Underground Papers; come up on top
San Francisco — You'll find no green eyeshades on these newspaper editors. No talk of Afghanistan or hostages in Iran. Nothing so conventional at this convention. At the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, a cable car stop from Union Square, editors and publishers from San Diego to Syracuse, Baltimore, Md., to Brentwood, Tenn., were gathering for the third annual meeting of the National Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (NAAN).
Between the crystal chandeliers and the worn green carpet, there were as many work shirts as neckties, more beards than gray hair. They wore name tags emblazoned with titles of their publications: The Real Paper, Mendocino Grapevine, Daily Planet, The City Paper, Vermont Vanguard Press, Steppin' Out.
This is a special breed of journalist. They scorn the inverted pyramid ("a writing style as ancient as the Sphinx") and some wouldn't run a breaking national news story if it tapped them on the shoulder during a story conference ("Our paper doesn't have story conferences"). There are NAAN papers with circulations of over 100,000, but most of them have no subscribers, no newstand sales, no little army of schoolboys to pitch their publication in the bushes. Most of these tabloids are given away at supermarkets and downtown news racks -- they're absolutely free.
And they call themselves newspapers?
The 45-member papers of NAAN, whose combined readership tops 2 million, are the vanguard of an alternative press movement that may represent the most vibrant and varied sector of American journalism today. Reminiscent of the boom 15 years ago among suburban weeklies, these alternative weeklies have distanced themselves from the zonked-out underground press of the '60s. They are the byproduct of America's "new localism," coupled with a technological revolution in printing that has made it possible for anyone with a pair of scissors, a pot of rubber cement, and a credit card to publish a good-looking tabloid.
For years, surveys by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau have shown that American readers want more local news than they get from either the 6:00 p.m. TV news or metropolitan dailies, which fill their news space with relatively cheap national and international wire copy. Consequently, these provocative, generally well-written, local weeklies are sprouting like mushrooms in a spring rain and claim to offer a David-like alternative to the Goliath press. In the two years since NAAN was founded in Seattle, the association has added 15 new weeklies to its ranks. Every year another 10-15 apply for membership.
A trademark of the alternative press has been its spectrum of publications, which are as distinct as the communities they cover. The Boston Phoenix, which occasionally outweighs The New York Times, has a classified section fatter than the entire Suttertown News (Sacramento, Calif.), also at the convention. The publisher of one weekly drives a Rolls-Royce while another publisher's payroll checks still bounce. The Chicago Reader has run a 19,000-word article on beekeeping; the New Haven Advocate broke a story on gunrunning from New England to South Africa. The Beach People's Easy Reader (Hermosa Beach, California) appeals to laid-back surfers while the Baton Rouge Enterprise, according to its editor, is written for an audience that is "90 percent conservative to very conservative and will vote for Reagan this fall."
A handful of these papers is rooted in radical causes of the '60s, but are now more likely to urge people to attend a city council meeting than to blow up the nearest electrical transmission lines.
"We're not hippies in tweeds. We're not the underground press, and people are finally beginning to get the message," says NAAN president Steve McNamara, who is the editor and publisher of the Pacific Sun in Mill Valley, Calif. If nothing else, NAAN has won the acceptance of the hip establishment.California governor and presidential aspirant Jerry Brown was the keynote speaker at this year's convention.
Says McNamara: "People are now looking to neighborhood and regional solutions rather than answers coming from Washington. That's where these papers will make a difference." McNamara is a trim man with a friendly, Ivy League air about him. In 1966, the former Sunday editor of the San Francisco Examiner took out a second mortgage on his house and bought the faltering Pacific Sun, which then had a circulation of 1,800 readers. The Sun, oldest of the NAAN papers, now has a circulation of 30,000.
Bruce Brugmann, another fugitive from the daily press, left a reporting job on The Milwaukee Journal and in 1966 started The San Francisco Bay Guardian. "I guess you could say a lot of us wanted to run our own popcorn stand," he says.
McNamara and Brugmann were pioneers in the alternative press movement, but the real Lewis and Clark team was the Village Voice, published in New York since 1955. The Voice and Rolling Stone have developed national readerships and moved into a class of their own.
Most of the underground papers of the '60s died. Why? Because of a newspaper phenomenon NAAN editors call the "rat-through-the-python."
The undergrounds, from the LA Free Press to the Old Mole, were targeted at ' 60s college students who were part of the postwar baby boom, a "demographic lump" that moved through time like a rat through the body of a python. But the generation whose battle cry was "Never trust anyone over 30" soon passed that mark and, instead of going to rock concerts and marching on Washington, the former flower children were carrying 30-year mortgages, buying furniture, and hanging plants.
