Applicants Brace for Admissions Committee’s Report

Last year's report still rankles

Even as Jeff Lawrence, publisher of Boston’s Weekly Dig, awaits AAN’s verdict on his paper’s membership application this year, the admissions committee’s very public — and often very negative — report on last year’s supplicants still rankles.

“It’s immeasurably petty,” he says of committee commentary excerpted and published at last year’s AAN convention. “If the gain from having these critiques is to provide some real constructive criticism, they failed and they failed miserably. You’ve got to cherry pick through most of the comments to find the ones that, well, maybe this will help. It’s like reading the frickin’ Daily News in London.”

The more pointed critiques last year were reserved for hopefuls other than Boston’s Weekly Dig: ” … looks, reads and feels like a driveway shopper”; ” … more like a vanity press for a smart, ambitious, and potentially dangerous cabal”; “The community this paper serves is obviously fucked up, and the publishers are obviously OK with that”; “Free speech is great, except when it empowers a bunch of blowhards”; “If there are any fascists out there looking for a State Exhibit A indicator that a free press is a menace to society, [this paper] might be a prime candidate”; and “The more I read, the more I hate this paper.” The critiques also included two references to papers offering “blow jobs” instead of coverage, and a left-handed “I was ready to hate this one … ”

Perhaps the most memorable commentary was directed at one applicant who garnered a 0-44 vote from the 11-member admissions committee: “The committee recommends this paper be taken out back and shot … It’s difficult to imagine a paper that could suck more … ” — which prompted a supporter to respond that such treatment “borders on censorship and elitism.”

Matt Spaur, publisher of the Spokane, Wash., Local Planet Weekly — a paper accepted for AAN membership two years ago, in New Orleans — says he found more positive comments on LPW when reading the full committee critiques afterward than he saw in the convention excerpts.

Summaries of admissions committee critiques have always been released by the committee chair, but in the last few years these summaries have also included excerpts from individual members’ assessments of papers — assessments made as part of the internal review process. Some members believe their comments might have been more politic if they’d known they would be chosen for publication — and say the tone of their assessments may be tempered this year.

“I think a lot of the comments made were for the group, not necessarily for the applying papers to see,” says admissions committee member Sioux Watson, publisher of Durham, N.C.’s Independent Weekly. She says she’ll now be conscious of possible publication when penning her comments. Last year, she adds, “When I was writing I wasn’t expecting those comments to be read outside the room. But most of the comments were constructive.”

“We’ve actually been toning it down — it’s been worse,” says committee member Paula Routly, co-publisher/editor of Seven Days in Burlington, Vt. There’s been internal debate about sharing the comments, she reports. “The trouble is, people don’t pull any punches. I’ve been in favor of making the comments more constructive and less cruel. But I think [the full critiques are] more useful than what ends up in the convention newsletter.”

Some form of committee commentary will be released again, says new committee chair Ken Neill, publisher of the Memphis Flyer.

“I feel certain we’ll have something to say on each paper,” Neill says. “What we try to do is get a good cross section of what each committee member is saying. While I think we have sometimes had a lot of fun with our comments in the newsletter, we do take the process very seriously.”

Whether they are cruel or constructive, comments must be released, notes Clif Garboden, senior managing editor of Phoenix Media Communications Group and chair of the committee for the previous four years.

“Our job is to review the papers, screen them and report to the membership. The admissions committee is not [trying] to evaluate the papers to make them better; our job is to tell the membership” about the paper’s quality and qualifications. “All we’re doing is recommending — we have to release those critiques or else there is no recommendation.”

“Some people feel that we should share all our findings with applying papers,” says Routly. “Other people feel we’ll do that when they get in. It’s one of the benefits of membership.”

Berl Schwartz, publisher of City Pulse — another repeat applicant in 2003 — understands papers’ objection to the public tongue-lashing but appreciated some of the comments himself. “I found it largely constructive and actually acted upon several criticisms,” he says. But broader concerns about the admissions process remain.

“I frankly was mystified, though, by the philosophy of the judges,” says Schwartz. “I felt like, is this association basically run by establishment figures who don’t understand how hard it is in Lansing, Mich., to run an alternative newspaper? I found that papers that got in are well-written papers but looked like what alternative newspapers are supposed to look like. We’re out here fighting real battles — we’re truly an alternative in this city. There doesn’t seem to be any attention paid to what a struggling little paper is going through.”

The idea of releasing the critiques, says admissions committee member Margaret Downing, editor of the Houston Press, “is also to let papers know exactly where other journalists think they may be falling a bit short so they can change, or they can say, screw you. It’s up to them.”

Rob Crocker, publisher of the Portland Mercury, rejected last year by the full membership by a one-vote margin, says he saw no reason to reapply for a third year in 2003.

“We don’t plan to change. We haven’t changed our editorial position or our product. The paper is trudging along exactly as we want it to be” — both editorially and with advertising, he says. While Crocker has high respect for committee members, “if it’s just a personality contest we weren’t terribly interested in applying again. What they’re commenting on in the committee isn’t representative of what the papers are doing in the marketplace.”

Weekly Dig’s Lawrence concurs. “I understand the need to prevent fly-by-night and niche publications from joining” AAN, he says, “but I vehemently deny that an alternative weekly now has to be what it was in 1978.” BWD’s lengthy music section — the very thing that helps his paper attract both young readers and advertising, he believes — “has been a mark against us. It’s been very frustrating.

“I often hear this from members,” Lawrence adds. “‘Do what you gotta do to get in, because afterward you can do what you want.'”

