How Times and Alternatives Have Changed

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Schneiderman was editor in chief and publisher of the Village Voice in 1986 when the iconoclastic weekly ran a front-page story introducing performance artist Karen Finley and her shockingly personal use of yams and sauerkraut. Even some of the paper's free-spirited staffers were uncomfortable with the piece.

That was then.

In late March, as publisher of the Voice and president of its parent company, Stern Publishing Inc., Schneiderman watched with satisfaction as the New York dailies and broadcast news outfits scampered to catch up with the weekly's front-page exclusive: that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan had appointed one of Malcolm X's killers, paroled in 1985, to head the Harlem mosque that had been run by the Muslim activist.

It would surprise former readers long gone from New York to see that the Voice they remember--a woolly chronicle of sexual politics, avant-garde theater, Third World liberation movements and emerging rock bands--has evolved under editor in chief Donald Forst (who previously edited the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner and other big-city dailies) into a paper with greater reportorial seriousness.

Moreover, to imagine that this independent voice is now also the flagship property in a seven-paper chain of alternative newsweeklies, one of several such groups, is to grasp in an instant how dramatically this category of publications has changed, and why the papers are able to draw increasing amounts of national advertising that was long out of reach.

"We're very much interested, indeed we hope to acquire more papers," said Schneiderman, who may get the chance to discuss a purchase or two at the annual convention of the Assn. of Alternative Newsweeklies, which runs today through Saturday at the Capital Hilton in Washington.

Stern Publishing, a media sideline of Hartz Mountain Industries mogul Leonard N. Stern, last year launched the Long Island Voice and acquired weeklies in Minneapolis, Seattle and Cleveland. Its plan to buy the Santa Barbara Independent fell through during contract negotiations in March--perhaps to be revived at a later time, both sides said--though Stern is exploring the possibility of starting other Southern California weeklies, in Long Beach and Ventura County, to join with its LA Weekly and 3-year-old OC Weekly in Orange County.

Recently, Schneiderman shot down a seismic rumor that Stern Publishing was about to buy Metro Newspapers' chain of 10 weeklies in Northern California, including its three alternatives, Silicon Valley's Metro, Metro Santa Cruz and the Sonoma County Independent.

When the next alternative paper really is offered for sale--and operators say that several longtime publishers may be looking to cash out after years of hard work--Stern may have to duel again with New Times Inc. The publisher of Phoenix New Times, the Dallas Observer and New Times Los Angeles has purchased or launched five other weeklies since 1991. "Our approach is that we like to run newspapers and we like to buy," said chief executive officer Jim Larkin. "And we run newspapers to make money to buy more papers, and we buy more papers to make money to buy still more papers."

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This is a prosperous period for the alternative newsweeklies (almost all of which are available free of charge) as they consider ways to refine operations and expand. Some of the sessions at this week's convention will focus on profit-sharing plans, effective uses of telemarketing and growth opportunities on the Internet.

Overall circulation of U.S. dailies dropped from 61 million in 1992 to more than 58.3 million in 1997, while ad spending on the dailies climbed, from $30.6 billion to more than $41.3 billion.

In the same period, according to the Assn. of Alternative Newsweeklies (which has 108 members), the country's alternative papers showed a dramatic gain in their total circulation from nearly 4.4 million in 1992 to 6.8 million in 1997. Annual ad revenue taken in by alternative weeklies more than doubled in that time, to an estimated $400 million.

"These are free-circulation, bulk-drop papers," said Kevin M. Lavalla, a managing director of Veronis, Suhler & Associates Inc., an investment bank in New York that specializes in media deals. "If they want to expand, they can, as long as they can afford the printing bill and distribution costs. It's a lot more of a challenge for a daily paper."

The weeklies boast an enviable reach among well-educated readers 18 to 40 years old, who are drawn to the papers' hip attitude, broad entertainment coverage and voluminous listings of club dates and other events. "It's an audience that daily papers are struggling to get--and perhaps always will be," Lavalla said.

