Media Stars Remember Their Early Days

Got their chops at alternative newsweeklies

What happens to the journalists who take jobs writing for alt-weeklies, eager to kick butt and take names?

Some stay, plying the craft they love — along with co-workers half their age — caring more about their longtime marriage with the alternative press than moolah and klieg lights. Others leave the field entirely. Still others make it big in J biz.

AAN News talked to a handful of former alt-weekly writers who left the field for a bigger stage. Mainstream or not, these writers brought their alternative voices along as they ascended the golden steps of the national media.

Gail Collins

Gail Collins, 57, is the New York Times editorial page editor. She’s also published two books with a third on the way.

This particularly clever writer/political columnist, who grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, got her alt-start at the Hartford Advocate in the late ’70s. She covered the state legislature and loved it.

“There was a lot more freedom” in the alternative press in the 1970s, says Collins, who now lives in New York City.

“I knew a distressing amount of stuff about what the legislators were doing, but the challenge was to make it interesting because no one cared. So we wrote a lot of personal stuff, like their little feuds,” she says. “I loved the alternative press. It was the only time I could use the word ‘fuck’ in a story. It was new, exciting. We had so much power.”

If it wasn’t for her experience at the Advocate, Collins said she “never would have become a columnist.”

After the Advocate, Collins did a stint as a general assignment reporter for UPI in New York City. From there she went to the Daily News, where she wrote political columns for five years. She spent the following five years at New York Newsday, also as a political columnist.

In 1995, Collins went to The New York Times, where she was a political columnist, and in 2001 became editorial page editor.

She’s published two books, “The Millennium Book” and “Scorpion Tongues,” which she describes as “political gossip and its effect on American history.”

About the state of the alternative newsweekly industry, Collins says: “I have a theory. What happens is, whenever something is popular it always gets bought up by (a major corporation). We’ll never have alternative papers like we used to.”

And on achieving success, she says: “You have to do the stuff that’s fun. If you do stuff just to get successful, it’s not going to work. I’ve loved all my jobs.”

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, author of “The Orchid Thief,” which has been made into the film “Adaptation” starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, never wanted to work for a daily newspaper.

“I liked the energy, enterprise and imagination that I saw in the alternative papers,” says the New Yorker staff writer. “… their openness to people like me who were excited about being writers but not interested in the conventional newspaper world.”

Shunning the idea of doing the daily thing, Orlean, 47 — who says she’s wanted to write fact, not fiction since childhood — went weekly. And then alt-weekly.

Orlean grew up in a suburb of Cleveland and began her career at a small publication in Portland, Ore., called Paper Rose. She graduated to Willamette Week as music critic and eventually feature writer. Simultaneously, she freelanced for The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Newsweek.

Moving cross-country to Boston, Orlean continued to freelance for both the alternative and mainstream press — the Boston Phoenix and The Boston Globe. Then she moved to New York City, where she stayed put. While working on her first book, “Saturday Night,” she was getting published in The New York Times magazine, Vogue and GQ. In 1986, she began her work at the New Yorker.

Orlean’s publishing history is impressive. After “Saturday Night” — a compilation of vignettes of how people around the country spend their Saturday nights — she wrote three other books: “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup,” a collection of Orlean’s profile pieces, most of which ran in the New Yorker; “The Orchid Thief,” the story of John Laroche, an eccentric plant dealer who had been arrested for poaching rare orchids; and “Red Sox and Bluefish: And Other Things That Make New England New England,” reprints of Orlean’s Boston Globe columns on New England oddities as seen by someone who grew up in the Midwest. She’s currently working on her fifth book, “The Lady and the Tigers,” about animals in America.

“I do think having started my career writing longer-form stories that relied heavily on execution — and not just on concept — was a perfect opportunity to train for the kind of work I like the most,” says Orlean. “I like finding stories that are not obvious, (like) the oblique examination of popular culture and subcultures. And I like immersing myself in the reporting, and I love spinning the most seductive story I can.”

That still happens in the alt-weekly press, she says. “I think the alternative weeklies allow for a kind of one-step-removed examination of stories that daily papers usually don’t have.”

Neal Pollack

Satirist, columnist, novelist. That would be Neal Pollack, 32, an alumnus of the Chicago Reader and Philadelphia Weekly. He writes a daily Internet column called “Maelstrom” on his own site, His stuff is irreverent and relevant, and very cool.

In the beginning, Pollack wrote sports for his high school newspaper in Scottsdale, Ariz. He claims he was absorbing publications like The New York Times and Time magazine since he learned to read.

“I was a real journalism geek,” more into listening to news than music on the radio, “which was pretty sad. I’ve always had a fetish for the news.”

While a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he had a professor who once worked for the Chicago Reader and gave Pollack the alt-weekly bug. After graduating, Pollack wrote for a community, chain paper in Chicago, a frustrating experience.

“I would stumble across stories that weren’t ‘family-oriented,'” which his paper forbade, so he’d send those ideas to the Chicago Reader.

In early 1994, the Reader brought Pollack on as a staff writer.

“I did this urban, eccentric (reporting). They basically let their staff writers do what they wanted to. I loved the freedom, but there were times I would have wanted more direction,” he recalls. He only worked in the office once or twice a month. “I never saw my editors.”

Pollack covered city politics and labor issues for the Reader, but the wacky-people beat really grabbed him.

“My political reporting was serviceable. My niche was definitely human interest. I was passionate about politics, but … ”

In 1997, while still at the Reader (he left in November 2000), he began writing the satire he’d become well known for. His early work, which he read at coffeehouses, spoofed bad magazine writing.