Though its readers had graduated into the "Me Decade," the underground press continued to feed them a steady diet of radical polemics, rock reviews, and kinky classifieds. Call it '60s nostalgia, ideological purity, whatever. The dollars and sense of the matter was that the old underground formula ceased to sell newspapers.
"The overriding issue of the underground press was the Vietnam war, along with sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll," says McNamara. "But the war is over, at least that war is over, and you'd be hard pressed to find in our 45 papers any reportage to speak of on any of those four subjects."
Says Boston Phoenix publisher and president Steve M. Mindich, "In the '60s we were extremely iconoclastic, irreverent. We shouted from the rooftops. It's a lot tougher now because we don't have the immediate causes to write about. We have to work harder to find out what's important to people."
Chuck Fager is a Washington-based free-lance writer with a gravelly voice and black beard with a mind of its own. In 1970 he was writing about the Vietnam war for the Phoenix: "I was getting $20 for front-page stories, but I didn't care. It was advocacy journalism, and I wanted my stuff to have the effect of stopping the war. Out of a sense of professional pride I've shifted to writing balanced stories, so when someone reads one of them they can't tell my bias."
Most of the alternative weeklies devote the lion's share of their publications to money-making life style sections, consumer guides, film and restaurant reviews, entertainment listings, and special advertising supplements for stereos, ski equipment, and other accouterments of what they call the "upper half of the 18-35 market."
And while a paper like the Phoenix takes a certain sort of muckraking pride in scooping the Boston Globe on a statewide bribery and kickback scandal that sent two Massachusetts state senators to prison, a weekly like the Chicago Reader couldn't care less what the Sun-Times is up to.
"We provide our readers with a real journalistic alternative," says Chicago Reader editor Bob Roth, who helped start the weekly in 1971. "We make no assignments, have no deadlines, and make no promises to run any stories. We want writers to have the time and freedom to find stories they care about and can write with a point of view."
Such journalistic iconoclasm may make old-school editors squirm, but numbers talk. Every week, 100,000 Chicagoans pick up the Reader's elegant prose. Three years ago, the weekly passed the $1 million mark in annual advertising revenue.
Instead of jacking up the newsstand price or worrying about soaring postal rates, the editors of the Chicago Reader, like those of most of the strongest NAAN papers, distribute their weekly free at outlets throughout their metropolitan areas. The concept, called "free, controlled circulation," has been revolutionizing the newspaper business, and is based on the concept of boosting ad revenue by instantly increasing circulation.
"The weeklies are available, on the radio and television model, to people who want it," says McNamara. "Just as you watch Walter Cronkite without paying a surcharge, you can pick up a paper without paying a surcharge. The advertisers are paying the freight." For years, McNamara's Pacific Sun limped along with a 12,000 circulation, "making money in dribs and drabs." Eighteen months ago he switched to free, controlled circulation at 200 Marin County outlets. Now the paper has 30,000 readers and turns a handsome profit.
Free circulation is the last in a one-two-three punch that has transformed newspapers in the last 20 years.The first two were offset printing and photocomposition -- perhaps the most important technological changes in printing in the last century. The ease, speed, and relatively low cost of producing a small offset publication means that newspapers don't need their own printing press, but can share a central plant. The Pacific Sun, the only NAAN paper which owns its own press, prints some 50 other publications, from the Sierra Club's newsletter to the Ross Valley Reporter.
On average, it takes five years for a new, paid-circulation newspaper to break even. A free paper can do it in two to three years. "I'm told," says McNamara, "that when the Advocate started their fifth paper in Fairfield, Conn., it was in the black from the first day. That's got to be one of the incredible stories in the history of American journalism."
The founders of the Times/Advocate papers -- a chain of alternative weeklies serving Connecticut and western Mas sachusetts -- are cited as the Horatio algers or William Randolph Hearsts of the alternative press. In 1973, two young copy editors from the Hartford Courant, Geoffrey Robinson and Ed Mantys, decided at 3 a.m. in a pizza parlor to pool $3,000 and start a paper in Amherst, Mass. It was a biweekly called the Valley Advocate and it weighed two ounces.
"We missed a night's sleep every week trying to put out the paper," says Christine Austin, Robinson's wife, who with Manty's wife, Linda, is the co-editor of a chain of five weeklies which have a combined staff of 165 and a circulation of 360,000.
"At the time we started in Amherst," recalls Robinson, "five or six newspapers had already folded because of political struggles on the editorial boards. We decided we were a business first and would table ideological fighting for the moment."
If the alternative weeklies have learned any lesson from the short-lived underground press, it is that a noble cause, slick graphics, and entertainment listings are not sufficient for survival. No matter how good your prose or editorial message, if you can't sell ads, you won't be around for the next issue.
This year's NAAN convention reflected that pragmatism. Three-fourths of the meetings were devoted to nuts-and-bolts business sessions on labor problems, promotion schemes, computer rental, special ad supplements.
