Albion Monitor /Features

Editor's note: At last week's AAN convention, editors and publishers could choose from more than forty seminars and roundtable discussions. But only a single presentation actually touched upon news reporting -- Bruce Shapiro of The Nation speaking on coverage of crime and justice. Mostly the conference discussed marketing, classified advertising, and how to expand using the Internet. Among the presentations:

The Corporate, Mainstream Alternative Press

by Eric Fredericksen

The agent of destruction referred to is Microsoft
"If you happen to live in a major city, you'll see the existing media fortresses begin to crumble at the end of this year."

That attention-grabbing sentence found its way onto my desk a few months ago. It came via the network of junk e-mail so many of us get our news and gossip from these days -- from the story about the Navy shooting down Flight 800 to the tale of that poor guy who went home with a beautiful woman he met at a bar and woke up the next morning in a tub full of ice, with a tube running out his back and both kidneys removed. By the time these messages reach our e-mail inboxes, they've been forwarded many times. Any reference to their original source has long since been deleted. They're about as trustworthy as the "Weekly World News."

The prophecy of the crumbling media fortress stayed on my screen a minute longer than usual, though, because it had something to do with me. I happen to work at a media company which, while not exactly a fortress, keeps a roof over my head.

The agent of destruction referred to in this missive, which I later tracked down as having originated on the Hotwired-affiliated Web site Packet, is Microsoft. Actually, it's a tiny segment of Microsoft known as Sidewalk, a group of city guides and local listings Web sites which officially opened to the public in April with the launch of Seattle Sidewalk. As the article's panicky headline has it, "Microsoft's Sidewalk project spearheads a plan that will see Redmond own the news." The author, Brooke Shelby Biggs, suggests that "within the next five years, Microsoft will be the most powerful news media company in the world."

Making the distance between you and information about food, sports, movies, concerts, and clubs as short as possible, so that Microsoft employees and their ilk can get cultural tips and information quickly
Before it officially debuted, I drove down to Pioneer Square to see the advance guard of this media revolution. Seattle Sidewalk's offices are at the edge of Pioneer Square, in an office building created from the shells of two former warehouses. A small, expensively furnished waiting room leads into a large open space, where motivated, clean-cut white people buzz around the high-ceilinged main workspace. Desks set in X formations carry high-end Windows workstations and very little clutter. A passkey card reader at the entrance to the office is the only architectural link to Redmond's Microsoft Campus, where Sidewalk's ultimate bosses work.

The Sidewalk staff is preparing for the debut of what some onlookers see as Microsoft's newest bid to control, well, just about everything. But in real terms, what they're working on is a Web site containing the most comprehensive Seattle listings available -- a literalization of the Microsoft ad campaign slogan, "Where do you want to go today?" What they come up with will guide the launch, spread out over this year and next, of similar sites geared toward a select slate of cities whose market size and entertainment options are large and rich enough to support such a venture.

This year should see Sidewalk open sites in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Minnesota's Twin Cities, Washington, San Diego, Denver, Houston, and Sydney, Australia. By the time Seattle Sidewalk goes online this week, the editorial staff will be entering their fourth month of dry-runs -- putting the site together exclusively for the eyes of Microsoft and test-group users.

The day of my visit, I'm quickly led into a conference room which could seat the site's 14-person editorial staff with ease. Today it holds only me, a photographer, a Microsoft publicist, and Kevin Eagan, the general manager of Seattle Sidewalk and the closest thing it has to a publisher. Eagan's demeanor quickly betrays the fact that unlike many on the Sidewalk staff, who were hired away from daily newspapers, city weeklies, magazines, and television stations, he is a Microsoft native. His rapid-fire speaking voice and relentless evangelism mark him as one of the faithful. On the few occasions during his and the publicist's one-hour presentation when I manage to squeeze in a question, they answer quickly and jump straight back to their hard sell.

