Editors Do More with Less in San Antonio

“I didn’t buy the prizes,” San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond felt compelled to proclaim once again before throwing a cherry Blow Pop or Starbucks gift card with an eye-poking, albeit playful, vindictiveness at his fellow alt-weekly editors.

“Last year we got wine!” one editor complained. This inevitably brought to everyone’s mind not only the San Antonio convention center’s regrettable rule prohibiting alcohol, but also the room’s collective state of non-tipsiness. Thirty or so editors in a windowless conference hall with no booze could quickly get ugly, not to mention stifle what was intended to be a brainstorming session for fast, creative story ideas that don’t require a hefty price tag.

Deftly, panel moderator Redmond responded by unsheathing a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon from a brown paper bag as the grand prize for the best story idea and then provided the group with those little drums on a stick — a la Karate Kid 2 — with which they were to express their vote.

To maintain some semblance of standards at the session, “Doing More With Less: 75 Story Ideas in 75 Minutes,” at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ convention, a judges’ panel not unlike the one found on American Idol flanked Redmond. Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the acerbic Simon Cowell were played, respectively, by editors Patty Calhoun (Westword), John Fox (Cincinnati CityBeat) and Michael Tisserand (Gambit Weekly).

Testing the waters with new ideas

Just as the Fox TV show seeks out the hottest disposable faux-pop stars, this panel was built to find the kinds of article concepts that may not exactly cause city councils to cave in but will nonetheless put a fun and hopefully memorable spin on existing ideas. Here are a few:

Ken Edelstein, editor-in-chief of Creative Loafing Atlanta, spoke of the paper’s popular “Lust List” issue. The editors asks readers to send in nominations of the sexiest locals (TV news anchors or politicians need not apply), and the paper tracks down these hottie video store clerks, baristas, UPS deliverymen or community college teaching assistants, interviews them and shoots pictures of them in their bedrooms. This idea garnered much thumping from the editors.

Next, Michael Mechanic, managing editor of East Bay Express, suggested going to Amazon.com, where you can search to see what its biggest sellers in your city are and then write an article on your findings. The top books and CDs people are buying in certain regions can be very telling, he says. For example, the most popular nonfiction book in Alameda, Calif., was “The Primer of Drug Addiction” while in Berkeley it was “Models of Capitalism.”

Sometimes you can find an interesting story simply by having the water tested, says Shala Carlson, managing editor of Gambit Weekly. As it turned out, local schools in the Big Easy had drinking water with nine times the level of estrogen of normal water, a statistic that was as disconcerting as it was funny. This reminded Washington City Paper senior editor Kate Marsh of a writer who decided to use off-beat methods to analyze local tap water. He gave the H2O a blood-sugar test, an aquarium-water test and a pregnancy test.

And the results?

“Our water was not pregnant,” Marsh announced proudly.

“Audience?” host Ryan Seacrest – er, rather – Tim Redmond asked. A flurry of drumming.

Other notable ideas came from interesting twists on old formulas. One paper does The Butt-Ugly Awards for the worst-looking structures in town. For Gay Pride Day, Willamette Weekly presented Portland with The Straight Issue, complete with articles like, “How to Pick Up Chicks…Like a Gay Guy.” Top-10 lists are easy — one paper did “Top 10 Things Found In Our Parking Lot.” There were some serious-minded suggestions, too. “Can Our City Go Smoke-Free?” could be an easy feature, given the nation’s growing wave of anti-smoking ordinances. Or how about a photo essay and story that follows an animal shelter dog through euthanasia? Wrenching, yes, but readable.

The judges pick their favorites

Redmond threw a box of crayons that exploded against a chair. “Heads up!” At that point, the esteemed judges decided to nominate their picks.

Tisserand chose “Presidents, We Salute You.” Pittsburgh City Paper Editor Andy Newman described a Presidents Day issue that featured photos and interviews with the presidents of local clubs like the Ferret Fanciers Club, the Three Rivers Volkswagen Club and Sisters in Crime, a group of female mystery writers.

“Pop Quiz” was Fox’s favorite. With five quick questions, The Santa Fe Reporter has devised an educational and entertaining way of shaking down local politicians. Editor Julia Goldberg says reporters simply call up candidates and test their background knowledge for the offices they’re seeking by asking questions like, “What’s the homeless population of Santa Fe?” Published complete with all the uhhhs and well . . . I dunnos, the quiz gets readers interested in local politics while putting the candid back in candidates.

Calhoun liked “Playing Mayor.” Justin Kendall, managing editor of Cityview in Des Moines, Iowa, had the novel and prudent scheme of testing the municipal leadership skills of two mayoral candidates by having them play the video game SimCity. “We gave them a riverfront city,” says the article, “a $50,000 budget and a few amenities — a planetarium, an aquarium, a church, a park, and a couple of schools and solar power plants — and they played for an hour.”

The sugar-enhanced wrist action made the drum-noise tally a bit difficult to judge, but in the end “Pop Quiz” came out the winner. Goldberg got the whiskey, and the world of alt-weeklies got another year’s worth of wackiness to present as news.

Jared Jacang Maher was a 2003 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism. He is an editor of the literary anthology “Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write From the Deep End,” coming out with Soft Skull Press this summer. In August he will begin a fellowship at Denver’s Westword.