At about the same time, he sent Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney’s and a former cartoonist and writer for the SF Weekly, six of his parodies. Eggers was just kicking off McSweeney’s — “a loosely-defined literary journal that happens to have a small but growing presence on the web [sic]” according to its Web site. He bought four of Pollack’s columns for his premiere issue. (Eggers’ spokesperson says Eggers doesn’t do interviews anymore.)

In 2000, Pollack, who now lives in Austin, Tex., published his first book, “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature,” with McSweeney’s Books, the publishing arm of Eggers’ outfit. This work was also produced as an spoken-word album by Bloodshot Records with musical embellishment by Mekons’ founder Jon Langford and others. Pollack’s second tome, “Beneath The Axis Of Evil: One Man’s Journey Into The Horrors Of War,” a collection of his political satire, was published this month by a small Austin firm.

Jumping into the major leagues with his third book, Pollack has teamed up with Harper Collins. “‘Never Mind the Pollacks’ is a satirical history of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. The title is a play on the only Sex Pistols album released before they disbanded, “Never Mind the Bollocks.” The book is due out in the fall.

Pollack says new blood will continue to revitalize the alternative news industry, although the form it takes may evolve.

“Just like there was a need for alternative papers in the ’60s and ’70s, there’s always going to be a new generation who will take its place,” says the satirist. “That muckraking spirit is out there.”

Alan Webber

Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company, describes his creation as a monthly “business magazine for the next generation of business leaders.” He may be a mogul now, but the 54-year-old Webber once toiled for the alternative press.

Webber grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and went to college in Portland, Ore. After graduating in 1971, he set out “to seek my fortune. To find my future.”

He didn’t find it right away. He washed dishes at a French restaurant, but that didn’t last long. Still in 1971, he started the Oregon Times, a political monthly, with a partner. When the paper folded in 1978, Webber spent the next year at Willamette Week as an editor and writer. Then he moved to Washington, D.C., to be special assistant to the secretary of transportation during the Carter administration. When that gig was up, Webber went to Harvard Business School, not to be a student but to research and co-author a book on the future of the auto industry, published as “Changing Alliances.” He also became the editor of the Harvard Business Review.

In 1995, he co-founded Fast Company, which he calls a cross between the Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone. Fast Company, which was acquired in 2000 by major magazine publisher G&J USA, has a paid circulation of 750,000 and is typically found in bookstores and airports, as well as online, he says. Its editorial office is in Boston, where Webber lives; the business office is in NYC.

“We were looking for a name that had a suggestion of business in it. Our mothers all told us not to play with kids who are fast company, trouble-making kids,” he says.

“The legacy of the alternative press that lingers in Fast Company is reader participation. There’s voice. There’s energy,” he says.

But Webber says he doesn’t miss the alt-weekly biz. “Alt-weeklies are no longer alternatives to the mainstream papers. They’ve become softer and softer. They’ve become the print version of TV magazine shows. They’re kind of a smattering of entertainment, a smattering of sex and a smattering of news.

“And I don’t shed a tear.”

Sarah Vowell

But another alt-writer-turned-author, Sarah Vowell, probably best known as a contributing editor for National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” says alternative journalism still encourages writers to find their unique voices.

“The fact that they don’t have the time or staff to over-supervise, combined with the papers’ tendency to attract free-thinking editors anyway, makes them, for my money, the greatest petri dish in journalism.”

Vowell, 33, has been doing the NPR gig since 1996 while penning three books. “Radio On: A Listener’s Diary;” “Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World;” and her best-selling third book, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot.”

The 33-year-old New Yorker was born in Oklahoma and moved to Montana when she was 11. She stayed there until she graduated from Montana State University.

Then she took off, eventually coming to rest in New York City.

Vowell chronicles her professional life thusly:

1993-96: freelanced for various art magazines, including Artforum, Art Papers and High Performance.

1995-99: freelanced articles about food and books for roughly four years for City Pages in Minneapolis.

1995-96: wrote music criticism for Chicago Reader. For a short time during this period, she wrote music columns for SF Weekly.

Since landing the position with public radio, she’s continued to freelance for pubs like Spin and GQ.

Victor Krummenacher

Unlike the others, Victor Krummenacher did “fame” first. The 37-year-old bassist for Camper Van Beethoven — “a rock band of the ’80s” — has been the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s art director since 1996. And he’s back strumming on tour now and then, since Camper, which broke up in 1990, reunited last year.

Despite gaining some fame early on as a rock musician, Krummenacher wasn’t thrilled. “I got tired of living in a van and not making any money,” he said. So he taught himself graphic design to prepare for a real job.

Krummenacher had grown up in Riverside, Calif., and dropped out of college to start Camper in 1983. It was then he got his introduction to the alternative press. Articles about Camper appeared in papers like The Village Voice and LA Weekly.

“I was on the cover of the Bay Guardian years before I worked there,” he says. “Working as a musician I’m used to crazy people, and journalists are pretty crazy.”

Krummenacher seems to have found his niche: art director for the medium he respects and sometimes musician. He has become a diehard advocate of the alternative weekly industry and bemoans aspects of its current state.

“I think we’re one of the last independently owned and operated alt-weeklies. I hate to see things become more homogenous. There’s a whole trend in American media to consolidate. It has all sorts of bearing on freedom of speech,” he says.

He has no intentions of becoming a full-time musician again anytime soon.

“I like having a regular paycheck, and I like what I do, and I like this paper. A big part of what’s kept me around is allegiance (to SFBG). I believe in this.”

Sharon Bass is the former editor of Casco Bay Weekly.