What they show me looks like this:

Seattle Sidewalk opens to a surprisingly bland and unstylish home page (""), featuring an "event of the day" (the day I saw featured the video release of "The First Wives' Club"), links to current feature stories (I'm shown a multimedia history of the martini), and a column of links to events which might be up your alley, depending on the preferences you've entered while customizing Sidewalk's interface. We're looking at Eagan's personal page: he's informed the site of his genre preferences in films and music; of his tastes in food; of which sports he follows. Sidewalk's entries are all coded into one or more categories, so matching you up with a slate of evening activities is simple enough for even a punchcard-reading steam-powered computer to accomplish. And if you tell it your favorite artist -- Neil Diamond, say -- Sidewalk will send you an e-mail message when his next local concert is coming up.

Eagan describes Sidewalk as being geared toward today's active lifestyles. He explains that, as a Microsoft employee, he was used to getting through that company's famous 50- and 60-plus-hour work weeks, only to find himself with no idea what to do for entertainment come Friday night. A week immersed in work doesn't leave much time or energy for figuring out what's going on in town, "so more often than not, I'd just stop by Blockbuster on my way home from work and pick up a video." If planning an evening's activities became as easy as choosing a video, the inference follows, people would be more likely to get out on the town and take in some culture.

The core idea of Sidewalk is to make the distance between you and the information you need about food, sports, movies, concerts, and clubs as short as possible, so that Microsoft employees and their ilk can get cultural tips and information quickly, when they need it. Besides the customized picks on the home page, there are search engines that let you find information by day, neighborhood, genre, or type of cuisine. (During my visit, Kevin Eagan took me through a restaurant search on his beta version of Sidewalk. He asked me to choose a type of cuisine, and I, randomly knowing of five Ethiopian restaurants in town, chose that. The closest category grouped all varieties of African cuisine together, and turned up four restaurants, including two of my five -- not bad, really, for a start.)

Seattle Sidewalk's staff assembles a dizzying profusion of information. When a band appears in an evening's listings, a click on the band name should link you with a short paragraph describing that band's sound. A restaurant listing will link you to a similar capsule review, or a longer review, or, if the restaurant's an advertiser, to a sample menu. Movie reviews link to theater locations, showtimes, and a wide selection of neighborhood restaurants you could eat at before or after the picture. When you get into sports, the amount of information is nearly bewildering: a representation of KeyArena, where the Sonics play, shows your view of the court from each section of the arena as you click across it.

Seattle Sidewalk purchases the basic information in the listings from "Seattle Weekly"/ "Eastsideweek," Sasquatch Books (formerly affiliated with the "Weekly," and publisher of the "Best Places" series of books), and other sources. Eagan won't say what the "Seattle Weekly" gets out of the deal, and "Weekly" publisher David Brewster is only slightly more forthcoming. The "Weekly" gets an unspecified amount of money -- which, given the kind of dough Sidewalk's been throwing around on salaries for low-level editorial employees, could be a considerable sum; they also get some assistance in developing and managing their computing systems and constructing their own Web site. The Weekly's sister paper, "Eastsideweek," already has a small site online ("") which carries no timely information, listings, or articles from the paper; the "Weekly" also expects to go online, probably with a more useful site, within the year.

Alternative papers pulled in $300 million last year
When "Seattle Weekly" does venture online, it will be far from unique: of the 110-or-so papers belonging to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies trade group, about two-thirds have some sort of online presence. In the fearful perspective of Packet's media writer, this is their only prayer of remaining relevant in coming years. "For the time being, those newspapers with robust online efforts won't feel much of a pinch, since Microsoft Sidewalk and its ilk are still in their larval forms." Not everybody involved in publishing is so sure.

"I don't see people clamoring for an online listings service." I'm on the phone to Washington, D.C., talking with Richard Karpel, Executive Director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). "To get ad revenues they have to prove they have eyeballs."

Karpel is in a position to see where the eyeballs actually are: he's the top executive in a trade association whose member newspapers have doubled their circulation (with revenues increasing 10 percent a year) in the last five or six years. Revenues for the 107 AAN member papers reached about $300 million last year -- over $100 million more than the ad revenues generated by the entire Internet (estimated in a recent report at $171.5 million). Even given that business on the Internet could double in 1997, it seems odd for newsweeklies to be so obsessed with getting online now, when hardly anyone is able to turn a profit, and large companies are resigned to losing piles of dough for five years or more.

