The Advocate Papers Have “Sold Out” to Times Mirror. But Should Anyone Care?
Bruce B. Brugmann—the cantankerous publisher and editor of the left-wing weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian—is on the phone from California, foaming at the mouth about why federal intervention’s needed to stop more so-called “alternative” newspapers from selling out to big media conglomerates.”The daily paper should not be allowed to buy its direct competition!” he roars. “This is a clear violation of antitrust!” he thunders.
What’s got Brugmann so upset, of course, is that last month Times Mirror, Co. purchased the New Mass. Media chain of Northeast alternative newspapers from its owners, Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin, for a sum estimated at somewhere between $10 and $20 million. This means, among other things, that Times Mirror’s daily Hartford Courant now owns its only local competition, the former New Mass. Media’s weekly Hartford Advocate. That’s a big development. Daily newspapers have purchased alternative weeklies before. Shamrock Communications Inc., which owned the daily Scranton Times, for example, purchased the weekly Baltimore City Paper in 1987 and, earlier this year, the company—now known as Times-Shamrock—bought the Detroit Metro Times, the Orlando Weekly and the San Antonio Current. And while in 1998 the Thomson newspaper chain, which publishes Lafayette, LA’s Daily Advertiser, bought the Lafayette weekly Times of Acadiana, Thomson’s a relative nonentity, hardly the huge power that Times Mirror is. So a new frontier’s been breached in the corporatization of the media—at least as far as the alternative newspaper world is concerned. Bolt the doors: The jackboots are coming!So it’s unsurprising that Brugmann, who’s in his mid-60s and who styles himself the alternative press’ conscience, is waving the antitrust legislation flag, issuing threats about federal interventions to stop such sales from happening again (see the sidebar for a partial transcript of our phone conversation) and generally making his presence felt as he tries to accomplish something that most people—even people committed to the alternative press—would agree is strange: contrive, in the future, to prevent people like Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin from selling their property to whomever they want. Brugmann’s even helping fund an antitrust lawsuit in Hartford meant to force Times Mirror to divest itself of the Hartford Advocate, and perhaps of the rest of the former New Mass. Media papers.
“This is a stake planted in the heart of the alternative press!” he screams at me over the phone—as he’s probably bellowed for one reason or another every week since he founded the Bay Guardian in 1966. “Every daily newspaper can now go and buy its own competition! We fought this battle for years and years and years!”
Yes, it’s singular that Bruce Brugmann wants to dictate to you when and how you can sell your property.
“New Times now knows that it’s always best to check with Bruce Brugmann before we buy or sell properties,” jokes New Times, Inc. chairman and CEO Jim Larkin. “I’m surprised Geoff Robinson didn’t know that before he decided to sell his paper to the L.A. Times. It might actually be in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act: You have to check with Brugmann before you do anything. If it’s not, it should be in there.”
Still, Brugmann, eccentric as he is—”Bruce, God bless him, is one of the industry’s largest blowhards,” an alternative weekly editor told me, echoing a common sentiment—isn’t being completely nonsensical when he insists that members of the alternative media should pay close attention to the Times Mirror development. Alternative weekly newspapers, with their rising circulations and affluent young readerships, are one of the journalistic success stories of the expiring decade—a period of time during which many daily newspapers have watched their circulations decline. It’s no surprise that troubled, static daily papers should sniff around the alternatives—and no scandal that an alterna-press lifer like Brugmann should care when they do.
And of course, particular attention should be paid to what’s going to happen to New Mass. Media’s constituent papers (the New Mass. chain also includes the New Haven Advocate, the Valley Advocate of Hatfield, MA, and the two Weekly papers of Fairfield County, CT, and Westchester County, NY). How will a media conglomerate—a troubled, inept media conglomerate like Times Mirror, no less—handle its new property? Will, for instance, the Hartford Courant‘s relationship with the Hartford Advocate be characterized by the same sort of benign, but profitable, neglect that’s characterized the relationship between the Scranton Times and the Baltimore City Paper since the former purchased the latter in 1987? (For the record, NYPress‘ owner, Russ Smith, sold Baltimore City Paper to the Scranton Times.)
