Amsterdam Weekly Debuts with Help from Chicago Reader

Publisher-Editor Todd Savage Launches Paper in City of Fun-Loving Bicyclists

Certain to snare people’s attention, the debut issue of Amsterdam Weekly hit the streets on Wednesday, March 10, featuring a photo of a slender woman in low-rider jeans crouched on a bike. “It’s nearly spring: Look butt-crack in the face again,” reads the front-page teaser.

With the Chicago Reader serving as both a major investor and a publishing adviser, Amsterdam Weekly looks to fit the mold of a sleek, stylish urban weekly with critical stories on arts and culture in the Amsterdam region. The free English-language paper will also publish stories about city life. The debut issue had a print run of nearly 21,000 copies, which are being distributed at some 250 locations. The tabloid is meant for expatriates, Dutch readers and, well, people who like to gaze at attractive cover models.

Todd Savage, a former freelancer for the Chicago Reader, hatched a plan for starting a weekly in the Netherlands’ largest city. He approached the Reader about serving as an investor, and executives eagerly jumped on board.

“Todd wanted to do it; it was his idea and he came to us with it,” says Jane Levine, the publisher of the Chicago Reader and chief operating officer of its parent company, which also owns Washington City Paper and holds an equity interest in The Stranger and Portland Mercury. “We want to grow, we want to expand, and there aren’t a lot of cities in the States that don’t have strong alternative weeklies, and there aren’t a lot of cities overseas where you can do an English-language weekly.”

Given Amsterdam’s well-earned reputation as a fun, frolicking city, Levine says she expects that the paper will definitely fill a void. “There isn’t anything that I would call an alternative weekly in Dutch or English over there now, and they have a really going-out culture.”

Publisher-editor Savage, who has lived in Amsterdam for a few years, knows the city well. He planned the day-to-day operations of the paper, from distribution to editorial content. The Reader provided help with computer systems and structuring ad rates and policies. Levine declined to specify the Reader’s stake in Amsterdam Weekly but acknowledged that it is hardly incidental. “There are a couple of large investors and we are one of them.”

Following is an e-mail interview with Todd Savage, who responded to questions from AAN News the day the first issue of Amsterdam Weekly hit the streets. A few minor editing changes were made in his text.

What’s your background?

I’ve worked as a freelance journalist pretty much my entire adult life. I grew up in Houston, then went off to Chicago to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. My first professional journalism experience was getting a story published in the Reader. When it was done, then managing editor Alison True asked me, “So, what are you going to do for us next?” I think that’s just about the greatest thing you can say to an aspiring writer. I did a one-year stint at the Reader as the last of the old-school typesetters, and wrote occasional features there over the years. That was what I loved doing best. But to pay the bills, I did the whole range of freelance work: magazine, newspaper, travel guides, so-dull-I-wouldn’t-force-my-own-mother-to-read-it trade journals and corporate magazines. An assignment for Frommer’s got me to Amsterdam, where I met my (Dutch) partner. I moved here in April 2001.

How did you become involved with Amsterdam Weekly?

I started thinking about the idea of a free weekly in Amsterdam soon after I arrived. I discovered that Amsterdam was home to a large international population and a native Dutch population open to English but scarcely any English media. I researched and wrote a business plan; both Mike Lenehan, [executive editor] at the Reader and Catherine Salisbury (former publisher of the Montreal Mirror and current co-owner of The Coast in Halifax) acted as sounding boards throughout the process. Eventually the Reader decided to give it a try with me.

To what extent will the paper incorporate some of the traditional staples of American alt weeklies?

Our editorial model is rooted in the kind of literary journalism I learned at and admire about the Reader. We don’t do news or take a particular political stance on any of the issues. We can’t be comprehensive with our listings (actually, we find comprehensive rather tedious), so we’re compensating for economy of space by showing our good taste with carefully chosen arts items.

We are trying out a couple of comics (“Life in Hell” and something called “Eefje Wentelteefje,” a wonderful underground Dutch comic that has never been published in Amsterdam). We’d like to add some columns in the future—maybe Savage Love or we’d really like to convince [native Swiss book author] Alain de Botton to write a philosophy-based advice column. We also want to give time to see what writers emerge as regular contributors and what ideas might evolve that could become recurring items. In addition, we have a few offbeat items, such as a found text of the week (“Exhibit A”) and an illustrated barfly profile (“Pub Reporter”).

We are offering totally free classifieds to get the section going.

How are you feeling on the eve of the launch?

It’s surreal. We’ve been preparing for this day for so long that I’ve come to expect living in a kind of Twilight Zone episode where we’ll always be preparing for that perfect first issue, yet never going to press with it.

But today as we watched the drivers head off (two cargo bicycles and three little Vespa three-wheel vans), it was quite a thrill. We toasted with some champagne for a few minutes, then started freaking about week two.

What are some of the stories you’ll be including in the first issue?

We’re trying to show our fun side in the first issue (our prototype issue was just so dreadfully somber and serious). So, the main feature is about a group of computer hackers who get together for a monthly session of recreational lock-picking. There’s also a musing (and salacious cover photo) on butt cracks as fashion statements; Xaviera (“the Happy Hooker”) Hollander writes about an American emigre blues musician.

How’s advertising?

We saw the first paid account show up in the bank today! We have a terrific sales manager who used to play guitar in a heavy metal band. He’s busy hiring two ad reps. Anyone out there speak Dutch and want to move to Amsterdam?

Where do you see the publication, journalistically and financially, in two to four years?

We’re aiming to break even sometime in the fourth year. At that point, we’d like to be at 40 pages. There’s not a tradition of quality free publishing in the Netherlands and most of the English media here is either tourist treacle or ghetto-ish “expat” publishing. We have to find our way as an English paper; we want to be writing from the inside as much as possible. Our real goal is to be considered an Amsterdam paper, not an “English-language” novelty.

I think it’s an interesting cultural time to be starting a paper here; looking ahead, it fits with the expansion of the European Union and a growing transience among young Europeans. Anyone who has ever visited here knows that Amsterdam is an incredibly multilingual city and just the kind of place where people actually expect a paper like Amsterdam Weekly.

How many staff do you have? Of that number, how many are in editorial?

So far, we have eight staff. Four are editorial, including what I can contribute given my commitments to distribution and sales. There are four Americans, one South African/Dutch/English blend, another Brit and two Dutch guys.

What role has the Chicago Reader played in the launch?

Publisher Jane Levine has been our point person. She’s visited here a few times, to help in interviewing sales candidates and help us think about setting up our rate cards. One Reader owner visited to lead writing workshops, another to think about how to set up the most advanced digital operation we can afford on a start-up budget. We appreciate all of their help, and we never grow bored of their war stories.

Matt Pulle is a staff writer for the Nashville Scene.

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