MEDIA ROUNDUP: Bottom-line focus can't change alternatives' mission

Though most alternative media outlets share the same bottom-line concerns as mainstream titles, David Ward finds their allegiance to aggressive investigation and covering the oft-ignored remains staunch.

Though most alternative media outlets share the same bottom-line concerns as mainstream titles, David Ward finds their allegiance to aggressive investigation and covering the oft-ignored remains staunch.

Though it has gone through its ups and downs, the alternative press remains an interesting and vibrant niche in modern American journalism. The term "alternative press" can be applied to anything from webzines to public access television, all the way to magazines of opinion such as Mother Jones, In These Times, and the Utne Reader. But the majority of alternative media outlets are the free weekly print newspapers that can be found in more than 150 cities nationwide. These range from well-known publications such as The Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and Bay Area Reader, to smaller operations running on tiny editorial staffs. Many of these outlets were born out of the counterculture, and made their mark with a combination of aggressive investigative reporting and coverage of trends in music, art, and lifestyles that were routinely ignored by the mainstream press. Bottom-line concerns Though most stay true to their unique editorial qualities, many alternative weeklies are just as driven by the bottom line as traditional press outlets. "They still have their sharp teeth for hardcore investigative stories, but what has come into the scene is that the owners have built these publications into legitimate businesses," notes Todd Appleman, president of LA-based The Appleman Group. Virtually all of the alternative weeklies are free and distributed in coffee shops, supermarkets, clubs, and free-standing racks scattered around many cities. That means they're almost exclusively dependent on ads, and, as Don Hazen, executive director of the Independent Media Institute and executive editor of AlterNet, says, "The ad slump has impacted alternative weeklies. As such, a lot of them have been hurting." Hazen, the former publisher of Mother Jones, notes that the alternative media is still a multibillion-dollar industry, albeit one now carried in part by "vice" dollars - advertising for cigarettes and back-of-the-book telephone sex lines. And like many metropolitan dailies, many alternative weeklies depend on a monopoly status in their market for their success. "There aren't too many cities with healthy competition in alternative weeklies," he says. "An alternative paper can be very successful if it has a monopoly in a market." What's surprising is just how far some alternatives will go to preserves those monopolies. Antitrust investigators are currently looking into a secret deal whereby the Phoenix, AZ-based New Times chain agreed to close its New Times publication in LA, leaving the nation's second largest media market with one alternative print outlet, the Village Voice Media-owned LA Weekly. In exchange, Voice Media paid New Times more than $1 million and agreed to shut down its Cleveland Free Times, leaving that city with just the New Times' owned Cleveland Scene. Despite their evolution into legitimate businesses, PR people and alternative media representatives say most of the outlets have retained at least part of their counterculture heritage. "The alternatives maintain the spirit of asking the embarrassing and disrupting questions that need to be asked," says Robert Gelphman, principal with San Jose, CA-based Gelphman Associates. "Their very nature is fundamental in keeping mainstream journalism from becoming too conformative." Alternatives' advantages Indeed, alternative outlets can be a crusading journalist's dream job. "The thing I always liked about working for the alternative press is that if you had a story you wanted to run with, they gave you the time and the space," says Rosemary Forrest, a former "alternative" journalist, and now PR coordinator for the University of Georgia/Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. "They'll give you 2,000-3,000 words for a story and, as a result, can give a much more complete account of what is going on in a city. The local daily may reduce local issues to two or three paragraphs in the metro section, while the alternative will have several pages on the same issue." One of the myths about the alternative press is that it ends up being a low-paying training ground for reporters whose ultimate goal is a staff job at a mainstream outlet. Although that does occur, Jim Holman, editor of the San Diego Reader, says, "We pay quite a bit to anybody who ends up on staff, so we haven't seen that many people leave." Like many alternatives, Holman says his publication has a few staff reporters, but relies greatly on freelancers for editorial content. "We get academics and people who are non-journalists contributing for us," he says. "But we also pay freelancers better than many newspapers, up to $3,000 for a cover story." From a PR standpoint, Appleman says his only issue with alternative outlets has little to do with the journalistic quality, but instead deals with high staff turnover. "People tend to move on a little more than at other types of publications, so it's a lot more work to update and check your contact lists," he says. The big question for PR people, of course, is whether or not the alternative media is worth pitching. It depends on the client. Holman notes his staff and the many freelancers who contribute to his publication do get a lot of PR pitches from consumer products, but says, "I often tell PR people you probably want to stay out of The Reader. We don't seek negative news, but we do look for great irony, and I don't think a lot of PR customers want to be looked at ironically." Many PR execs acknowledge that there can be risks to reaching out to these outlets, adding that many of their clients are fairly ambivalent about alternative coverage. "Alternative media is great if you're communicating something - or about something - truly alternative," says Gelphman. "But you can't appeal to both the mainstream press and alternative media on behalf of a group and hope to capture anything resembling a succinct and productive positioning and messaging campaign." Reaching a core audience For the right client or service, however, the alternative media can be ideal in delivering a young, progressive-thinking demographic. "Alternatives won't do a story on the new lineup of Nissan cars, but if you have a new mp3 player, they may cover that." says Appleman, who is currently representing a client launching the world's first encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture. "My clients consider the alternative press a legitimate channel to reach a core audience, and that's young people with money who gravitate to those publications." While some alternative publications use services such as Alternet to mix in national and international coverage into their editorial, the main focus of many alternative outlets is local coverage. Bob Johnson, communications director for New York's St. Bartholomew's Church, says one benefit of that is alternative publications can be very good for coverage of community events that slip under the radar of the local metropolitan daily, such as concerts and lectures. But Johnson cautions that just because they're alternative, doesn't mean they don't have traditional journalistic instincts. "You still need a good newsworthy story," he says. ------- Where to go Weekly Newspapers The Village Voice, New York Press, Bay Area Reader, LA Weekly, San Diego Reader, Cleveland Scene, Boston Phoenix, Metro Silicon Valley, East Bay Express, Detroit Metro Times, Baltimore City Paper, The Stranger (Seattle, WA), Weekly Planet (Tampa, FL), Spectator (Raleigh, NC) Magazines The Nation, Utne Reader, Mother Jones, In These Times, The Progressive, Conscious Choice, E Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Church & State, The Hightower, Lowdown, Grist Magazine, Freezerbox TV & Radio Public-access TV in major markets, Pacifica Radio Internet workingforchange.com, Salon.com, tbwt.com (The Black World Today), The Media Channel, TomPaine.com, Alternet.org, Planetout.com, CommonCause.org

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