AAN: Shaw, LA Times Got It Wrong

Alt-weekly business still the purview of small, independent companies

The following letter was sent earlier this week to the Los Angeles Times. The material following the horizontal rule was added after the letter was submitted. – ed.

To the Editor:

I got a call two weeks ago from Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw. He was doing a column on the New Times-Village Voice Media deal that shuttered New Times Los Angeles and wanted to know how many alternative newspapers are still “independent.”

“Well,” I said, “it depends what you mean by ‘independent.’ For example, the publisher of Cityview in Des Moines also owns the business paper in that city. So does Cityview qualify as an independent?”

The silence on the other end of the line told me that Shaw wasn’t interested in discussing the complexity of ownership structures in the alternative newspaper business. And who can blame him? He had a column to write, and he just wanted some facts to support the point he planned to make. So I e-mailed him a list of alternative-weekly chains.

I wasn’t surprised then, when he dumbed down and wrote in his column last Monday: “Increasingly dominated by large, profit-driven corporations, the 118 members of the Assn. of Alternative Weeklies (sic) generate, cumulatively, about a half-billion dollars in advertising sales annually; about half those papers are not independent but function as part of some larger media group.”

His characterization is both inaccurate and misleading, and it perpetuates widely repeated myths about the alternative newspaper business.

First, Shaw says that our members are “(i)ncreasingly dominated by large, profit-driven corporations.” Although I would argue that all for-profit corporations are, by definition, “profit-driven” (otherwise they would be not-for-profit corporations), the word to which I take the most exception is “large.” Large compared to what? New Times, one of the two biggest alternative newspaper chains, probably generates about $80 million in annual revenue (it’s a privately held company, so the exact figures are not publicly available). That’s about $20 million less than Shaw’s employer, the Tribune Co., will make this week. It’s also less than the money raked in last year by thousands of other companies in the U.S. A quick search on Yahoo! Finance turns up 3,636 companies with over $100 million in annual revenue, and that doesn’t even include firms whose stock isn’t publicly traded.

We take no special pride in our relative lack of economic might, but the fact is that the alternative newspaper business is still dominated by small, privately held companies, not “large corporations,” as Shaw suggests.

Shaw’s statement that “about half” of our members “are not independent but function as part of some larger media group” is also misleading. The confusion turns on his use of the phrase “larger media group.” Shaw applies the term to any company that owns at least one other media property, which casts the net so wide it captures a number of papers that are unquestionably independent. For instance, in California alone, he snares News & Review, Metro Publishing and Southland Publishing, three-paper chains that are still owned by the same people who founded the alternative weeklies in Sacramento, San Jose and Ventura, respectively, that now serve as the companies’ flagship papers. And there are several other small, regional alternative-newspaper chains that are still owned by their original founders. There are also a half-dozen alternative weeklies, like the aforementioned Cityview in Des Moines, owned by small companies that control another media property in the same market.

Even New Times, which now owns 11 papers, would be considered “independent” by most neutral observers. It’s a family-owned business controlled by people who work at the papers and who have done nothing but publish alternative weeklies since they left college.

Shaw, employing criteria that drains the term “independent” of its common usage, mischaracterizes all of these papers and paints a misleading portrait of the industry. In the business world, a company is considered independent if it is majority owned by people who participate in its direct management. By that definition, the overwhelming majority of AAN members are independent.

Truth be told, it’s more enlightening to talk about a newspaper’s independence in the context of its editorial content rather than its ownership structure, but that discussion is complex and can’t be reduced to simple definitions. Every newspaper has a kaleidoscope of relationships that affect its editorial independence. There’s the relationship between editors and writers: Does the paper have a strong editorial vision, or is it a collection of independent voices? There’s the relationship between the publication and its readers and advertisers: Does the paper respond to market exigencies to attract a strategically defined audience, or does it cover the “news” and let the chips fall where they may? And there’s the relationship between the paper and the community it covers: Is it the paper’s job to improve life in the community, or should it report and inform without regard to immediate consequences?

There are no easy answers to these issues. They are played out on continuums, and where a newspaper chooses to put down its stake defines its character. Viewed in light of this complex web of relationships, it’s clear that the great majority of alternative newspapers — contrary to Shaw’s assertions — are as unfettered as they ever were and far more independent than their competitors in the mainstream press.

It’s not entirely fair to single out Shaw, because his simplistic approach to changes in the alternative newspaper business follows the standard line peddled by most reporters. And his admission that “(i)t’s difficult to generalize about the alternative press since some of the papers — the Chicago Reader, Boston Phoenix and Bay Guardian, to take just three — are so idiosyncratic as to defy categorization,” is refreshing, and demonstrates that he has read several of our papers and understands they can’t be pigeonholed.

I will call Shaw to account, though, for two other mistakes that betray a carelessness that is surprising. First, he got the name of our organization wrong. Second, he misnamed the New Times paper in Cleveland, calling it Cleveland New Times rather than Cleveland Scene. What’s troubling about both of these otherwise minor mistakes is how easily they could have been avoided: The name of our organization was included in the e-mail I sent him, and the title of the New Times paper in Cleveland was reported three days earlier in his own paper.