Aimed toward young, single city dwellers with a fair amount of disposable income
Since most weeklies are distributed free, the money in alternative weekly publishing comes almost entirely from advertising, whether commercial, classified, or personal. Through the 25 years of the alternative weekly industry (though the "Village Voice" began publishing in the '50s, most oldline weeklies date back only 20 or 25 years), most of that revenue has come from local advertising: shops, restaurants, and bars. Also, and more importantly, in the early days these papers survived on sex ads that other businesses wouldn't take, and on personals. That's started to change in the '90s: with more professional business practices, more sophisticated marketing, and trade organizations like AAN, as well as a newer crop of ad buyers, alternative weeklies have become attractive to national advertisers.

Currently, one of two national advertising networks represent pretty much any weekly. The Alternative Weekly Network (which represents papers such as the "Village Voice" and "L.A. Weekly") and the Ruxton Group (which represents others, including all the papers in the New Times chain and the "Chicago Reader") allow national advertising buyers to deal with one ad rep who can sell them ads in dozens of papers in markets all over the country, instead of having to work with individual reps in every city. National advertising still represents only a small portion of revenues for alternative papers (estimated by one publisher at about 10 percent of ad revenues), but it's a fast-growing segment.

The advantages of this arrangement are obvious. While leaving editorial and business control in the cities where the papers are published, national ad networks allow national advertisers to buy ads without having to worry, or even think about, the individual papers. The papers' reader demographics -- tending toward young, single city dwellers with a fair amount of disposable income -- do the selling.

They drop the names of local neighborhoods like they were ad slogans
Alternative weeklies were not founded primarily as revenue-earners. Many started as labors of love, with little initial capital. As recently as last year, millions of dollars were being thrown at any business related to the Internet; alternative weeklies never saw that kind of money when they were starting out. Most are resistant to broad categorizations of what "alternative newspaper" means, but their basic structure and tone is largely homogenous: tabloid newsprint publications with opinionated reporting, a generally liberal slant, lots of arts coverage, thick calendars of events, and classified and personal ads. A critical perspective on local news is the meat-and-potatoes of the alternative weekly -- and part of the popularity of these papers comes from their ability to raise hell.

Sidewalk targets the same affluent, active urban and suburban readers as local weeklies; they're also looking to sell the same kind of local advertising. The challenge faced by Sidewalk is to deliberately and quickly build the kind of business that alternative weeklies happened upon after 20-some years: to create sites which are true to their individual communities, which are seen as trusted reference tools for calendar listings and reviews, and which attract consistent hits from locals. All this while maintaining their organization from a central Redmond office.

Sidewalk will encounter an obstacle right off the bat in trying to give local flavor to a Web site, which by its nature is radically placeless. A second obvious obstacle is the site's bland tone: maybe Microsoft's nervous about turning off potential visitors with any attitude.

As Richard Karpel of AAN said, talking about the challenges faced by newspaper chains, "Successful alternative newspapers are very local, very close to the street. To the extent that companies are unable to maintain that, they're going to have problems."

Microsoft takes on this challenge with, first and foremost, a great big wad of cash. Buying up talent from the media in the cities served by each local Sidewalk, Microsoft is attempting to pitch its staffs as "dream teams" of critics and writers who know both the town and the culture. An acquaintance hired away from a national magazine by New York Sidewalk is said to have doubled her salary; certainly, in a market where editorial talent is consistently and traditionally poorly compensated, it doesn't take much of Microsoft's six or seven billion dollars in cash to put together solid editorial teams in each of its markets. (It's doubtful many would agree to do the job without being well paid -- buckets of reviews, amounting in general to no more than a couple of hundred words each, are nobody's fantasy writing assignment.)

The individual Sidewalks will attempt to gear themselves to their home cities, too. The Seattle site, for instance, has a lot of information about outdoor activities like hiking and rock climbing. The New York site, presumably, will not. The teaser page for Boston Sidewalk refers to some massive construction project called the Big Dig. The Minneapolis site promises to show you where to buy cocoa after skating on one of that city's lakes, and "the best undiscovered burger spot within ten miles of a Vikings game." They drop the names of local neighborhoods like they were ad slogans.

