Is success spoiling the alternative press?

THEY came to celebrate their success. And to wonder if they'd failed the promise of their radical youth. In scenes straight out of ``The Big Chill,'' editors and publishers of the nation's alternative newspapers gathered here on Sunday, hefting bales of newspapers from San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Dallas, the hinterlands.

The headlines on their papers spoke of contra connections to local communities, a Warhol film festival, gay pride.

But the participants from 45 newspapers, representing a combined circulation of 2.6 million, talked more about markets than messages; and only the occasional speaker pointed out that newspapers that once fought guerrilla skirmishes along the fringes of mainstream journalism now move to a less militant drum.

While they are acknowledged alternative voices in their regions, editors and publishers here heard guests and some of their brethren criticize alternative newspapers for abandoning the social issues that once filled their editorial pages. They also listened to worries that they had become more and more like the establishment papers they are supposed to goad: fat and happy.

Indeed, the still-radical L.A. Weekly regularly weighs in at 160 pages, much of it advertising. The Boston Phoenix has become a political and economic force in its city. The Maine Times, which hosted this year's conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, was sold for a million dollars in 1985. Yearly ad revenues for association members range from $300,000 to $15 million.

The importance of these newspapers in the media scene, however, has less to do with profits than the alternative voice they offer in cities that have increasingly become one-paper towns. While they may not be the direct descendants of the underground press founded by political radicals in the '60s, they adopted the mantle of those failed polemical sheets; and it is in that role that they have been criticized for softness and over-commercialization.

``Get back your old edge''; exhorted former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship, an invited speaker, ``show that old courage and independence you used to strut.''

The old courage and independence are still there, many of the conference participants contend; but the world has changed in the 32 years since the Village Voice first cast the mold for a fiercely iconoclastic, anti-establishment newspaper.

For one thing, the social questioning that boiled away in America's universities during the '60s and early '70s fell to a simmer a decade or more ago. ``This is not the most revolutionary, curiosity-driven 18-to-24-year-old generation in the history of the planet,'' complains Jay Levin, editor of the L.A. Weekly.

As they boarded ferries for an island lobster bake, editors and writers both celebrated and worried about the fact that their hippie readers had become yuppie consumers.

On a fog-draped lawn, children ran between designer-jeaned legs as trays of lobster were passed around. A mother breast-fed her baby while chatting about rock criticism. The only sign of political activism was a lone ``Impeach Reagan'' button.

``If you want to know how I spent my time last year,'' observed the executive editor of one alternative newspaper, ``a big chunk of it was spent on our restaurant column.'' He added that pressure from restaurant advertisers had kept him shuttling back and forth between his business manager and the columnist - to save ad linage.

``These are people who set up small businesses, usually undercapitalized,'' explains Alan Kay, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. ``People who have all their ego-conceptual self-image in journalism and all their personal resources, including a second mortgage, tied up in a struggling 16-page newspaper.''

Mr. Kay's own paper percolates along nicely at far more than 16 pages. It generally runs in two sections; and, according to most observers, gives the two daily newspapers in town a run for their money in both advertising and journalistic drive.

Participants at the conference point to the Guardian, the L.A. Weekly, and the Phoenix New Times as examples of real alternative journalism, cooking up stories on local corruption, environmental issues, and the power of the media itself. But even they are criticized - often by themselves - for abandoning the mission once associated with the underground press.

``What distinguishes the alternative press from the old underground press is that they don't regularly represent the disenfranchised: people of color, disaffected youth, the gay population,'' complains Kit Rachlis, executive editor of the Village Voice and a former editor-writer on the Boston Phoenix. ``Too many alternative weeklies want to be respectable. .. Then they become something else, just weeklies.''

Has the alternative press abandoned its mission as a voice for the disenfranchised?

``Yeah, I think he's right,'' answers Kay.

``Absolutely, the commitment to the disenfranchised has been diluted,'' adds Mr. Levin. ``We went from being provocative, on the edge ... to just monitoring humanistic values.''

But Levin and others argue that, diluted or not, the alternative press represents the only hope for an opposing viewpoint in an increasingly monolithic local media scene.

``We do it better than anyone else,'' Levin maintains. ``To the degree it's being done, we do it.''

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