Michigan Publisher Sells Pre-Fab Alternatives

An unwelcome interloper appears on Seven Days' turf.

Paula Routly of Burlington, Vt.’s Seven Days, was startled and displeased two months ago when her printer reported the presence at drop sites in nearby Plattsburgh, N.Y. of something resembling an alternative weekly. Already faced with a beefed-up weekend section from the Gannett-owned daily Free Press, it appeared that Seven Days ‘ left flank was now under attack as well.

But Plattsburgh’s North Country Express folded after six weeks, and the peril has passed. Maybe.

The paper represents a failed attempt to utilize what might be described as a “kit” alternative weekly. This service is the brainchild of Robert Downe of Traverse City, Mich. His Northern Express newspaper is available to anyone wishing to start a paper without doing “the heavy lifting” as Downe put it.

For the price of a full-page ad per week in the buyer’s market, Northern Express delivers a CD or camera-ready flats with “alternative” copy and layout supplied. All the new publisher has to do is add local content, stir, and presto! A new weekly is born.

The service has been available for about one year, but after an initial flurry of interest responses have been half-hearted at best. (There have been two takers as of this writing.) Downe is targeting small and mid-sized markets. “We’re not kidding ourselves that we’re going to be taking on the Village Voice.”

According to Downe, the North Country Express died a quick death because it did not include any local material. But the other customer is making a go of it. The Kalamazoo (Mich.) Express has been published since November 1998 by Morris Communications, owner of Flashes, a chain of shopping papers. Editor Rebecca Rowe is generally pleased with the Express. “We’re pretty happy with the content,” she said. “We do have to proofread it pretty carefully, though.”

Unlike the North Country Express, the Kalamazoo operation is running a substantial amount of homegrown content (about 40% of the total is from local talent), in keeping with Downe’s stated vision of how his service can help an aspiring alternative publisher get going.

And Rowe admits that “we probably wouldn’t have tried it” without the pages coming from Northern Express each week.

Routly sees the Express in a less benign light. For starters, the North Country Express included syndicated features that are exclusive to Seven Days for the region. More importantly, Routly says, “If it’s this easy to put out an impostor alternative, then I think it’s something [AAN papers] should be aware of.”