Certainly, the Scranton Times aside, daily newspapers and the companies that own them don’t have great reputations for knowing much about the alternative newspaper business. (A good indication of that was Mike Allen’s condescending article in the April 15 New York Times about the Times Mirror purchase, in which Allen perpetuated the canard that the Advocate chain papers are “lively.” They are? Has Allen or any one of his editors ever read them?) So there’s speculation that Times Mirror will act like the big, dumb, heavy-handed out-of-town media conglomerate it is. Times Mirror chairman and chief executive and Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes is best known for laying people off and for scaring people with talk about the financial necessity of breaking down barriers between the business and editorial sides of the paper. Times Mirror’s flagship Los Angeles Times is a joke, a newspaper the name of which has become a synonym for a pandering, dumbed-down, “lite” newspaper.
“The notion that Times Mirror could run an alternative weekly well is a laugh and a half,” says John Mecklin, editor of the SF Weekly, Brugmann’s New Times, Inc.-owned Bay Area competition. (New Times, with its flagship paper in Phoenix, also runs weeklies in Dallas, Houston, Denver, Miami, Broward County, FL, Los Angeles, Cleveland and St. Louis.) “All you have to do is talk to anybody who’s ever worked at the Los Angeles Times. They will just bust a fucking gut… Times Mirror’s idea of an alternative weekly? It will just be a piece of shit.”
Says Mecklin: “Times Mirror is a very rigid bureaucratic enterprise. Working at the L.A. Times is worse than working for the federal government. The idea that they would tend to be hands-off sounds silly.” On the other hand, a number of alternative press publishers and editors to whom I spoke speculated that Times Mirror would leave its new properties alone.
“I’d imagine that they’d let it run the way it’s running and probably just look at the dollars and see how it’s doing,” says Michael Cohen, publisher at Miami New Times, and who used to work at the Fairfield Advocate and NYPress. Why fix what isn’t broken, at least before its numbers fall?
Even New Haven Advocate editor Joshua Mamis sounds unconcerned.
“We met with [the Courant] people,” Mamis says, “and they’re good people, and the Hartford Courant‘s a good paper, and they understand what we do, and they’re not going to come down here and say ‘You can’t.'”
The optimism evinced above is probably just that—optimism. Media conglomerates screw around with their properties. That’s what they do. It would be surprising to not see wholesale changes at the Advocate papers within the next several months.
But it’s good that someone’s taking it easy, because Brugmann and his Bay Guardian colleagues, as well as a few others in the alternative press industry like Boston Phoenix media columnist Dan Kennedy—are climbing the walls. What’s particularly interesting about their alarmed prose—and we’ll get to it—is that it ignores the truth that should be central to this issue: that the Advocate papers aren’t “alternative” papers in any sense at all. At best, they can be fun, useful community sheets, full of the sorts of arts and movie listings and reviews and personals that could help a relatively hip 30ish resident of Hartford or New Haven or Northhampton, MA (one of the markets served by the Valley Advocate) navigate his leisure time.
Often, though, the Advocate papers aren’t even especially fun. The Hartford Advocate, to quote an alternative press figure who didn’t want to be identified, is a “classic example of a predictable alternative newsweekly. You always know what side of an issue they’re going to come down on.” The same person continues: “I think they’re predictable. In my opinion, they’re not one of the better AAN [Association of Alternative Newsweeklies] papers, although they certainly win their fair share of awards.”
The alternative press, in an unfortunate aping of the dailies, hands out bogus awards to its members at its annual AAN convention, which is being held in Memphis later this month.
Even an Advocate employee agrees that the chain, whatever its virtues, isn’t exactly the sort of journalistic entity on the behalf of which one typically launches a crusade.
“I think our papers are often more boring than we like to admit,” New Haven Advocate associate editor Paul Bass told me.
Bass also says that at the time of the sale, “There was a lot of initial chestbeating about how we better protect our alternative culture and voice,” but that “it occurred to us later on that we’re really not so alternative. There wasn’t such a great thing to protect. We like our paper, and we care about what we do, but it’s long been a fiction that somehow the alternative press is all good and risky and the mainstream press is all conventional and bad.”
But it’s not only the Advocate papers that shouldn’t claim to be practicing any sort of radical, antiestablishment journalism. It’s also most of the other 114 weekly papers that belong to AAN, the industry’s trade organization (to which NYPress and the Village Voice also belong). With a few notable exceptions—the Chicago Reader, the San Diego Reader (not related to Chicago’s), the New Times chain, Washington’s City Paper, Seattle’s Stranger, the Austin Chronicle and on occasion the Boston Phoenix—all AAN papers are pretty dull listings tabloids that promulgate a wan, safe middle-of-the-road liberalism (the 4/22 Westchester County Weekly recently endorsed Hillary Clinton for Senate, for God’s sake) and publish syndicated crap like Matt Groening’s dated “Life in Hell.” (New Yorkers interested in checking out good approximations of a typical AAN paper should pick up a local community paper like Manhattan Spirit or Our Town—neither of which actually belongs to AAN, but would fit right in.)