"At the dailies, ads just roll in. They become order takers. We have to hustle to sell ads," says Jean Dibble, associate publisher of the Bay Guardian.
"For three days, less-experienced publishers in NAAN stopped veterans like Dibble and huddled in the corridors of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel picking up tips on direct-mailings, fund raising, libel insurance. "I came to learn the technical stuff, like how much I should be spending on payroll and how to sell classifieds," said Ray Hartman, publisher of the two-year-old Riverfront Times, servicing 22,000 readers in downtown St. Louis. His was one of 15 papers applying for NAAN membership.
Hartman, a wiry, bearded fellow who worked as a speech writer for former Missouri governor Christopher S. ("Kit") Bond looked slightly overwhelmed as he sat surrounded by stacks of NAAN papers in a 16th-story reception room. "I came here thinking I was a hip alternative newspaper publisher, but the message I'm taking back to my flock is 'Hey, I've been to the mountain and I've seen we can do a lot better job than we're doing.'"
Despite all the talk of differences, McNamara claims there are certain common denominators in the alternative press that run from Ray Hartman's fledgling Riverfront Times to the Times/Advocate "empire."
"First, they were started by people who had something to say, and by and large, are still owned by their founders," he says. "That is in contradistinction to the ownership profile of the daily press, where most papers are seen as investments like a chain of fast-food restaurants or auto parts stores.
"Second, alternative weeklies are more personally written and have better graphics.
"Third, they generally take a political or cultural position to the left of the establishment press. They're not an adjunct of the Democratic party, but they are interested in improving the quality of human life rather than preserving corporate America.
"Finally, most of these editors don't have experience on daily newspapers, but they arem entrepreneurs. They firmly believe that one person with his roommate or his wife and three friends can get together and make a difference."
This year's convention was marred by traditional squabbling over "alternativeness," and other arcane issues of nomenclature.
The first convention two years ago, in Seattle, was described as a gathering of "metropolitan weeklies" which didn't, however, characterize the state-wide Maine Times and suburban Pacific Sun. When the organization tried on for size the name "National Association of Newsweeklies," Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker commented it sounded more like "the managing editor of Time meeting the managing editor of Newsweek for lunch to talk about why their covers so often turn out to have the same person on them."
Last year in Boston, the word "alternative" was inserted but some members argued the word's connotation didn't distance them enough from the underground. This year several editors described the organization as an umbrella for weeklies that were the second and sometimes third papers in town. No one had the courage or breath to suggest the title "National Umbrella of Second, and Sometimes Third Newspapers in Town."
Chicago Reader Editor Bob Roth continually raised the question: Are the alternatives alternative enough? He thinks not. Nor, apparently, does maverick Washington journalist I. F. Stone, who chastised last year's NAAN convention: "I understand you have qualms about being called alternative, and after looking at your papers, I must say you've got the most bland kind of alternative."
Like their readers, most of the NAAN editors and publishers meeting in San Francisco are white, college-educated, and in their 20s and 30s. If there were blacks, Chicanos or Asians in attendance, they were not apparent. And relatively few women were on the panel discussions. When Dick Clever, managing editor of the Willamette Week of Portland, Ore., pointed this out and asked whether any of the papers were actively recruiting minorities, the room fell silent. Clever's concern was clearly not shared by most. "I'm not being nostalgic about the '60s," he said. "But it's obvious that these papers are more concerned with survival than their cause. They're thinking about the long term and I suppose someone has to change the diapers of the baby."
Says McNamara, "Most of us started with left-ish politics but find ourselves depending on the resources of rich, white, middle-class readers because advertisers know that's who they sell their goods to. We're charged with being elitist and that's partially true because we appeal to people who read."
What do the '80s hold for the alternative press? Will the dailies eventually steal the thunder of the new weeklies? Perhaps. Over the last several years the big metropolitan dailies have been incorporating many of the hallmarks of alternative press: entertainment calendars, movie listings, pop record reviews, consumer guides.
For example, several years ago the now-defunct Chicago Daily News began publishing a weekly supplement called Side Tracks, "Chicago's alternative weekly within the establishment daily." It was an unabashed attempt to win over some of the 90,000 readers who were picking up the Chicago Reader. That effort eventually failed.
This gives NAAN editors like McNamara confidence that the alternative press will continue to freshen its bag of tricks and "stay at least three years ahead of the dailies." He predicts a period of "peaceful coexistence between the guppies and the whales."
One nagging concern, however, is that the once-innovative alternative weeklies may become big, entrenched, complacent, and run into the old "rat-through-the-python" syndrome that snuffed out the underground press in the '60s. As one editor cautioned: "Now we've got readers out there who think even the Grateful Dead is the establishment. If that's the trend, the world of journalism is soon going to need an alternative to the alternatives."