It appeared clear in 1997, for example, that Newsday launched NightBeat, a Thursday pullout section that focuses on Long Island's lively music and club scene, partly in response to Stern Publishing's start-up of the Long Island Voice. Like the Voice, NightBeat also is available free of charge in bookstores, bars and other establishments.

Although national advertising constitutes only a fraction of the alternatives' total ad revenue, the national spending has grown sizably in the past few years, especially business generated for the papers by the Ruxton Group, which is owned by New Times Inc., and the Alternative Weekly Network. The latter is a nonprofit clearinghouse based in Sacramento that coordinates the national advertising obtained by individual weeklies (which retain an 8% sales commission) on behalf of the more than 100 weeklies in the group.

AWN reported $13 million in sales last year (about 60% from tobacco ads) and projects $18 million in business this year. Michele Laven, head of the Ruxton Group, said its total business in the first quarter of this year was nearly double that of the first quarter in 1997, with about 65% of revenue coming from tobacco.

Encouraging as these national numbers are, Schneiderman said that he looks to national advertising to help solidify and further expansion plans. "Part of our strategy is to generate more national advertising," he said. "No longer are we these so-called scruffy newspapers. All of our papers are part of the Alternative Weekly Network. But now I can also see a 'Stern buy' over all our papers, and I hope to leverage that to the [ad] agencies and go after new business--in pharmaceuticals, national TV and other areas. . . . We didn't buy these papers to stand still."

Larkin, on the other hand, said that while New Times Inc. has "done well" with the Ruxton Group, and that the company's long-range plan is to attract more national advertising, "the play is still mom and pop. The way we make money is through local advertising."

For the $75-million company, national advertising represents roughly 2.5% of sales, Larkin said, and is expected to reach only 5% in the next two or three years.

Jane Levine, publisher of the Chicago Reader, acknowledged that her company, whose investors also own Washington City Paper and half of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, had been interested in buying Seattle Weekly before it went to Stern Publishing. "Now, our choices are to buy it from Stern, or to buy the Stranger [in Seattle] and compete with Stern--and that doesn't sound like my idea of fun," Levine said. "But we want to buy more papers, or other types of media."

Two years after the Village Voice switched to free distribution in Manhattan--via street-corner boxes, bookstores and other outlets--the weekly is boasting that its circulation has risen by 100,000, to a total of 250,000. "Our goal is 300,000, and almost all of that will be in Manhattan," Schneiderman said.

Meanwhile, a second Manhattan-based alternative, the upstart New York Press, has grown in 10 years to a free weekly circulation of 110,000 copies by offering unpredictably opinionated pieces in the manner of the early Voice. Contributors include the far-left David Corn; anthropologist Lionel Tiger; Norah Vincent, a conservative who is a lesbian; and editor Russ Smith, whose highly personal "Mugger" column runs for page after page--a weekly roundup of good meals, chance encounters and wicked gripes about President Clinton, the Nation, the Voice and other media players.

Smith, who plans to attend the AAN convention, nevertheless has ridiculed the event in print as "a shabby affair, with worthless workshops, seminars . . . [and] yahoos from California and the Midwest, whose idea of edgy journalism is Matt Groening's 'Life in Hell' and glowing cinematic profiles of Spike Lee and Michael Moore."

In an interview this week, Smith said "there's no need in Manhattan for a publication that has more news stories. Our paper harkens back to [co-founder] Dan Wolf's Village Voice--it's a writer's paper."

First Novel, Big Score: Five publishers dueled recently for the chance to acquire a novel by one of their own--David Ebershoff, publishing manager at Random House. Viking Penguin outbid Random House and the others, offering a sum in the mid-six figures for Ebershoff's first novel and a book of short stories to follow.

The novel that had everybody so excited is a love story, set in Copenhagen of the 1920s, about a man torn between the desire to serve his family and the feeling that he is a woman. The tale is said to be loosely based on the life of a Danish painter who was among the first men to undergo a sex-change operation.

The Ebershoff deal is an early score for literary agent Elaine Koster, a longtime publisher and editor at Dutton and New American Library who opened her own New York agency in March.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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