Certainly, as Washington City Paper editor David Carr puts it, “True daily penetration” into the alternative press “will doom the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for sure.” But given the quality of most of the product churned out by the AAN’s constituent members, should anyone care?
“Except for the Bay Guardian and a few others, [alternative] papers look the exact same way,” says Paul Bass—helpfully restating what needs to be reiterated until it penetrates AAN members’ skulls.
“…[E]ven people like me,” Bass says.
“I’m the wise-ass columnist in the front who hates the mayor. That’s always on page 5 or 6. Then you’ve got, like, some decent reporting somewhere, maybe not—it depends on the paper, if they’re going to pay anyone enough. Then you’ve got the calendar, you’ve got the literate art reviews that are by overpaid Ivy League people that are young. They look exactly the same, and they sell it the same. It’s not a terrible formula, but it’s a formula.”
Nor is it hard to find alternative press members who aren’t so measured as Bass in expressing what sane people who pay attention to alternative weeklies already know.
“Most of the quote alternative weeklies that I read, they’re about as surprising as milk,” says the SF Weekly‘s Mecklin. “They’re just dull as hell. They’re repeating the same old shit. They aren’t a threat to anybody. They haven’t pissed off anybody in years. At least not in any serious way, because they don’t know how to do the research to seriously threaten anybody who’s in power. So the notion that the government’s out, or some big entity is out, to crush these crusaders for freedom, it’s a bunch of crap. I mean, there are good weeklies that do this stuff. But the vast majority of them don’t. They do a high percentage of pretty lame lifestyle and art stuff combined with empty snarling. There’s a snarl there. They sound like they’re doing big, bad stuff, but there’s no meat and potatoes there and nobody’s afraid of it because it’s just mouthing around.”
Washington City Paper‘s Carr raises a good question, too: What kind of “alternative” paper so appeals to the sorts of corporate soldiers who run Times Mirror that they’d want to go and buy it?
“You have to wonder about the nature of your appeal when corporate shoppers want to add you to the mix of brands,” Carr comments. “We should be so vile…from a corporate perspective that they wouldn’t want our brands.”
One speculates, half-seriously, that by the end Geoff Robinson was embarrassed enough by the alternative press to want to sell his papers out of it. Hartford Advocate publisher Francis J. Zankowski tells me that Robinson had the opportunity to sell within the industry—to the New Times chain, for example, or to Stern Publishing Co., the flagship paper of which is the Village Voice. The way Joshua Mamis sees it, Robinson’s move amounted to “a big fuck you to the alternative press.”
Still, Brugmann—who, ironically, himself publishes a paper that, when it’s not publishing soft lifestyle material, does break the milquetoast-liberal AAN mold with an unapologetic, if predictable, radicalism—and his allies seem to be doing everything they can to deceive themselves about the nature of the institution they’re defending. Here’s Bay Guardian‘s Tali Woodward, for instance, writing paragraphs like the following without irony in the paper’s 4/21 issue: “New Haven alderperson Jelani Lawson told us, ‘The citizens of Connecticut will lose out, because the Advocate papers present a fresh look at many issues not covered by the mainstream media—issues that have to do with communities of color, environmentalists, etc.”
They might, for what that’s worth. But Woodward doesn’t mention that they also do thickheaded things like publish The Boston Globe‘s crossword puzzle, or that the Westchester County Weekly actually featured World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon in its 4/22 “Best of Westchester County” issue. “The WWF and the Weekly have something very basic in common,” the unsigned editorial introduction to the issue claimed: “We both want to be known as the renegades of our medium. That’s why we’re happy to have Vince McMahon help us out with our main event issue of the year.”
Then there’s Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond, who writes simplistically that “independent alternatives see the world from the street level,” while “corporate dailies see the world from the executive suites,” as if the media, and the world, weren’t more complicated than distinctions like that one imply.
