Three More Weeklies Admitted to AAN

june 21, 2005  10:03 am
Three More Weeklies Admitted to AAN
Las Vegas Weekly, Bellingham Weekly of Bellingham, Wash., and Style Weekly of Richmond, Va., were voted in as members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies at the organization's annual meeting on June 18.

They were the only three papers in a field of 10 applicants whose admission was recommended by the association's Membership Committee. The number of member papers is now 126.

Las Vegas Weekly and Bellingham Weekly both received an affirmative vote from more than two-thirds of the members present or represented by proxy at the annual meeting and were admitted on the first ballot. Style Weekly was admitted on a second-ballot vote after receiving more than half but less than two-thirds of the votes cast on the first ballot.

Las Vegas Weekly and Style Weekly were the first two daily-owned alt-weeklies admitted to AAN following bylaws changes that were approved at last year's annual meeting in San Antonio.

The Membership Committee report, which was issued in San Diego the day before the annual meeting, is set forth below.

AAN Membership Committee Taps Three Papers for Admission

The times, they are a-changin' -- or at least the AAN bylaws are. And, as a result, life has gotten considerably more complicated for the members of your beloved Membership Committee.

In the past, weekly newspapers owned by dailies or companies that owned daily newspapers were not eligible for membership, although existing member papers acquired by dailies have been allowed to remain in the organization. A total of 11 of our current members now fall into this category.

Responding to this inconsistency, the membership voted to amend the bylaws at last year's Annual Meeting, removing the daily newspaper clause, and replacing it with language that attempted to provide a better definition of the kind of newspaper that AAN considers eligible for membership. Here's how Article One, Section 6 of the bylaws now reads:

The ownership of a member newspaper shall reflect and advance the values of the association including but not limited to the following:
1) Editorial independence and integrity
2) Ethical business practices
3) Competitive editorial and business environment, especially within local markets
4) A multiplicity and diversity of media voices
5) Independence from media conglomerates or other entities deemed detrimental to the interest of the alternative press and the maintenance of media diversity.

In 2005, the first year of this New World Order, 10 papers applied for admission to the AAN fold, three of which would have been ineligible under the old rules. Las Vegas Weekly is owned by the Greenspun family, which owns a host of publications in that city, including the afternoon daily. StyleWeekly and Port Folio Weekly, published in Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively, are owned by Landmark Communications. Landmark is a privately held company that owns major dailies in Norfolk and two other markets (Roanoke, VA and Greensboro, NC), as well as over 50 smaller dailies and weeklies around the South. Among its numerous other media properties are two television stations and, most famously, the Weather Channel.

The 11 members of the Committee scrutinized these 10 applicants in their usual inscrutable fashion, reading three designated issues of each paper, collecting their thoughts, compiling detailed dossiers, and meeting Thursday morning to debate and discuss each applicant's merits and defects. Three papers were recommended for membership, although none were without detractors; seven applicants were not recommended.

The Committee was unanimous on one subject: all of us noted and lamented the absence of anything resembling investigative journalism -- the kind of writing and reporting which has made AAN famous, and won one of our members the Pulitzer Prize this year -- in the pages of this year's 10 applicants. Obviously, some of the newcomers have real fiscal constraints, but it's disappointing that even those that appear to be financially well-endowed chose to do so little work in this area. Said one of our number: "In today's changing media landscape, there seem to be two kinds of AAN applicants: papers that are thoroughly professional but in no way 'alternative,' and papers that are thoroughly alternative but in no way professional."

The decisions and commentary below reflect the collective wisdom of the following Committee members: Bingo Barnes (Boise Weekly), Margaret Downing (Houston Press), Ben Fulton (Salt Lake City Weekly), Clif Garboden (Boston Phoenix), Matt Gibson (Missoula Independent), Stephen Leon (Metroland, Albany), Ken Neill (Memphis Flyer, Committee Chair), Tim Redmond (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Paula Routly (Seven Days, Vermont), Erin Sullivan (Baltimore City Paper), and Sioux Watson (Independent Weekly, Raleigh-Durham, NC). Without further ado, the results:

The Best

Las Vegas Weekly -- Las Vegas, NV
The Vote: 7 yea, 3 nay, 1 abstention (former employee).
The Committee recommends for membership.

"Why quibble? This weekly is as good as anything else out there." Ah, but there's the rub; not everyone drank from the same batch of Kool-Aid. "It's a quality enterprise, yes. Then again it should be, when it's got the financial heft of Greenspun Media Group (owners of the Vegas afternoon daily) and the advertising revenue of Vegas fueling it up." But even this curmudgeon admitted that LVW was not just another pretty face on the Strip. "Reporting covers topics you wouldn't expect in a show-town publication, topics which need real exposure in a town like Vegas. Hats off to the staff here." "From the buffet deals to the boob-job babes, this paper reflects local Las Vegas. From a glowing city in the middle of the desert, where appearance is reality, we shouldn't be surprised that the result looks different from any of our other member papers." "Some of the stories are almost a little too thorough and wonky for their own good. We all know Vegas is about clubs, shows and nightlife. But where are the visual arts or theater? Where are the photos? Stylish to a fault, almost." "Good news, good features, good calendar, and good, thoughtful, essayistic, in-depth writing that brings to life aspects of the community that often get little attention; this is a real writer's publication." "This paper is a fun and/or thought-provoking read throughout. LVW has a cheeky irreverence, and it's ready to poke a stick into any mess lying about. Overall, a strong publication."

