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How Times and Alternatives Have Changed

June 11, 1998|PAUL COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Schneiderman was editor in chief and publisher of the Village Voice in 1986 when the iconoclastic weekly ran a front-page story introducing performance artist Karen Finley and her shockingly personal use of yams and sauerkraut. Even some of the paper's free-spirited staffers were uncomfortable with the piece.

That was then.

In late March, as publisher of the Voice and president of its parent company, Stern Publishing Inc., Schneiderman watched with satisfaction as the New York dailies and broadcast news outfits scampered to catch up with the weekly's front-page exclusive: that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan had appointed one of Malcolm X's killers, paroled in 1985, to head the Harlem mosque that had been run by the Muslim activist.

It would surprise former readers long gone from New York to see that the Voice they remember--a woolly chronicle of sexual politics, avant-garde theater, Third World liberation movements and emerging rock bands--has evolved under editor in chief Donald Forst (who previously edited the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner and other big-city dailies) into a paper with greater reportorial seriousness.

Moreover, to imagine that this independent voice is now also the flagship property in a seven-paper chain of alternative newsweeklies, one of several such groups, is to grasp in an instant how dramatically this category of publications has changed, and why the papers are able to draw increasing amounts of national advertising that was long out of reach.

"We're very much interested, indeed we hope to acquire more papers," said Schneiderman, who may get the chance to discuss a purchase or two at the annual convention of the Assn. of Alternative Newsweeklies, which runs today through Saturday at the Capital Hilton in Washington.

Stern Publishing, a media sideline of Hartz Mountain Industries mogul Leonard N. Stern, last year launched the Long Island Voice and acquired weeklies in Minneapolis, Seattle and Cleveland. Its plan to buy the Santa Barbara Independent fell through during contract negotiations in March--perhaps to be revived at a later time, both sides said--though Stern is exploring the possibility of starting other Southern California weeklies, in Long Beach and Ventura County, to join with its LA Weekly and 3-year-old OC Weekly in Orange County.

Recently, Schneiderman shot down a seismic rumor that Stern Publishing was about to buy Metro Newspapers' chain of 10 weeklies in Northern California, including its three alternatives, Silicon Valley's Metro, Metro Santa Cruz and the Sonoma County Independent.

When the next alternative paper really is offered for sale--and operators say that several longtime publishers may be looking to cash out after years of hard work--Stern may have to duel again with New Times Inc. The publisher of Phoenix New Times, the Dallas Observer and New Times Los Angeles has purchased or launched five other weeklies since 1991. "Our approach is that we like to run newspapers and we like to buy," said chief executive officer Jim Larkin. "And we run newspapers to make money to buy more papers, and we buy more papers to make money to buy still more papers."

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This is a prosperous period for the alternative newsweeklies (almost all of which are available free of charge) as they consider ways to refine operations and expand. Some of the sessions at this week's convention will focus on profit-sharing plans, effective uses of telemarketing and growth opportunities on the Internet.

Overall circulation of U.S. dailies dropped from 61 million in 1992 to more than 58.3 million in 1997, while ad spending on the dailies climbed, from $30.6 billion to more than $41.3 billion.

In the same period, according to the Assn. of Alternative Newsweeklies (which has 108 members), the country's alternative papers showed a dramatic gain in their total circulation from nearly 4.4 million in 1992 to 6.8 million in 1997. Annual ad revenue taken in by alternative weeklies more than doubled in that time, to an estimated $400 million.

"These are free-circulation, bulk-drop papers," said Kevin M. Lavalla, a managing director of Veronis, Suhler & Associates Inc., an investment bank in New York that specializes in media deals. "If they want to expand, they can, as long as they can afford the printing bill and distribution costs. It's a lot more of a challenge for a daily paper."

The weeklies boast an enviable reach among well-educated readers 18 to 40 years old, who are drawn to the papers' hip attitude, broad entertainment coverage and voluminous listings of club dates and other events. "It's an audience that daily papers are struggling to get--and perhaps always will be," Lavalla said.

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