And here’s the remarkable unsigned editorial that the Guardian ran in that same 4/21 issue: “In an era of increasing monopolization of the newspaper industry, alternative weeklies are often the only real competition to dailies in major markets. The loss of that competition will hurt readers (who rely on alternatives for information that doesn’t make the dailies), political and community groups (who rely on weeklies to cover their issues and events), and advertisers (who rely on weeklies to offer lower, affordable rates in competition with the dailies).”
The editorial goes on: “The independent and alternative press—and the tens of millions of readers and advertisers who rely on competitive papers—need to sound the alarm and make this issue a top journalistic and political priority.”
Yes, it’s true: Media monopolies can blow. But again, the Bay Guardian remains here righteously incognizant that so-called alternative papers in actuality represent an alternative to nothing much—except perhaps to exciting journalism. (And they probably never did. Says Mecklin, even though he points out that he wasn’t on the scene at the time: “There were no good old days. Everybody was starving, and the papers sucked.”)
The Bay Guardian then proceeds to call, outrageously, for the Justice Dept. to “refuse to approve this deal, and declare a moratorium on any further mergers between dailies and their nondaily competition.”
And more: “And the Connecticut attorney general should investigate and hold public hearings. Then Congress needs to hold extensive Judiciary Committee hearings on the issue… Ultimately, there ought to be new legislation strictly limiting these types of mergers.”
Call in the cavalry! In other words, and to repeat, there ought to be laws against people selling their property. Next Brugmann will demand legislation preventing Geoff Robinson from selling his sailboat or his watch. What’s this “types of mergers” crap? Robinson sold his property fair and square; sold a concern that he, along with his partners Ed and Linda Matys, started building in 1973 (Austin came later, when she married Robinson; the couple has since divorced). No corporate executive held a gun to Robinson’s head. What’s Brugmann going to do with his Bay Guardian when he decides to pack it in? Just give it away?
Maybe. But maybe not. Brugmann’s been known to look out for himself financially. In 1975 he ran into complications when he resisted a unionization drive among the Bay Guardian‘s employees, claiming that unionization could put the paper out of business. “Here I am, the liberal publisher,” Brugmann was quoted in The New York Times at the time. “They say, ‘You’re not down on unions, so how come you don’t have one at The Guardian?'” In 1975, the Bay Guardian was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. The plaintiffs claimed that those daily newspapers’ joint operating agreement violated antitrust laws. In the spring of 1975 the Bay Guardian won $500,000 dollars when the defendants settled out of court, and Brugmann’s employees wanted a piece of the pie. They didn’t get it, and the Bay Guardian remains nonunionized to this day.
And Brugmann’s not just talking and writing about the Times Mirror affair. There’s that antitrust suit that’s pending in Hartford right now. A Connecticut automobile dealer, who advertises in both the Courant and the Advocate, and a Connecticut citizen who reads both papers, are the plaintiffs in the suit; University of California law professor Stphen Barnett is representing them; and the Bay Guardian, among other sources, is funding it. (“That’s not to imply that the suit is well-funded,” Barnett joked when I talked to him.)
Dan Kennedy, meanwhile, succumbs to alarm thus in his 5/6 Boston Phoenix column:
“In a media nation in which virtually every daily newspaper is owned by one of a half-dozen or so megacorporations, and nearly every major city is served by just one daily (Boston is a fortunate exception), alternative weeklies such as the Advocate papers serve a crucial role as a critical, independent voice. But the Advocate has now been neutered. Nowhere is that more true than in Hartford, the largest city served by the chain. The Hartford Advocate has morphed overnight from the Courant‘s nemesis into a marketing tool for clueless Courant executives trying to figure out how to appeal to those crazy twentysomethings with their coffee addictions and body piercings.”
Again, there’s sense mixed in here with the alterna-press self-dramatization. The implications of media conglomeration are something to think about. And yes, the Advocate is now part of a conglomerate, too. But Kennedy shouldn’t mislead people into thinking that just because the paper belonged to Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin, and not to Times Mirror, that it wasn’t essentially an establishment voice—as wan and predictable as any “corporate” daily. As Jeremy Voas, the editor of Phoenix New Times, asks, referring to newspapers owned by conglomerates: “Why all the handwringing? Let’s read their damn papers, something very few people bother to do anymore. They just want to stick a label on an owner and say ‘You’re bad.'”
Kennedy also writes:
“Even worse, the acquisition of the Advocate—the first time a major daily chain has purchased its alternative competition—could be the start of a sad trend. Rapacious media executives will no doubt take note of how easily the Advocate was silenced and start looking at those pesky, and economically attractive, weeklies in their own backyards.”
