Publishers say they are “alternative” alternatives
Like nature, media abhors a vacuum, and when a hole in a media market is created, something will rush in to fill it.
This, at least, is the working premise of two young publishers launching publications in Cleveland and Los Angeles, where Village Voice Media and New Times each closed an alt-weekly — New Times Los Angeles and VVM’s Cleveland Free Times.
The closing of these two papers left voids to be filled for Daniel Gray-Kontar and Martin Albornoz, two 31-year-olds creating what they see as their generation’s “alternative” alternative media properties.
Cleveland is sports, rock ‘n’ roll and hard work. It’s hot politics, cutting-edge art and predominantly African-American — 52 percent, by Gray-Kontar’s estimate — with a growing Latino population, as well.
The associate editor of Free Times when it closed, Gray-Kontar is partnering with at least five other former staffers to publish Urban Dialect, a monthly news magazine set to debut in print form March 5. The monthly is named for the column Gray-Kontar wrote for the Free Times.
He and Clarence D. Meriweather, Dialect’s art director, were both hired at the Free Times a few years ago and became not only friends, but potential business partners. The two African-Americans would verbally dissect the black press and discuss what they would do differently.
When the Free Times closed, they saw their opportunity. Gray-Kontar didn’t want either a predominantly African-American newspaper or “a Free Times redux.” What he wanted was a native Cleveland staff that knows the area and caters to voices that he feels have been ignored by both the Free Times and the Cleveland Scene, the New Times alt-weekly that survived after the VVM/NT deal.
“We consider (the Scene) an alternative paper, but not an alternative voice,” he says.
The Scene and other alt-weeklies seem like the creation of baby boomers and don’t always service the “hip-hop generation,” he says. For example, while the Scene and the Free Times were branching out into the suburbs, whole neighborhoods of the city itself were being ignored, he says.
Gray-Kontar’s mission, then, is to establish a new paradigm for his generation, not only focusing on their concerns and art, but also making use of their technology — namely, the Internet.
“We choose to use the Internet in a way that truly serves our readership,” he says, adding that the Web site, urbandialect.net, will guide the magazine, rather than the other way around.
The site’s content will change each week, and arts and music event listings will be e-mailed directly to each online subscriber at the same time. Gray-Kontar says no other publication in Cleveland, perhaps the entire listings region — including Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit and Pittsburgh — offers this. He believes both the site and the magazine can score ad dollars by being sold as a package deal, and that the number of online subscribers coupled with site “hits” will be attractive to advertisers rather than making them skeptical about the Internet’s effectiveness in luring customers.
But what about content? Gray-Kontar is clear on this: Urban Dialect will cover independent filmmaking and music, as well as breakout forms in jazz and electronic music. It will focus on neighborhoods within the city, rather than the suburbs, including a column written in street vernacular by “Mudfoot, the ghetto communicator.” It won’t be afraid to push political hot buttons, something he thinks has become a weakness of area papers.
“We don’t want to be a part of that dummying-down process,” he says. “We’re (also) not interested in a magazine that looks like the Yellow Pages, with one or two articles in there” among nearly all advertising.
Gray-Kontar also wants to support Cleveland’s growing Latino population and is seeking Hispanic writers from that community. “Admittedly, that has not been easy to do,” he says, because many of the area’s Latino immigrants are first-generation and still learning English.
Gray-Kontar and the other shareholders of Urban Dialect believe investors will support the new alternative. He adds that many advertisers already are doing so.
He has hired five salespeople to sell ads and market the publication and Web site. In addition, the company has contracted with Myron Ruffin, a freelance troubleshooter, to train the sales and marketing staff until a permanent department head can be found. One of Ruffin’s ideas is already in place — “Excursions @ The Spy Bar,” a monthly offering of local bands at a local bar, prominently sponsored by the Dialect.
The Dialect’s Web site launched one day after the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the print magazine will begin with at least 300 points of distribution and a circulation of 15,000, to expand to 25,000 by the end of the year. The first issue will feature a 60/40 split of editorial and advertising, which Gray-Kontar’s hopes to balance out at 50/50 in future.
Finally, while the Dialect is aiming for an ages 22-40 readership base, Gray-Kontar says, “We’re not trying to not have an audience that’s older than 40; we’re just focusing where no one else is.”
