into Corpses of Stories," to name some.

The only difference, perhaps, is that the level of the discussions is more basic than the same topics covered at mainstream newspaper conferences, given that alternative folks are generally younger, less experienced and paid less than their daily counterparts.

Most of these themes facing alternative papers were developed by the mainline press before the birth of the alternatives. Who was first to do what isn't too important to Steve McNamara, editor and publisher of the Pacific Sun in Marin County, Calif., one of the nation's first alternative tabloids, emerging in 1963.

"There is no alternative way of approaching the business side," said McNamara, who once wrote for the San Francisco Examiner: "On the business end, we have moved in the direction of mainstream papers. But in terms of editorial content, the dailies have become kind of anomalous. Their penetration rate is half of what it was 50 years ago so you've got to wonder at the astonishing profit margins they're able to sustain. And it looks as if they're able to maintain these levels from a limited number of outlets. In the equivalent period, the alternatives' circulation has more than doubled. …

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