Pesky? Who’s pesky? Not the Advocate papers. And sure, it could be the start of a trend, although not necessarily sad. Let’s assume that every AAN paper in the country will eventually be “co-opted” by a conglomerate. New newspapers will then crop up to rail against them. Information will circulate somehow—and probably, in this online era, more freely than ever. Unless, that is, people like Brugmann are running around presiding over bureaucratic commissions and handing out money to lawyers and telling everybody what they can or cannot do.
A weird, if minor, tangential media development to which the Times Mirror affair has given rise, meanwhile, is that The New York Times—not usually noted for its attention to the alternative press—got into the act, uncritically accepting Brugmann-style alternative-press self-mythologizing. (The Nation also weighed in, with alternative press veteran Bruce Shapiro referring, erroneously, to “the Advocate newspapers, five spirited…alternative weeklies in southern New England”). The Times‘ Mike Allen, in his 4/15 piece, reported that “some readers reacted with alarm to The Courant, seen as reliable but bland, adopting the lively Advocate chain. The local arts community treated today’s announcement like a death in the family.”
“‘This is big brother taking over,’ said Alyssa S. Peterson, owner of NetFX, a Web design firm. ‘The Advocate is everything The Courant isn’t. Where do we go now?'”
Why doesn’t Allen challenge Peterson’s distinction? (Peterson, by the way, is one of the plaintiffs in that Hartford suit.) Doesn’t he know that you could drop the Hartford Advocate into almost any market in the country without anybody noticing that anything’s changed? The Advocate certainly is everything the Courant isn’t. It’s a middle-of-the-pack alternative paper, while the Courant‘s a respectable, if not great, daily.
Brugmann and Kennedy make a valid point about monopolistic practices—if we’re talking about steel mills or food suppliers or even computer operating systems. But the information business isn’t a heavy industry; there’s no means of production for an establishment to monopolize, and no industrial infrastructure for an upstart to approximate before one can compete with the big guys. Don’t like the thought of corporate media? Well, buy yourself a computer, genius (and be prepared for the Brugmanns of the world braying for your scalp every time you break a story about the President that the corporate media’s afraid to touch—but let that go for now). Or go out at night and plaster handbills on every telephone pole—every planar surface—in whatever city you’re looking to influence. Or wear a sandwich board, or buy a cowbell and wander through the streets like a town crier, or hand out mimeograph sheets, or—returning now from the realm of the absurd— Start your own newspaper.
“It will be very, very hard!” Brugmann screamed at me when I mentioned that idea during my phone conversation with him last week, and he’s right. But if there really exists in Hartford a readership for the sort of journalism the AAN’s alarmists want to see, and if neither the Advocate nor the Courant will provide that journalism, you’d think that that readership would welcome a third voice.
Bring up that possibility, though, and you’ll be called naive by alternative press apologists.
“The notion of someone starting his or her own independent alternative is nice in theory,” Kennedy wrote me in an e-mail. “Sort of like Steve Martin’s theory of how to have a million dollars and not pay any taxes: First, get a million dollars.”
Presumably Kennedy doesn’t mean to imply that it requires a million dollars to start a weekly newspaper, because of course it doesn’t. Brugmann certainly didn’t need a million dollars, or the 1966 equivalent of it, when he launched the Bay Guardian. That sort of dismissiveness, though, implies what seems to be the unexpressed fear that haunts people in the weekly newspaper industry: the fear that their own alternative press establishment is being rendered obsolete by the mythical kid with a website, who may or may not believe, as so many in the alternative press community do, that publishing Tom Tomorrow’s insipidities or subscribing to a middle-of-the-road liberalism defines what “alternative” media should be all about. The Brugmannites have a weirdly pessimistic view of history for self-proclaimed leftists: Everything’s going to hell, and the only way to stop that is to…stop everything from changing. They seem to want their establishment to stand, institutionalized for all perpetuity, as the ultimate expression of alternative journalism. It’s not enough for them that information should circulate: It has to circulate their way. Every time a Hartford Advocate merges with a Courant, it upsets the reassuring, decades-old balance of power: The Courants of the world play the Establishment in this stage play; alternative weeklies masquerade as the irreverent rebels, even if they haven’t done anything irreverent or rebellious for years.
