Albion Monitor /Commentary

The "Alternative" Press Isn't

by Mark Lowenthal

I spent a recent weekend in Salt Lake City -- a fact I'm neither proud nor pleased about. Beautiful mountain horizons; flat, homogenous streets; too many white people. I was there to speak at the national conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) -- an annual gathering which, as you may have gleaned, is as close to a physical presence as "the alternative press" comes.

Considering that the "alternative press" has traditionally been the major source from which Project Censored (the media-watch group with which I'm affiliated) culls its annual list of under-reported or "censored" news stories, I've always been interested in attending the yearly AAN conference and was happy to have been invited to this year's Salt Lake-based shindig.

After attending, however, I'm disappointed to report that my previous concerns about the "alternative press" were only more deeply confirmed. Indeed, my general impression of the conference (and the editorial product of the many papers on display) was much the same as my prior assessment of the host city: frequently beautiful artistic design; flat, homogenous content; too many white people.

Ponytails & Tassled Loafers

My trouble meter began jumping wildly as soon as I hit the lobby of the Red Lion Hotel which served as home to this year's conference. Before I even made it to the registration table I was struck by what I took to be an ominous sign -- too many Dockers, sport coats and wool slacks.

This unscientific appraisal turned out to be more than accurate as I perused the conference materials in my registration packet. In the front of the conference program -- listed first (before the two-day schedule of actual panel discussions) -- was a comprehensive roster of trade show exhibitors (simultaneously situated in the Grand Ball Room). Call me silly, but there's just something about an "alternative press" gathering dominated by the likes of Simmons Market Research, Media Marketing Inc. and Synaptic Micro Solutions that strikes me the wrong way.

To be sure, actual journalists had to have felt a wee bit out of place at a conference so clearly geared to the business side of the journalistic process. Indeed, a quick look at the schedule of panel and roundtable discussions found a mere 14 of the 48 scheduled sessions devoted to "editorial."

What kind of meaty, Edward R. Murrow-inspired panel topics typified the 19th annual AAN conference? I'm sure you would have been mesmerized by "Telemarketing Strategies" -- or most certainly "Selling/Negotiating In The '90s." And even the most cynical would've undoubtedly found "How To Use Software To Increase Revenue" wholly riveting. Aren't they still called News weeklies...?

Okay, so business is business, but of the precious few editorial panels, shouldn't one expect more than AAN TV Pundits -- which aside from having virtually nothing to do with print journalism, held little relevance for anyone other than the three panelists (two editors and a publisher) who currently appear on such pundit shows.

Also among the handful of editorial panels that comprised the "journalism" side of the conference were Cartoonists ("A lively, humorous look at the trials and tribulations of an alternative cartoonist...") and "Arts Coverage: The Editor's Responsibilities To Readers And To The Local Scene."

Priorities, priorities

Perhaps the most illuminating moment of the convention occurred during a panel titled "What We Do Wrong...And Right." After starting on a rather cordial note, one of the panelists, an investigative journalist for the mainstream/corporate Knight-Ridder newspaper group named Monte Paulsen, launched into what can only be described as a resolute condemnation of the conference -- and the state of alternative newsweeklies in general. Aside from agreeing with Mr. Paulsen's assessment, I found his opinion particularly weighty considering his resume: he recently jumped to Knight-Ridder after an impressive stint as an investigative reporter for the (alternative) Detroit Metro Times, was also a co-founder of the Casco Bay Weekly (also alternative) and is a former AAN board member.

"Last year, at this same conference -- in this same session" scolded Paulsen, "AAN papers were criticized for not investing in reporting -- for buying stories rather than writers -- for rarely being innovative or ground-breaking. And there was a lot of hand-wringing among editors and publishers, and talk of 'renewing commitments' to investigative reporting. And it was all bullshit! I look at the papers on display at this year's conference and virtually nothing's changed."

"Just look around the conference itself," Paulsen continued, "for all this 'commitment to reporting,' where are they? Where are the writers? They're not even here! You say you're renewing your commitment to reporting, and who did you bring to the convention? Your ad and business staffs!"

Paulsen's diatribe was met by a curious response. No one argued or disagreed, yet no one voiced agreement either. In fact no one did or said much of anything. No hand-wringing or "renewed commitments" to substantive reporting. The moderator simply introduced the next panelist and the session moved on.

As I sat there absorbing Paulsen's words -- and the group's utter lack of response to them -- I wasn't sure whether this was an indication of humility or lifeless resignation. I'm still not.

Mark Lowenthal is associate director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

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Albion Monitor June 21, 1996 (

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