Jack Shafer, brought in by New Times to edit "SF Weekly" after the firing of its editorial leadership, told "Bay Guardian" writer Ron Curran he didn't expect any special challenges working in a new city: "I don't know that San Francisco is any more idiosyncratic than Phoenix, or Phoenix is than Dallas, or Dallas from Denver," he said. A Sidewalk executive producer would never make that kind of flub: Of course each city is unique and wonderful and full of rich, idiosyncratic things, which Sidewalk will tell you about and help you buy tickets for and give you directions to. But the business philosophy and basic structure of the sites tell a different story. Despite a couple of differences here and there -- talking about salmon in Seattle and tie-dyes in San Francisco -- the various Sidewalks won't vary much from one another. It's a generic formula for local color.

Coming into cities often when a paper is in rough financial shape, New Times quickly installs its own people
Sidewalk's not the only media company trying to amass a national chain with a local feel. Recently there's been a move toward consolidating the ownership of the independent, traditionally small and feisty city weeklies. In the past ten years, the New Times company, which grew from a single weekly, "Phoenix New Times," has picked up papers in Miami, Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Coming into cities often when a paper is in rough financial shape, New Times quickly installs its own people, usually firing the paper's leadership -- as they did in San Francisco in early 1995 after buying "SF Weekly," the smaller of the city's two major weeklies. Known, almost paradoxically, both for a cookie-cutter editorial and design philosophy, and for papers which are intensely local in their reporting, New Times has been a highly profitable company for years -- though its struggling recent acquisitions in S.F. and Los Angeles may be taking a bite out of revenues.

A story on the New Times takeover of "SF Weekly," reported in the "Bay Guardian," said that New Times executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin "told industry allies that they hope to one day dominate the nation's top 15 markets." New Times' name is sure to come up when a city weekly is on the block, and generally with reason: no paper with a circulation over 50,000 has been sold in the last two years without New Times expressing on-the-record interest or actually completing the purchase. Their name came up recently in connection with the possible sale of "Seattle Weekly," but apparently the macho style of the New Times leadership didn't sit well with the "Weekly's" board, which ultimately sold the paper to Stern Publishing, owners of the "Village Voice" and "LA Weekly."

New Times covets the economies of scale and the ad-buying power offered by having a nationally recognizable franchise. Their weeklies, drawing on the resources of a central business, editorial, and legal staff in Phoenix, can exchange staff members around the various papers (soon after "SF Weekly" hired Bay Area film critic Michael Sragow away from "Seattle Weekly," "New Times Los Angeles" also started bragging about carrying Sragow's writing), and can count on some financial stability during regional recessions. Though New Times' latest acquisitions in California still languish in second place in their markets (New Times people refer to "SF Weekly" as their Viet Nam), other New Times papers, notably their monopoly-enjoying Phoenix flagship, are doing robust business.

Village Voice and Microsoft
New Times isn't the only company with an interest in building an alternative weekly empire. "The Village Voice," that venerable 40-year-old grandfather of alternative weeklies, has, since its acquisition by near-billionaire Leonard Stern, been building up steam to challenge New Times nationally. Two years ago, Stern Publishing acquired the "LA Weekly," a paper that New Times was reportedly interested in picking up. (New Times eventually bought two smaller L.A. papers and folded them together under the name "New Times Los Angeles") The "Voice" supported the efforts of its L.A. paper to create a sister publication, "OC Weekly," in Orange County, and it began publishing a Long Island version of the "Voice" in April. Its recent aquisition of "Seattle Weekly" brings its total circulation roughly in line with that of the New Times papers.

Stern's papers have also ventured online, which is part of the reason the "Voice"is selling its New York listings to that city's Sidewalk. As with "Seattle Weekly"'s deal, no one will comment specifically on the terms, but Linda Nelson, Vice President of New Media at the "Voice," did tell me that it involves both money and technical assistance from Microsoft.

If you can deliver your demographic, the actual content of your media product is not that important
Both the "Village Voice" and New Times' names were mentioned in connection with another paper that recently went on the block, the 20-year-old "Twin Cities Reader." The story of its purchase gets to the heart of what's sad and a little ominous about the maturing of the alternative weekly market.