Bellingham Weekly -- Bellingham, WA
The Vote: 7 yea, 4 nay.
The Committee recommends for membership.

Denied membership last year, BW made a much better impression in 2005. "This paper, with its appealing mix of political irreverence and community pride, has improved dramatically since last time around." BW now has covers you can actually stand looking at, and, inside, it is no longer as gray as the Pacific Northwest sky. "This paper looks good, feels good, digests well. No more constipation." The nays and even the yeas pointed out that BW was still far from perfect ("Long on lefty attitude but short on enterprising journalism, Bellingham Weekly represents some of the more irritating tendencies in the alternative press, like presenting combative commentary as if it's something that's noteworthy. In fact, it's barely tolerable."), but they also agreed "some alt sensibility is slipping in." "I get a clear picture of Bellingham from this unpredictable weekly, which appears to serve educated, outdoorsy types. They're doing a great job with limited resources (and no staff writers) to creatively cover the community." "I found this paper interesting, easy to read and navigate. Great arts coverage and BW leaves a strong impression of the community it serves." "Spotty on in-depth features. Also, this paper is way under-designed." "I am still troubled by their design mish-mash and inconsistent editorial. But I can see a lot of progress here; they cram a lot of goodies into 32-36 pages."

Style Weekly -- Richmond, VA
The Vote: 7 yea, 4 nay.
The Committee recommends for membership.

This Landmark-owned weekly competes directly with a Media General daily in Richmond, and is consummately professional. "This is a very admirable newspaper. Hits almost every mark. The strongest local news coverage I've seen in a long time." "Distinctly different from its sister paper down the road in Norfolk." But again, there were reservations, many of which focused upon Style's failure to push the envelope. "This is a paper that seems to wallow more in drawn-out minutia than hard-hitting stories. It's passionate about power players, moving chips around downtown, and civic pride, but lacks zest enough to pull the reader inside its sometimes-inflated sense of agenda." "Style Weekly looks great. It's well written, and serious about politics and the arts, but lacking all irony or attitude or anything to differentiate it from a good Sunday supplement to a daily. It's easy to respect, but it's not an alt." "Perhaps a little less intriguing than some other papers, but as a whole the package is interesting and engaging." "Overall this is a very impressive paper. The cover stories were comprehensive and well told. The writers aren't afraid to get out of the office and do some digging. They aren't just talking to officials. And they get across very clearly the pulse of their community." "This paper is connected to place in every conceivable way. Must be a fun weekly read for locals who care about Richmond."

The Rest

City Pulse -- Lansing, MI
The Vote: 4 yea, 7 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

The Committee noted substantial improvement in this paper since its application two years ago. "CP has matured a lot since then. They've made the news section stronger, improved their arts coverage, and they have even made some inroads in improving the features." But not enough to be ready for membership. "Still needs to develop the news feature portion of its offerings with more in-depth, better-written stories." "The whole package of bland design, passable stories and tepid leads conspires to make you throw up your hands and say, 'I like this paper, I suppose. I just can't love it.'" "Probably more organized in the minds of its editors than it appears to be to readers." "I just don't think you can 'show enough' in 24 pages to be a serious candidate for AAN. The writing is not strong, the design is still a mess, and the paper is clearly operating under formidable financial constraints." "This paper needs a complete graphic overhaul, especially if it hopes to compete (in Lansing) with a Gannett faux alt. It looks stodgy and old, even when on occasion it doesn't read that way. Everything from the cover design, to the story layouts, to the photos and the calendar needs to be easier on the eyes." "Although the news reporting is conventional and there's no enterprising journalism evident, there is fundamental competence, which was missing from City Pulse in the past. Most importantly, I feel this paper has an authenticity lacking in most of the other publications we've seen; they seem to be doing more with less."

Port Folio Weekly -- Norfolk, VA
The Vote: 4 yea, 7 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

This Landmark-owned paper -- published in the hometown of the company's flagship daily -- elicited respect but little enthusiasm from the Committee. "I'm disappointed by the lack of long-form writing in this otherwise professional-looking newspaper. The cover packages are sprawling collections of loosely connected essays and failed to hold my interest. PW fits the model of an AAN paper, but it is an underachiever on the editorial side." "There's a lot to like here, but a lot to wish for, too. At this many pages and with all these ads why doesn't the publication invest in more enterprising journalism and leave the 'themes' and 'questions' to the Utne Reader?" "This paper seems schizophrenic, perhaps because it's huge and has no staff writers. Some good local stuff, but the writing is only serviceable and lacks a critical edge. A little more enterprise (which they can well afford) would allow them to lose a lot of the first-person filler on national subjects." "Port Folio Weekly needs fewer columns and more reporting with an eye to developing an in-depth story in each issue. 'Food and drink, pack a lunch with punch' -- this is copy you could read in a doctor's waiting room. There's some energy here, but perhaps writers just need to leave the office more, and talk to other people once they get outside." "The paper seems competent and smart, with strong lefty political sensibilities, and some sense of humor. But I wish I could see more narrative reporting in the feature hole." "The weakness of the cover packages spoke volumes about the limitations of this paper. All opinion, all the time. A Sunday paper magazine supplement masquerading as an alt-weekly."

