New Alt-Weekly Debuts in Des Moines

Publisher calls it a "low-risk" venture

Cityview celebrated its 10th anniversary week before last with a special edition and a free outdoor concert featuring several local bands. However, its reign as Des Moines’ only alternative weekly was over.

On June 26, the first issue of Pointblank hit the streets of Iowa’s capital. From the back, Pointblank looks exactly like Cityview. They have the same square format and identical revenue-producing advertisements. But the guts of the papers are a different story.

Pointblank is helmed by three former Cityview staffers, most notably Publisher and Executive Editor Jon Gaskell, who resigned as Cityview’s editor last November.

Joining him are Tim Schmitt, who was Cityview’s managing editor, and Roderick Kabel, who was art director. Both were fired by Cityview in March. Cityview Editorial Director Jay Wagner declines to comment on the reasons the two were let go.

Gaskell walked out of Cityview in November 2001, refusing to work under Wagner, who was new to the paper. Wagner, who has more than 20 years of newspaper experience, was also in charge when Schmitt and Kabel were fired in March. Since Wagner arrived at the publication, there has been 100 percent turnover of the four-person Cityview editorial staff.

Gaskell, who has a master’s in media studies and journalism from Drake University, at first went on to do an on-line Des Moines alternative weekly called Pointblank.

This spring, the newly unemployed Schmitt and Kabel approached Gaskell to nudge him toward starting a print edition of his on-line enterprise. They knew he had the resources.

Gaskell is the recipient of a trust account set up by his late father. His father, a prominent Des Moines stock-broker, died of a heart attack when Gaskell was 20. His mother was killed in a car accident when he was 11. He and his two brothers and sister, renowned artist and photographer Anna Gaskell, split the property of the elder Jon Gaskell.

Gaskell worked at small local papers and wrote a book before getting a job at Cityview. He also has a creative writing degree from Lake Forest College in Illinois.

Gaskell and a silent business partner started the venture, going into it 50/50. He personally does everything from ad sales to administrative work.

“It’s a low-risk venture,” said Gaskell, who intends to apply for AAN membership in 2003. “We have great people, and we’re putting a lot of sweat equity into this.”

Gaskell says Cityview’s failure to be a genuine alternative media voice rather than Des Moines’ market potential is his paper’s raison d’etre.

Cityview Publisher Connie Wimer laughs at the charge that her paper is less than hard-hitting.

“I wish that meant that my complaints have stopped,” she says. “We still step on a lot of toes and don’t intend to stop.”

Schmitt, now Pointblank’s managing editor, says the paper aims to distinguish itself with several columns featuring “distinct voices,” including a sports columnist and syndicated stalwarts, Chuck Shepherd (“News of the Weird”) and Advice Goddess Amy Alkon.

Both Gaskell and Schmitt are confident their paper can succeed. Pointblank debuted with a circulation of 20,000, a 50-50 advertising-to-editorial ratio, and 450 drop off spots that have enjoyed a 90 percent pick-up rate, Gaskell says. He plans to raise circulation to 30,000, matching Cityview’s circulation, within the month and up the page count to 28 with its fifth issue this week.

Des Moines joins a growing list of small cities, including Charlottesville, Va., Duluth, Minn., Portland, Maine, and Birmingham, Ala., where two alternatives compete for market share.

Can two weeklies survive in Des Moines?

“It would be nice if that were true,” says Wimer. “Competition is good for us.”

John Dicker is a freelance writer based in New York City. Amanda Pierre is based in Des Moines, Iowa.