The "Twin Cities Reader" was been purchased a few years ago as part of an acquisition by American City Business Journals, a company which publishes, among many other papers, the "Puget Sound Business Journal." According to former publisher R.T. Rybak, ACBJ wasn't interested in investing in the paper -- they seemed more interested in profiting from the resale of the paper. They put the "Twin Cities Reader" on the market, where it remained for several months. It was still for sale when the competing Minneapolis weekly "City Pages" was abruptly sold to Stern Publishing, in a deal reported by several of its participants to have been conceived and completed in a little over a week.

Stern took the opposite of New Times' buy-'em-and-fire-'em approach with "City Pages." The sale was contingent on both the publisher and editor of "City Pages" retaining their positions, an arrangement attractive to both parties. Stern's approach recognizes an increasing truth in the way the media business works today: if you can deliver your demographic, the actual content of your media product is not that important. And in the national ad networks, your demographics and your market are all the advertisers need to know. They don't even need to see the paper they're buying ads in.

Meanwhile, the "Twin Cities Reader" suddenly looked less attractive to potential buyers. Not only would a new buyer be entering into an almost 20-year-old competition between two papers appealing to the same demographic, neither of which made much money as a result, but they'd be squaring off against a paper whose owner had probably the deepest pockets in alternative publishing.

Less than a month after Stern Publishing purchased "City Pages," the "Reader"was also picked up by Stern, in what was widely viewed as a fire sale. A day later, it was closed. The last issue published had a one-paragraph breaking news item reporting the sale, but made no mention of the paper's closure, which had not been announced. But on Wednesday, March 12, the staff was informed that they had completed their last issue, that they needed to vacate "Reader" offices by Friday, and that maybe 10 of the 50-person staff could catch on at "City Pages," which would be hiring new staff, increasing its circulation, and gradually increasing its page count -- reflecting its new position as Minneapolis' only alternative weekly. (So far, only a couple of "Reader" employees have found jobs with their former competitor.)

At the time of the "City Pages" sale, "Village Voice" Publisher David Schneiderman was quoted as saying Stern Publishing doesn't get involved in the day-to-day operations of its papers, leaving important business decisions to each paper's editors and publisher. But, as an article in the "Minneapolis Star-Tribune" pointed out, "Stern Publishing did get involved in the biggest way possible in the management of "City Pages." It bought the competition and shut it down."

When the "Reader's" editor, Claude Peck, met with Stern Publishing's David Schneiderman -- minutes before Schneiderman announced to the entire staff that the paper would close in 48 hours -- Peck was told that the decision had nothing to do with the editorial quality of the paper. The closure was just business. The "Reader" had been shuttled between owners for years, none of whom were interested in investing much money in the business. "City Pages" had more ads and more pages, a slightly larger circulation, and higher revenues -- and, handed a monopoly situation, the "City Pages" could earn Stern a lot of money.

As Doug Grow wrote in the Star-Tribune, "Alternative journalism started out, in large part, as an anti-establishment reaction to all the corporate power plays. But because its practitioners were good at poking and prodding, being different from mainstream papers such as the "Star-Tribune," they became successful in the marketplace, meaning they became attractive to corporations, which proved fatal to the "Reader."

Despite its successes, alternative publishing still boasts brash, individualistic publishers like the "Bay Guardian's" Bruce Brugmann, and iconoclasts like New Times executive editor Michael Lacey, famously quoted in "Quill" as saying he got into alternative publishing because "I just wanted to punch a few people in the fucking head." But the business models beneath the veneer of quirkiness are starting to look a lot more like Microsoft Sidewalk -- where, the publicist tells me proudly, "we've done a lot of market research trying to segment our target audience."

Former "Twin Cities Reader" publisher Rybak recalls, when he began in alternative publishing, going to his first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention, an annual event where publishers and editors come together from all over the country. Rybak says he was stunned at the heterogeneity of all the eccentric, entrepreneurial newspaper publishers. "What better way for the most unencumbered journalism in the world to be controlled," he says, than by a bunch of quirky, local owners. But quirky local owners get older, and start thinking about getting some of their equity out for retirement. Or they hit a bad patch of business and run out of money, or start dreaming about freeing themselves from the 52-weeks-a-year job they've had for the last two decades. When they do, it's likely that a billionaire, or a business journal chain, or another ambitious weekly will be ready and willing to take care of their problems.

This feature first appeared in The Stranger

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Albion Monitor July3, 1997 (

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