Alternative Newsweeklies Beef Up Security

Anthrax worries prompt changes

Across the country, alternative newsweeklies’ staff are opening their frequently strange-looking mail with latex gloves and locking the doors, editors and publishers report.

The ever-widening anthrax contamination and stronger-than-usual reactions to AAN member papers’ editorial positions on the war against terrorism have prompted the increased security precautions.

City Newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., has simply downloaded the CDC’s latest advisories and distributed them to all staff, says Editor Mary Anna Towler.

“We held a staff meeting and explained what we would do if one of us felt we’d opened something suspicious (cover it; put it in plastic bag; call the cops; all the stuff from the CDC website),” Towler says.

Jeff Truesdell, editor of Orlando Weekly, says the paper’s receptionist is opening mail wearing latex gloves.

“But that’s about it,” he says. “Otherwise our offices are as penetrable as Swiss cheese.”

“As we have moved in to new offices (on Sept. 11 and 12) in a new neighborhood, it seemed a good time to require that our front door (the only entrance) be locked and visitors required to use a doorbell,” says Sally Crane, publisher of Columbus Alive.

“We were originally doing this only during off-hours, but now leave it locked most of the time. In addition, I bought a box of latex gloves for the staff on Oct. 15 for mail opening.”

Erin Sullivan, managing editor of Metroland, says Albany, N.Y., has had several anthrax scares, including one at the bank across the street from the newspaper’s offices.

“I think we’d be inflating our own sense of self-importance if we started believing that someone out there had targeted us specifically to receive anthrax,” she says. “But all employees have received a memo instructing them to be very careful handling the mail, and our new ‘policy’ is for all employees to report any suspicious mail to department heads.”

Beverley Sinclair, editor of The Georgia Straight, says they have been advised by police to double-bag mail without a return address and throw it away.

“However, I figure anyone who sends any mail without a return address to any media outlet these days doesn’t deserve to have whatever they’ve sent opened anyway,” Sinclair says.

Alternative weeklies get peculiar-looking mail in the best of times, Sullivan points out.

“Half the mail we receive could probably be deemed ‘suspicious,’” Sullivan says. “Letters to the Editor scrawled on brown paper bags and strangely shaped promo packages and such. So I’m not 100 percent certain how to decide whether something is so suspicious that I ought to throw it out, much less report it to the authorities. So far, I’ve opted to toss a few envelopes from companies we’ve never heard of. And all mail addressed to J-Lo …, of course.”

“Out here in the heartland, I’d have to say that our awareness is heightened, but we’ve taken no specific steps, whether in mail handling or anywhere else,” says Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times.

In fact, after gigging the daily for banning staff from commercial airlines, the Times is taking a typically contrarian approach and organizing a charter trip to New York.

“We decided to wave the flag and show our support for New York by organizing a group trip there,” Brantley says. “It’s a no-profit venture and we don’t know yet if it will make it. But I’ll be the ‘leader’ of a group of 30, if we can sell it, for three nights in New York and a couple of shows.”

Of course, alternative papers never take things completely seriously.

“We’ve notified the local TV stations that we’re ironing all our mail while wearing Tyvek suits, and invited them to come and film the process,” says Nick Barbaro, publisher of the Austin Chronicle.