“I actually think the question of ownership is more important than whether the Advocate is any good or not,” Kennedy e-mailed me. “If the term ‘alternative newspaper’ means anything, it means that it must stand as an alternative to any given area’s dominant mainstream media institution… It doesn’t matter whether the Advocate has been doing courageous reporting on the Courant [a reference to the Advocate's self-image as a Courant watchdog], what matters is that as long as it had its independence, it could have, and now it can’t.”
Which suggests that it’s enough to pretend, and that nothing should relieve us of the myth that we’re doing something revolutionary, or at least scandalous.
For the record, AAN executive director Richard Karpel avoided expressing a definitive opinion of the Advocate papers or of the Times Mirror takeover, claiming that he doesn’t “get a chance to read the Advocate papers that much.” When pressed about whether the majority of the papers were really “alternative papers,” Karpel said: “There’s 112 [114, according to AAN's website] of them, and I don’t get the chance to read all of them. But I get the sense there’s lots of different kinds of papers.” One wonders what the executive director of AAN does all day if he’s not paying attention to his organization’s newspapers.
But again, not that many of Brugmann and Kennedy’s alternative press colleagues seem to have bought into the same oppositional myths that those two have. Even Tim Whitaker, who edits the Philadelphia Weekly—a paper that, like the Bay Guardian, is self-consciously “progressive”—doesn’t seem to be rushing off to man Brugmann’s barricades, even though he expresses admiration for Brugmann as “the most aggressively independent voice in the alternative world.”
“I don’t think there is any guarding against” the alternative industry’s maturation, Whitaker says. “There have been some people in the alternative world that have sort of carefully [chosen] who they wanted to buy them, to sort of keep their legacy going in a certain kind of way. And then there are others who just sort of look for the highest bidder. You kind of hope that there’s some independent spirit left in those guys from the 60s and they sort of want to keep what they started going in the same direction, and don’t just go for the buck.”
Whitaker expresses hope for “a grassroots movement of some sort that will start somewhere and pick up some momentum along the way” and “target the big alternatives as the bad guys in the way the alternatives targeted the big dailies.”
“Bruce Brugmann is a fucking idiot,” a source in San Francisco says. “He doesn’t know shit about business or any of this stuff. Whether it’s technically an antitrust violation would depend on the circumstances in that market, which nobody on the West Coast knows well enough to comment on. I don’t.”
Adds John Mecklin:
“Here’s a guy whose paper literally never, ever breaks a real story about San Francisco—never—running across the country to expend time and energy on a lawsuit over some weeklies in Connecticut.”
Another weekly newspaper owner has this to say: “If I sold my paper to anybody…and Brugmann in any way, shape or form got involved, I would fly to his city and cut his balls off. The notion that he’s helping to fund lawsuits against Advocate owners is just unbelievable to me.”
“Oh no, no…” Albie Del Favero, who publishes the Nashville Scene, responded when I asked him if he’s worried about the future of alternative media. “If I were to sell my paper to the daily newspaper tomorrow, there’d be somebody else to come along and fill the void. That’s what’s going to happen in Hartford if they lose their edge and if they are not doing their job.”
Besides, says Del Favero, “A lot of us are in our 40s and 50s, and you can make the argument that we’re too damn old to be doing this anyway.”
Louis Black, editor and co-owner of the Austin Chronicle, expressed much the same sentiments—implying that what Brugmann sees as a corporate fascists’ rampage is nothing much more serious than a changing of the guard. Out with the crummy, smug, lazy, old, politically complacent old; in with the youthful new.
“The alternative press was at its strongest when each paper represented its individual owners or creative teams or personalities…” Black insists, explaining how he can see that Brugmann’s got a general point. “One of the reasons the Village Voice sucks so badly and NYPress is such a great paper is that the Press is so dominated by a creative team and the Voice has become such a corporate mess.”
Still, he says, the economic “maturation” of the alternative press is “going to happen whether I like it or hate it.” He adds, “We can’t stay kids forever. Our roles have already changed. The Chronicle used to be able to…say anything we wanted, because the people who read us were not powerful. Now we have to double check everything we say.” Black predicts that we’ll increasingly see youthful “webzines coming up which are doing what we were doing 10 or 15 years ago.”
Even the New Haven Advocate‘s Paul Bass, who’s presumably one of the beneficiaries of Brugmann’s efforts, sounds elegiac.