Los Angeles Alternative Press
Across the country in warm, sunny L.A. is another tale of a publication forming in reaction to a void in the local alternative press. Or, as Publisher Albornoz looks at it, the lack of a comprehensive local alternative press, which in his view concentrates more on Hollywood and downtown politics than on outlying neighborhoods.
Begun in April 2002, the Silver Lake Press is preparing to re-launch Feb. 19 as the Los Angeles Alternative Press. Albornoz and his wife, Yvette Doss, who is also the editor, started the paper with only $20,000 and a shared background in journalism. The small community newspaper for the creative, largely Bohemian, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz and Atwater Village area, focuses on arts and “people in the neighborhood who are doing interesting things,” people who aren’t usually included in typical Hollywood profiles.
The population of those four neighborhoods, which is roughly 40 percent Latino, is comparable to that of a small city.
“Everybody loved the paper, was picking it up,” Albornoz says, adding that in only a few months, the circulation doubled to 30,000. “It has been profitable from day one.”
Slowly, the Press expanded coverage into Hollywood, downtown and Pasadena and added film, restaurant and music reviews as they also began covering news and political issues. Most recently, the biweekly publication has showcased anti-war protests in the Silver Lake area, including profiles of homegrown activists and organizers. Other hot issues for the “amazingly diverse” region, which Albornoz says LA Weekly isn’t covering, are gentrification and accomplishments of Latinos like Albornoz, a native of southeast L.A.
With New Times LA’s closing, he saw an opening for his publication to expand. Though the Press didn’t start out as a typical alternative newsweekly, Albornoz believes it embodies much of the spirit of the original alternative newsweeklies — serving a community underserved by bigger media.
He also sees alt-weeklies consolidating and merging, in effect, “turning into what they started out in reaction against.” Independent papers like his are “almost a second-generation alternative revolution happening,” he says. With the ease of desktop publishing to aid younger voices, Albornoz thinks this revolution will continue.
“I really believe the city needs five or six newspapers,” he says, adding that it’s difficult for any one publication to cover all neighborhoods of a city like Los Angeles meaningfully. “We’re a little closer to the community. We hear things and see things a little sooner.”
The re-launch as Los Angeles Alternative Press will include beefing up political coverage and adding a local city hall writer and a Sacramento-based political columnist. Circulation will also be bumped up to 40,000 and, eventually, publication will go to a weekly format. Albornoz also plans to switch from using freelancers for general coverage to asking them to write columns based on individual expertise.
“We don’t want to grow too fast, and already it seems like we are,” he muses.
When the Press began, advertisers from outside the area saw an opportunity to draw in its readership. Since then, the focus has narrowed more to businesses in the immediate area. With the announcement of a name change, some larger advertisers are once again calling Albornoz.
“Everybody asked if we were going to fill in (for New Times LA),” he says. He believes New Times LA, however, had a political angle the Press doesn’t embody. He also thinks the paper sometimes went after the powerless rather than the powerful.
“If you ever saw a person of color on their cover, it was usually tied in to a scandal,” he adds.
Albornoz and Doss grew up influenced by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Los Angeles Reader and, yes — even LA Weekly. He recalls when younger, having to drive into Hollywood from his outlying L.A. neighborhood just to pick up a copy of the Weekly, and vows this isn’t likely to happen to readers of the Press, especially not with 400 free drop-off points.
Despite expanding coverage and distribution outside Silver Lake, Albornoz is adamant that, “We’re still focusing on this area. The borders are just expanding, about 40 percent.”
Meanwhile, at least one more new competitor is jumping into the fray. Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has issued a prototype of a new weekly newspaper, The Los Angeles Examiner. The prototype, a 50-page tabloid, “will be shopped around to prospective advertisers and investors,” the Los Angeles Business Journal reported last month. Ken Layne, a member of the Examiner’s editorial staff and co-founder of the LAExaminer.com Web site, says the weekly would be a politically oriented, L.A.-centric paper aimed at affluent readers featuring commentary from well-known political writers and Hollywood insiders, but no sex ads. Former New Times Los Angeles writer Jill Stewart is a contributor to the prototype.
Ann Hinch is a freelance writer in Knoxville, Tenn.