“I can’t emphasize enough how the process is collegial,” says Neill about the annual admissions committee deliberations. The committee this year asked wAANabes for copies of three consecutive issues from specific dates, hoping to get a representative cross section of applicants’ efforts. Each committee member reads and reviews all the issues, assessing them on a score sheet and in narrative form in four areas: news and features, arts, listings and design. The scores and comments are compiled and distributed to members when they meet each year on the day before the convention, where the discussion and the votes take place.

“The process we go through internally is really rigorous,” says Routly. “We have to back up our recommendations — yes or no — with analysis. What makes a good paper? It forces you to put it into words.”

Yet not every committee member agrees on what makes an AAN-worthy entry, or even about the benefits of letting a paper join AAN — for AAN or for the applying papers.

Routly instituted an annual convention breakfast for the committee, the AAN board and representatives of applying papers.

“It’s a little awkward because the recommendations haven’t come out yet, but at least they know who to go to,” she says. “Meeting them face to face — it makes us more accountable. They also get to meet each other.

“What’s alternative in Clarksville, Tenn., is not alternative in Chicago,” she acknowledges. Recent hopefuls from Clarksville’s Our City were writing for a largely military town, for instance. Routly recalls a breakfast at which a staffer from Our City tearfully reported that their building had been hit by a tornado, another where a rep from Birmingham Weekly told the group that their office had been firebombed because of its editorial stances, adding: ?”ou may think the paper is not out there, but believe me, we’re out there.'” Birmingham Weekly was accepted into AAN. Our City never made it and has now folded.

“There was a lot of admiration of what was going on [at Our City], but that paper did not rise to minimal standards,” says committee member Matt Gibson, publisher of the Missoula Independent. “There’s often disagreement within the committee on specific strengths and weaknesses [of individual papers] but rarely any disagreement about the relative strengths and weaknesses” among applicants.

Still, should AAN modify its admissions standards somehow to take market realities into account?

“That’s a strategic issue for the board to look at,” says Gibson. “One of the things Clif Garboden had a clear handle on: The major markets in North America are occupied by alt-weeklies who are already members. If we’re going to gain, most of the new members will come from smaller markets.

“I think in fact the committee does have a sliding standard — not in any formal sense — that larger papers in larger markets are expected to be better than the smaller papers in smaller markets.” Gibson says he understands the differences in resources and in sheer coverage opportunities among papers, since he’s in a smaller market himself. But, he cautions, “At some point the committee members feel there is a minimum standard that any paper in any market needs to achieve. That [AAN] membership is exclusive — that one must apply and be vetted — is extraordinary. It’s reflective of the sense … that there is a qualitative assessment that needs to be made that you’re one of us.”

Committee personnel joke that member Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, wants nearly everyone to be able to join AAN. “I acknowledge I am the house liberal,” Redmond says. He points to this year’s small-market applicants from Jackson, Miss., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and recalls the Clarksville paper.

“We need to be encouraging to people without lowering the standards of AAN. We want to encourage more and more papers to apply. We want to grow the organization. It ought to be about saying, ‘We want your paper in our organization. We want to help you get there.’

“I think the admissions committee is moving that way and ought to be moving that way,” he adds — not just as a humanitarian gesture to fellow publishers but to encourage more independent papers.

“When The Village Voice started the OC Weekly [in Orange County, Calif.], you took one look at that paper and of course it’s in AAN. They know how to do it and they’ve got plenty of money. It’s the underfunded entrepreneur in some small market — who’s trying to develop and doesn’t know how to do it — it’s that we ought to encourage.”

Former chair Garboden says a particular city’s take on alternative has long been “factored in” to committee decisions. “You can’t really make a guideline about that sort of thing, though: ‘These people live in a conservative community and so they can be a little conservative.'” And letting fledglings into the nest to teach them to fly is, he concludes, “a judgment thing. There are some papers if they are admitted I think they would improve — I am personally inclined to let them in.”

The quality of applicants hasn’t changed much since he joined the admissions committee nearly a decade ago, Garboden says. Some years, when AAN has seen as many as 20 applicants, “about a third of them should not have applied because they are community papers or niche papers,” he notes. And then there are those papers obviously not up to snuff. It’s the ones in the middle that cause friendly debates and split votes. Only a dozen papers have applied this year.

“Until we change the definition of what we are,” says current committee chairman Neill, “we are newsweeklies, not entertainment weeklies, not sports weeklies. What we’re trying to do is maintain some sort of editorial quality while taking into consideration that every market in AAN is different” — not only in size, but in the quality and coverage of local dailies, which the alternatives have traditionally strived to counter. “We try to be as fair as we can. It’s a very human process and no process can be perfect. I’d almost rather we err on the side of being too cautious at letting people in.

“We’re asked: ‘How could you not let them in’ They’re better than X paper that’s already in.'” It’s not the committee’s job to police existing papers, he says. Such complaints about existing AAN papers may be fair in some instances, other committee members allow, but re-assessing current AAN-ites would be a nightmarish and unwelcome task.

But the committee has been policing itself, and members have suggested a few changes, such as offering a better account of what makes a newspaper right for AAN. The current description in the bylaws is too broad and rather short on detail, some admissions committee members say.

“One of the recommendations I made” after last year’s admissions process, says committee member Sioux Watson, “was to come up with a one-sheet for papers who are applying for admissions so they’d have a clearer idea of what we’re looking for. Because right now they don’t have access to what we’re looking for, except by osmosis.”

Garboden reports that a document detailing everything from the committee’s judgment criteria to AAN’s reason for being remains two-thirds completed, delayed only because of his move from committee chair to AAN vice president. He says he may see whether the committee approves it for posting this year.

Concludes Routly, about potential AAN members and the admissions process: “It wouldn’t take that much effort to make it useful to them, so they’ll get in next year — or they’ll know they don’t want to get in.”

Marty Levine is news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper.