AAN Admissions Committee Recommends Three Papers for Membership

june 29, 2004  02:56 pm
Well, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies may not quite be Skull and Bones. Not yet, anyway. And the chance that the next President of the United States will be one of the publishers of these newspapers is considerably slimmer than the near certainty that our next Fearless Leader will be a frequenter of New Haven tombs. But after the usual months-long deliberations -- no joke, by the way -- the AAN Admissions Committee, at Sunday's annual meeting, will be recommending three of this year's 10 applicants for membership in our not-so-august group.

The decisions described below reflect the collective wisdom of 10 unbelievably bright and articulate AAN publishers and editors, all of whom read, cover to cover, three issues of each applicant newspaper, collected their thoughts, and then shared them with their peers at Thursday's annual Admissions Committee grand gathering. Should you wish to single them out for praise or opprobrium, the committee members are Margaret Downing (Houston Press), Ben Fulton (Salt Lake City Weekly), Clif Garboden (The Boston Phoenix), Matt Gibson (Missoula Independent), Ken Neill (Memphis Flyer/Chair), Tim Redmond (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Paula Routly (Seven Days/Vermont), Erin Sullivan (Baltimore City Paper), Sioux Watson (Independent Weekly/Raleigh-Durham, N.C.), and Fran Zankowski (Advocate Newspapers/Hartford, Conn.). We're all here, and available for stalking.

The diversity of this jury, in terms of paper size, market size, age, weight and hair color, speaks for itself. And for those who might think the comments below are the products of frivolous conjecture, our response is simply: think again. We the committee read and re-read these newspapers; we reflect and re-reflect; we pontificate, we opinionate. And then we decide. So here 'tis: the consensus as regards our 2004 crop of applicants.

The Admissions Committee recommends three of these newspapers for membership in AAN. And it finds itself evenly divided as regards the fate of one other, and suggests that the membership consider this newspaper (The Source from Bend, Oregon) closely, read copies of its recent issues, seek out its staff members and come to its own conclusion as regards its AAN-worthiness.

Without further ado:

The Best and Brightest

Los Angeles City Beat -- Los Angeles, Calif.
The vote: 10 yea, 0 nay.
The committee unanimously recommends for membership.

"So sharp, it draws blood," said one committee member. ëNuff said: City Beat is, as another pointed out, "the most appealing applicant I've seen in my five years on this committee." Another put it this way: "This paper just shows what you can do if you have resources, know what you're doing, and are lucky enough to be in a terrific market." The hits just keep on coming. "It's nice to read real criticism for a change. The listings seem pretty damn complete, and it's easy to find your way around. I like the vertical photo treatment in "7 Days in L.A." "This paper flat out rocks. The covers are outstanding." "Feisty, meaningfully opinionated writing with real flair for reflection and provocation. An almost encyclopedia-sized menu of anything you might want to do, see, feel or digest in L.A." Perfect? Well, not exactly. "Balance of news to cultural coverage seems a bit off. Would prefer equivalent amount of news to arts." "I was surprised by the shortage of local news/investigative reporting." But, on balance, clearly "the best of the batch." "Hits every mark, although I'm especially fond of the design. The writing is excellent. The front of the book is jam-packed with newsy goodness, and the back is rich and lively. What more could you ask for? City Beat will instantly become one of the best papers in the association." Okay, guys, that's all the candy you get. Now stay focused.

LA Alternative Press -- Los Angeles, Calif.
The vote: 7 yea, 3 nay.
The committee recommends for membership.

The consensus as regards LAAP was that it is a terrific little paper with a mini-identity crisis; "Seems like the paper of the Silverlake district; why don't they just come out and say that?" Yet despite this bit of confusion, the committee was drawn to "the smart writing in news, arts and opinion" within the pages of LAAP. "This paper has done a nice job cultivating its coverage of LA culture and personalities. Nice work." There was criticism, to be sure, of this paper's self-limiting tendencies, not all of which were budgetary. "LAAP could use a little more consistent reporting in its news stories; at times I felt that the writers were getting away with too much armchair analysis." "These guys maintain a very high journalistic standard - in places. They need to be more selective with their story selection." "Lots of opinion, very spotty news coverage." "Not a lot of coverage about Los Angeles itself. The editors seem to be more interested in statewide and national issues than city hall." You get the drift. Several of us noted the improved design come February, and LAAP's peculiar position as "an alternative alternative" in a very crowded media market. "This paper does believe in good writing, strong positions and an alternative bent. It seems right up our alley." "A seemingly solid and mature alt with a respectable mix of local news and broader features. Solid columns are a major strength. This paper touches all the bases (food, arts, politics, alt culture) and represents them well." Welcome, but see a shrink about who you really are.

Rocky Mountain Bullhorn -- Fort Collins, Colo.
The vote: 7 yea, 3 nay.
The committee recommends for membership.

Great name, great enthusiasm, with energy jumping off its pages; the Bullhorn is anything but mellow. "Good, thorough examination of the issues in every story, complete with pointed opinion. Design is easy on the eyes and easy to get around." Ah, but the Committee wondered if at times the Bullhorn wasn't too engaged with its community. "A lot of content seems to marinate in the ëgreen' ethos. Not terrible as an attribute, but this risks defining the Bullhorn as a one-trick-pony publication, rather than one that might be fluid and flexible in its viewpoints and chosen issues." "The issue devoted to the Sustainable Living Fair reads like a religious tract. Jeez, take note of the conference; don't regurgitate everything they're going to say at it." Aside from this concern, however, the committee admired the Bullhorn's spunk and creativity. "I love this paper! Great sardonic attitude pervades the Bullhorn. They seem to know what they want to cover and use an uncanny sense of style, humor and energy in their writing. Editing is strong and they rarely hit a sour note. Can I hire the whole staff?" "Generally, a good feel for the paper's community, when local aspects aren't overshadowed by overly ambitious outward-looking features." The Committee clearly had reservations about this two-year-old ("The Bullhorn knows all the moves but needs a little more practice to perfect them. The news reporting is pretty solid but doesn't quite go for the kill. A little more skepticism would help this paper a lot.") but on balance found the paper mature beyond its years. "The Bullhorn seems poised to develop into a strong newspaper." "Amid the muddle, there are lots of good innovative ideas. We have faith that the reporting will improve and expand. Clearly, they want to cover the local scene and bring an alt perspective on broader (national) issues. Very much good enough."

On the Bubble

The Source -- Bend, Ore.
The vote: 5 yea, 5 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

The Source, frankly, gave the committee the bends. "This is the fourth time I've seen the Source. I think it's improved (thanks to a new editor), but the paper still has a lot of the same problems: bad graphics, shallow, pointless stories, etc. The writers aren't skilled enough to pull off much of the ëcreative' stuff they try, and they are incapable of finding color in their own back yard. I'm voting ëmaybe.'" Talk about schizophrenia. On the one hand: "This paper has a real sense of place and its community, and it has a strong voice. It clearly cares about Bend, Oregon. I liked it a lot." On the other: "The writers and editors need to lighten up, embrace joy, let go, smoke something and laugh. Stories need better editing. The writers ramble on and assume I have endless time to read. This is dull, boring, lifeless." See what we mean? The entire committee marveled at the covers, or more particularly, the consistent disconnect between what was on them and what was inside. And while the Source's enthusiasm can be infectious ("When the editors decide to devote time, space and writing to a topic they go full throttle. They seem to be passionate about the environment, native Americans, and the great outdoors."), the results often leave something to be desired. "In general, I'm underwhelmed by this paper. I'd like to see more hard-hitting news and features instead of so many stories on homeless shelters, tortoises, ecosystems, and pet acupuncture." the Source is clearly engaged with its community, but to what effect? That's the question, in a nutshell, and one whose lack of a clear answer sent us back to the drawing board. We report; you decide.

Not Quite There

Bellingham Weekly -- Bellingham, Wash.
The vote: 4 yea, 6 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

The committee found much to admire in this two-year-old paper. "There's enough at work here to make this paper a contender. The cover story slot isn't strong or that fully developed, but clearly this is a paper astute and aware of its unique NW community." "The BW seems to be aggressively involved in local politics. Lots of nice little touches that show the editors care." But: "A lot of what they do isn't alternative. Some of these puffy so-called reviews could be in any mainstream daily; they're just more poorly displayed here. And the diatribes just go on and on in numbing fashion. Really, this paper needs less pondering and more reporting." "This paper let me down. I expected better story selection, writing and editing. Instead I'm left feeling the BW has the right attitude but not enough substance. To improve: (a) clean up the covers, (b) add depth to listings; strive to be comprehensive, (c) get more local news, political stories, and (d) if space is tight, cut out the op-ed pages." "The salmon special issue wasn't a bad local story to do; it's just terribly rendered. There's no flair in the writing, no people to grab you off the page. Just trudging copy." "I really should like this paper, but I just don't. Maybe it's because there's so much commentary and not enough news. Lifeless, in an odd sort of way." All in all, the BW would seem to need some spit and polish, but with a little improvement, it should clearly be a serious AAN candidate next time around.

Independent News -- Pensacola, Fla.
The vote: 3 yea, 7 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

This is an improved paper from when it last applied (as the Independent Florida Sun) two years ago. "Good strong covers, nice white space and good use of color throughout." Its once clearly political agenda (at that time, Republican firebrand Joe Scarborough was an owner) has been happily tempered. "If the Fox News people launched a free urban weekly, it might come across a little bit like this one. Prone to sweeping and dramatic generalizations, either with or without well-documented support, the Independent News places a premium on attitude; it's combative. While it sometimes appears to pursue political vendettas in its news coverage, the strong reporting does give substance to the back-bench commentary." "This paper may be trying to be all things to all people. The business content is a little weird. There's a gossipy quality to the paper that comes from a local society column (keep that) and national tidbits about dead and pregnant celebrities (lose those)." "Its arts/entertainment coverage is better than its news/features. Paper could improve by changing its approach to business; too boosterish." "This paper is much advanced from the last round, and its "not necessarily liberal or progressive but pragmatic" approach to issues and stories is admirable. AAN needs a paper, frankly, that doesn't pay lip service to progressive causes at the drop of a hat. But while the content is more often than not strong, the IN blunders too often, with reporting that is overly partisan and not always balanced." "TV reviews written by a local cable-TV exec; not cool." "A list of depression signs is not a substitute for investigation in a profile about a brilliant local lawyer who took his life." "The problem here is partly a lack of critical news perspective and partly the fact that the publisher sits on the city council, and then writes about council decisions in his column. Yeah, it's an opinion column, and yeah, the conflict is disclosed, but I just find this a bit beyond acceptable."

Hawai'i Island Journal -- Captain Cook, Hawaii
The vote: 3 yea, 7 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

This is clearly an unusual newspaper, "local to the point of promoting secession," its content dominated by advocacy of native Hawaiian causes. "Nice look, competently designed, excellent listings; captures the flavor of a very distinctive island, a world all its own." "This is a good paper, but it's given itself over to the local culture to such an extent that it quickly becomes predictable; proof that perhaps you can get too much of a good thing." "I give the paper immense credit for doing a difficult thing -- opposing hotel development when hotel-oriented tourism is the heart of the local economy. Other than environmental issues, though, the news is a little thin; not much of any sort on local government, for example." "Reverence for everything indigenous makes this paper annoyingly earnest at times, and, frankly, only somewhat credible as a news source. Many of the writers are activists. Sometimes the editors mention that fact; sometimes they don't. The arts coverage and listings are weak." "Lots of competence here but some unforgivable mistakes as well, e.g., regular columns written by advertisers, and pandering restaurant coverage." "The editors lack an instinct for crisp organization; writing tends to ramble. News stories and columns would be more interesting at half the length. The back of the book needs more punch." "A deceptive publication. Looks a lot more grown-up than it is. And I have serious problems with its integrity. Too many ad/edit overlaps and too many advocates covering their special interests." "There's something zealous and edgy about this prideful paper that reads more like a newsletter for indigenous rights than an alt-weekly. I like the unique cultural perspective represented here, but not the Hawaii-hyping agenda."