“I don’t think we’re outside the mainstream,” Bass says of alternative press. “We probably would like to think we are, but it’s not risky… I think the alternative press really stopped being so alternative around ’75 or ’76. No, that’s okay. I think it was a cool thing they invented at the time.”
The following is an edited transcript of a May 5 phone conversation with San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher Bruce B. Brugmann, whose newspaper is leading the alternative media’s crusade against corporate media monopolization.
Bruce Brugmann: [We were dealing with this issue] when we started the Guardian and we take it extremely seriously. Russ Smith, to him it’s just a big joke.
Andrey Slivka: (laughs) Right.
BB: And to you too, apparently.
AS: No, no, no, no. The question is, you must read the Advocate papers pretty regularly.
BB: Yes, they model their papers after the Guardian…
AS: Well, I don’t quite believe that. The Bay Guardian is—
BB: That’s what he said. You have to ask [Geoff Robinson].
AS: Do you believe that?
BB: That’s all I know.
AS: Do you believe that?
BB: That’s what he said. That’s what he told me.
AS: Do you believe it? Do you believe—?
BB: I believe that he believes it… He had Guardians there at the press when it came out, the first time. You see, that’s not the issue. The issue is a chain daily buying the only direct competition in the community and in the state, which is the alternative paper. The only reason for the existence of an alternative paper is if it is competitive, and…it’s no longer when it’s owned by the L.A. Times chain… The alternatives came in and they were the competition to the daily paper!
BB: …These are crybaby millionaire publishers and they want a crybaby millionaire deal to screw their public and their staff and their cities and their readers and their advertisers and everybody else. They want a million-dollar relief bill so that they can buy their direct competitor!
AS: All right. The question is, these papers—the Advocate papers—a lot of these papers don’t seem to me to be alternative papers at all.
BB: Well, that’s bullshit…
AS: Well, what if I said, “Let them buy that paper. And then someone else should start a real paper.”
BB: That’s not the point.
AS: Why not?
BB: That’s not the point.
BB: That’s not the way antitrust law works. The daily paper is buying its direct competitor. This is why it’s so serious. This is a stake planted in the heart of the alternative press. Every daily paper can now go and buy its own competition, whether it’s an alternative paper, a community paper, an ethnic paper, whatever. We fought this battle for years and years and years!
AS: Does that then preclude somebody starting a third paper?
BB: No! It doesn’t preclude them, but it makes it extremely difficult! And then the third paper starts, and then they can buy the third paper.
BB: It gives the chain the opportunity to buy out its competition, which we consider a violation of the Clayton antitrust act! That’s why we… Look, goddammit! Are you trying to get some answers, or are you just trying to be argumentative with me? I don’t want to waste my time.
AS: Well, I’m not—
BB: Are you trying to be a reporter or a goddamn argumentative artist?
AS: I’m not trying to piss you off—
BB: Well, you are, because you’re an asshole the way you come on!
AS: I’m not an asshole!
BB: YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE! I DECLARE YOU AN ASSHOLE!
AS: I AM NOT AN ASSHOLE!
BB: Well, you sure as hell are! You sure as hell sound like it! You sure as hell aren’t a reporter!
AS: We shouldn’t argue about this.
BB: You don’t even know…about the federal suit in Hartford to block this?
AS: Yes, yes.
BB: Well that’s good. You at least know something. I hope you put it in the paper.
AS: I just think it’s different—
BB: IT’S NOT DIFFERENT, GODDAMMIT! This is buying your direct competition! You cannot buy your direct competition! And they did this quietly! There were no public hearings! It rolls through the Justice Dept., nobody writes about it! It’s a scandal the way this has happened!
AS: Well, I’m not going to convince you—
BB: Hell, there’s no convincing! I’ve been working on this issue for 33 years!
AS: I know, I know.
BB: We got a suit filed on it, and we’re gonna ultimately make this an issue in Congress with the Justice Dept. and we’re going ask for a moratorium on these kinds of deadly mergers and see if we can get some kind of law to protect the independent press from this kind of buyout…
AS: Isn’t this just a business cycle?
BB: No! No! This is an invasion of the antitrust act! Nobody should be allowed to dominate an industry in their community like this, and certainly not the newspaper industry… Why should the city of Hartford be under the thumb of the Los Angeles Times and the city of Los Angeles, California?
AS: It doesn’t need to be. I mean, information can circulate freely.
BB: Oh, bullshit! How?
AS: Well, I thank for your time. You’ve been extremely helpful.
BB: Yeah, great.