Taking a page from the alt-weekly book
For Berl Schwartz, publisher of City Pulse in Lansing, Mich., REAL life is about to become a real rival.
The new “alternative” weekly is set to hit the streets this fall, published by the Lansing State Journal, a Gannett Co. daily. LSJ Executive Editor Michael “Mickey” Hirten will pull double duty in the same role for the new paper, although it will have its own staff and an editor who reports to him.
“Gannett said, ‘You guys start exploring the possibility for publication’ … and this is what we’re doing,” Hirten says.
“What I understand (REAL life) to be is a prototype for something they want to launch nationally,” Schwartz says.
Gannett, he believes, has co-opted the name “alternative weekly” without its intent, and REAL life will have no teeth.
“What is it an alternative to?” he asks. “Itself?”
In February 2000, Gannett formed a task force, titled Rx Prescription for Readership Growth. Its aim was to find ways to reach readers between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s not a secret that this age group turns to media other than newspapers for information and entertainment — usually free media. Gannett and other large media chains have focused considerable energy on finding ways to capture this market.
In fact, Gannett has had a similar product, The Rage, in Nashville, Tenn., for nearly two years, published by The Tennessean. Its listings-heavy format may be the prototype for the upcoming weeklies in Michigan and Idaho.
In Idaho, Bingo Barnes, publisher of Boise Weekly, is braced for the same kind of deep-pocketed competition from Gannett’s Idaho Statesman. Gannett has ordered up an “alternative” in that market as well.
Carolyn Washburn, Hirten’s counterpart at the Statesman, did not return calls from AAN News seeking information about the Idaho weekly. When asked the name of the new publication, a Statesman employee declined to answer, deferring to Washburn.
Barnes says the advance buzz indicates the Boise weekly will be “kind of a carbon copy of our paper.”
“Word is that (Gannett’s) not coming out to compete with us, but Boise’s such a small market (under 200,000 city and 450,000 metro) that they will compete with us,” he says.
“We have spoken to over half of our advertisers and so far they have not been approached by Gannett to advertise in the new weekly product,” Barnes says. “They have come out with some rates for advertising in the Idaho Statesman that dramatically undercut their normal rates and have been presenting those to some of our clients.”
Barnes says the Statesman “has been extremely quiet about their new product and word from within the paper says that they want to keep some perception of distance from the Idaho Statesman when they finally do launch for fear of taking on the Statesman’s poor reputation in this community.”
Also the Statesman has telling advertisers they are willing to accept ads for their new paper that have been produced by Boise Weekly, a service the AAN-member paper offers for free, although it does charge other publications for the right to reuse the slicks.
Barnes points to Richard McCord’s critical look at Gannett, “Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire,” to justify his worries. He’s been making preemptive strikes, handing out copies of “Chain Gang” to advertisers and “making readers aware” of Gannett’s alleged unfair business practices.
Schwartz, owner, publisher and editor of City Pulse, says he figured Gannett would “go after us” after Pulse began publishing one year ago. Prior to that, he was general manager of the Michigan State student newspaper, The State News, from 1994 to 2000.
“I wanted to stay in Lansing,” he says. “I wanted to be my own boss. I just saw a real need here for a paper that would challenge the established paper.”
Advertisers tell him the LSJ is making “amazing offers” to win their business away from the altie, such as free color with ads and reduced rates.
Hirten denies Gannett engages in unfair business advertising practices.
“We would price our rates to reflect our costs,” he says. “We have to operate fairly and within the law.”
REAL life’s pages will include calendar listings, “places to go, things to do,” entertainment, pop culture, sex, music and hot issues — all aimed “at an active, busy, Gen-X market,” Hirten says. He also doesn’t rule out attracting readers on either side of the target demo.
“I don’t think you sort of cap your audience at 35,” he says.
The LSJ has been working on this prototype publication since April and has run the gamut in focus groups, sample design set-ups and studies to focus news content.
“It’s got the right approach to the right amount of content,” Hirten says, adding that many things are still uncertain, from the date of the initial issue — late October or early November, by his best estimate — to circulation, currently estimated at 20,000. Hirten says the LSJ reaches 248,000 unique readers each week with a 71,000 daily and 92,000 Sunday circulation.
Mary Stier, publisher of the Des Moines Register and leader of the 2000 Rx task force, says that any given marketplace “has a threshold for advertising” and Boise and Lansing are no different. How a paper sets its advertising rates is a reflection of what that market can support, as well as the value of the paper itself. She disagrees that just because a company is large automatically means it can set lower rates than its competition.
At this time, Gannett has no plans for other weeklies, according to Stier. She says the Boise and Lansing papers will publish later this fall and is tight-lipped about further details “because I don’t want to show you my cards.”
Stier says the news giant chose Lansing and Boise as pilot markets because they are economically strong, with high readership and each has a larger-than-normal population of 25- to 34-year-olds. Asked why Gannett picked markets that already have alternative papers, Stier says cities with a high Gen-X population happen to have those kinds of papers.
“Look at Des Moines,” she points out. “Des Moines has two alternative weeklies. You would be hard-pressed to find a market (with a high Gen-X demographic) that doesn’t already have an alternative weekly.”
Still, Schwartz is skeptical REAL life will embody the spirit of a true alternative weekly, as he feels the Pulse does. He describes his paper as a “liberal, left kind of newspaper that’s broken a number of (investigative) stories already,” and also features reporting on local arts and entertainment, daily life, city hall, the environment and civil liberties.
As an example of this spirit, Schwartz cites a recent flap with Mayor David Hollister, the latest in an ongoing feud that began with the mayor’s second re-election in November. At that time, the Pulse ran a cover drawing of him dressed as a king with a scepter.
“It was kind of gentle; it was meant to be fun, that he’s been elected so many times,” Schwartz says.
Hollister, however, was not amused, and the war escalated following a controversial story the Pulse wrote in May about General Motors and emissions permits. After that story, Hollister ordered city employees not to speak to the media. Schwartz contacted a media lawyer, and the local chapter of the ACLU persuaded its national organization to get involved on behalf of First Amendment rights. Hollister’s office, on advice from the city attorney, eventually bowed to pressure from the Pulse and lifted the gag order.
“There would’ve been a fight, and it would’ve dragged on, and it would’ve been a real distraction from what I need to be doing,” Schwartz says.
Hirten asserts the term alternative is “extraordinarily broad” and that REAL life will be aimed at a nontraditional newspaper audience “who, for whatever reason, decides the conventional media isn’t for them.”
“It’s going to speak to people here in a way they haven’t been spoken to before.”
Schwartz just hopes it doesn’t speak too loudly to his current and future advertisers.
“The idea that it’s an ‘alternative’ is funny,” he says. “What isn’t funny is how advertisers respond to it.”
REAL life will be a free distribution, as is the Pulse, and Hirten doesn’t see it as necessarily competing just with that paper, since there are community weeklies and other newspapers in Lansing. Still, it will be competition, which he says is normal in any business.
“If I were an existing business in a community, I would fear that,” he adds. “It’s difficult.”
“Competition is good,” says Stier.
City Pulse has a circulation of 15,000 weekly and is distributed in 270 locations. It ranges from 16 to 28 pages each week and consists of 35 percent to 40 percent advertising. It can be found online at http://www.city-pulse.org/. Boise Weekly has a circulation of 26,000 weekly — up from 17,000 last August, according to Barnes — and averages 52 pages a week, 12 pages more than this time last year. It usually consists of 55 percent advertising.
Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.