High Plains Reader -- Fargo, N.D.
The vote: 3 yea, 7 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

A noble effort, in a difficult environment ("With a distribution of 9,000, and the only alt-weekly format in North Dakota, they truly are a needed voice in the wilderness."), the HPR is a newspaper the committee was prepared to love, butÖ "Still too hit or miss in terms of design. Surely they can get some kind of hard news (not opinion) in the paper!" "This paper seems to be pushing in the right direction, but it lacks the critical thinking or analysis that I'd like to see in a mature alt-weekly. Right now it feels pretty amateurish." "I've heard of the Great Plains, of plain speaking,, but never have I heard of a plain newspaper! No personality, no news, no edge, no nothingÖplain, plain, plain." "This paper has a fairly good arts and entertainment section, especially for its size. It really needs more of a front of the book to be accepted into AAN, though." "Peculiar, weak cover-story selections. There are more interesting subjects in their own ads than the ones they choose to feature as ënews'" "You come away from this paper not knowing much about Fargo. I know they've got limited resources, but a little digging would go a long way to making the HPR credible."" Newsflash: on the convention's eve, the HPR underwent a major redesign and an ownership change. Maybe we'll be looking at a better paper next year.

Pulse of the Twin Cities -- Minneapolis, Minn.
The vote: 3 yea, 7 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

The committee found Pulse somewhat lacking in that very area. It seems unconnected with place, and the issues reviewed were very uneven in quality, with erratic news coverage, sloppy copy-editing and less than stellar design. "The paper takes on some ambitious subjects, but, sadly, the paper's writers don't seem to realize the potential in the subject matter. As a result, the stories are lackluster." "The design is pretty horrible. The calendar is sheer chaos. Overall, the format and layout are amateurish. The content, however uneven, deserves better." "Not a heart-stopper but also not a bad paper. They do try to tackle some ambitious material and put together a comprehensive alt-weekly. The paper has some spirit." "It looks like a duck. It quacks like a duck. But in the end, it's not. Many news stories are retold from other papers (although, honorably, they are given attribution). This paper starts and ends with what it mostly is: an arts/entertainment magazine. Much more work needs to be done on its features, and Pulse desperately needs a better copy editor to catch the typos, etc." "This paper lacks credible journalistic qualities. The news hole is inadequate compared with the amount of space given to arts and entertainment. The paper is on the right track but hasn't reached the station yet. Maybe with some AAN flagmen it can arrive next year."

Fayetteville Free Weekly -- Fayetteville, Ark.
The vote: 1 yea, 9 nay.
The committee declines to recommend for membership.

Somebody has to be last. It's a pity that it's FFW, because clearly it has higher ambitions. We note that it has made a complete redesign in recent weeks -- after our deadlines -- which fact offers promise for the future. As for now, though: "No investigative work. Softball writing. Other than listings, there isn't much in the way of arts at all. The design is sloppy and uninspired." "From the cover stories that read like middle-school reports to the weak home-decorating column, this publication is an abomination. Inane writing, bad editing, zero design. You can't even read the crossword." "This paper touts itself as a real alternative to its Gannett neighbor. Perhaps these were three unusual issues, but I'm not seeing it. They really need to beef up the front of the book with better reporting and writing. And develop some attitude." "This is a small paper trying to be something different in what I perceive to be a tough market. While I want to give them a yes vote, I feel that the paper needs to grow before it can be a really substantive alt-weekly. There's too much fluff and not enough critical eye in this paper. Where there should be more arts criticism and coverage, we get a Master Gardener column." "This paper has great potential in a rapidly growing if conservative market. First things first: start doing news, get an art director and simultaneously a new printer. Quickly."