AAN’s Editorial Director Moves On

One day last year, as I was going through my files, I came across a document prepared by Clif Garboden, then president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. It laid out everything that AAN’s proposed story-sharing site should include, in fact nearly everything AltWeeklies.com now does include: the word counts, the sales embargoes, the advanced searches by category and publication, the automatic e-mail that goes out from potential buyer to seller.

As I step down as AAN’s editorial director on Dec. 23 to take a job as a senior copy editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, what strikes me most about my current job is how much teamwork went into all my projects.

Though I may have sometimes had the illusion of working alone as I edited our collaborative Web site, AltWeeklies.com, I worked in concert with a vast group of people, all of whom contributed significantly to what we accomplished.

AltWeeklies.com owes its success to all the editors and editorial assistants who regularly posted stories, other editors and freelancers who gave me permission to post theirs, the Webmasters who put teasers of AltWeeklies.com headlines on their papers’ Web sites, sending ever more traffic our way; and AAN’s assistant editors and an intern who pitched in to post stories. Not to forget the vision of the members who dreamed of creating the site, the tenacity of Executive Director Richard Karpel in pushing the project forward, and the technological skills of the DesertNet staff who developed the site page by page.

Cecil Bothwell, Ruth Hammond, Wil Gerken
Mountain Xpress senior writer Cecil Bothwell, Ruth Hammond and DesertNet’s Wil Gerken at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center in San Antonio.
Photo by Maxxximum C. Madcap of Funnybone Productions.


AltWeeklies.com debuted on May 19, 2004, with 100 stories; after 19 months, it has more than 7,500. It started with a handful of visitors, including one who advised me, just before the convention, that I should take the site down if I couldn’t update it more frequently. Now it has more than 300,000 unique visitors a month.

My other main project, administering the AltWeekly Awards contest, required an even greater degree of collaboration, with contest entrants and judges. Both groups had to learn how to navigate our sometimes-tricky new contest Web site.

In the process of recruiting the 141 judges who selected the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards, I came to see the universe as being divided into two kinds of people: potential judges and non-potential judges.

One morning a stranger stepped into the elevator in my apartment building, carrying what I assessed to be a serious camera. He had the look of a news photographer. I realized I had about one and a half minutes to determine whether he’d be a good photography judge. By the time we reached the front door of the building, he’d given me his business card. At the office, I looked up his award-winning work on the Web. He’d covered armed conflicts around the world, refugee movements and the World Trade Center collapse. I was delighted when Gary Fabiano agreed to be a judge.

But I knew I couldn’t find all my judges through chance meetings. I searched the Web for writers who had received awards for their own work, read some of their articles to determine whether they would have an appreciation of alt-weeklies’ sensibility, and sent out letters and e-mails of invitation to hundreds of journalists.

&nbsp Jason Bitner's car
The Format Busters were stolen from Jason Bitner’s car.

I could not have hoped for a more dedicated crew of judges than the ones I found. They brought a tremendous commitment to their work and persisted, in spite of mishaps. One wrote in to say she would finish a bit late because she had been in a collision that had totaled her car, adding the reassurance, “Don’t worry, your entries were not in the car.” Another wrote to say his car had been broken into while he was at a party in Tribeca, and all his Format Buster entries were stolen. There may still be a thief in Tribeca hoarding the ill-gotten Format Busters. But the miscreant couldn’t stop our contest because the judge, Jason Bitner, had brought his laptop in to the party, and on it were all his scores.

Whenever I needed help, the judges pitched in: recommending other judges, evaluating extra entries abandoned by judges who had to recuse themselves, and giving me valuable ideas about how to improve the online judging process, ideas that I’ve implemented for the 2006 AltWeekly Awards.

I have many favorite occasions from the past two years: working with La Shonya McNeil to edit the Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005 book, having a midnight hotel-room dinner with my young staff as we put out the AAN Convention Daily in San Diego; working with the former fellows of the Academy for Alternative Journalism and a few journalism students to produce the “How I Got That Story” series for the aan.org Web site.

All these projects should live on in the hands of my successors — in the case of the contest, AAN News Editor and Contest Administrator Amy Gill, and, for AltWeeklies.com, an as-yet-unnamed person. I hope they will draw as much enjoyment from them as I did.

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