The Independent -- Lafayette, LA
The Vote: 3 yea, 8 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

Owned and operated by the founding publishers of The Times of Acadiana (a former AAN member now owned by Gannett), The Independent failed to generate much enthusiasm from the Committee. "Didn't these guys net $10 million when they sold their last paper? Well, it shows. This is a join 'em paper, not a beat 'em one. It exudes commercialism, from the pandering business news to the pro-shopping society column. Lafayette's underbelly? No sign of it." "Take two parts business journal, one part lifestyle mag, add a dash of political news and mix until credible. The Independent is an interesting publication, but not an alternative newsweekly. The news reporting is certainly competent, but the staff takes little apparent interest in issues of public policy outside of the business sphere." "Despite a few good jabs at the establishment, this paper leaves you cold. It has all the excitement and vigor of a marshmallow with low blood pressure. The stories work largely at a surface level, and need more context and digging." "Pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and the overall graphic presentation. The Independent has an interesting, understated edge, although I am intrigued by the avoidance of any taking of strong stands: no critical reviews, etc." "Well-written and formatted, and full of ads, but this is a strong mainstream weekly with a few quirks, not an alternative newsweekly." "Covers are attractive, good design throughout, and the photos pop. The centerpiece stories are all good ideas, although the writers get so excited they leave their critical faculties home."

The Pulse -- Chattanooga, TN
The Vote: 3 yea, 8 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

The Committee was impressed by The Pulse's verve and enthusiasm, but concluded that this scrappy start-up was not quite ready for prime time. "There are way too many columns; so much first-person opinion is overbearing, self-indulgent, and, frankly, boring. But I like the feel of this paper, which reads like it's in some kind of awkward-teenage stage. In 10 years the editors will wince looking back at these issues, feeling like they're reading their own embarrassing high-school journals." "There's a lot to like here, including a real mischievous attitude clearly evident in many columns and articles. What's really needed to put The Pulse over the top, however, are some harder cover stories and more civic 'bite.'" "So near and yet so far. An entertaining and well-written paper with quirky features, but there's no attempt at news coverage and almost no reporting. A fun read, but nothing memorable. We're close here; all we need is some meat." "Enough columns already! Where are the enterprising local news stories? I want to read about Chattanooga, not George Bush, in The Pulse. There's too much missing here." "The Pulse reflects spirit, enthusiasm, and glimmers of talent. Now all they need to figure out is how to make their paper a news-paper."

Northern Express -- Traverse City, MI
The Vote: 3 yea, 8 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

Published in a rural Republican stronghold, Northern Express garnered respect but little real enthusiasm from the Committee. "This is a paper with lots of window-dressing indicative of editorial life within its pages. But open it up and -- thud! Content is often headed in the right direction, but this paper needs an editorial crew able enough to figure out what do to with it." "Some halfway decent writing that deserves better editing, but the paper is soft with content seemingly selected at random. It lacks an editorial 'center' to coverage. A not-bad mainstream weekly with a few quirks, but definitely not an alternative newspaper." "The staff is clearly trying, and there are sparks of excellence scattered throughout what is otherwise something of a mess. This is a clear case where weak packaging actually interferes with judging the content." "Although there's an obvious commitment to local news reporting, there's no enterprise journalism evident, and the back of the book is uniformly flattering to its subjects. Neither the content nor the approach of this very conventional paper makes a compelling case for admission." "This paper needs a better copy editor (far too many typos, including one on the cover: ouch!) and the staff might seriously consider a design makeover."

Planet Jackson Hole -- Jackson Hole, WY
The Vote: 2 yea, 9 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

Planet Jackson Hole demonstrated more than a little spunk, and what one member called "a sometimes-refreshing undercurrent of iconoclasm." But flaws and weaknesses abound. "The earnest effort here at local news reporting is undermined by amateur execution. Not yet good enough" "The writing is voiceless. The stories read like book reports. This paper doesn't leave you with any big-picture impression of Jackson Hole. A little distance might give us a better view of those beautiful mountains." "This is a community weekly with lots of sophisticated touches, but it doesn't take on tough local issues in its main features, and it offers nothing but shameless boosterism in the arts. Not an alternative weekly, at least not yet." "What I see here is a spunky little paper in a not-so-spunky place, covering real community issues, instead of spas, snowboarding, and other resort-town concerns. But PJH's ambition definitely exceeds its execution at this stage." "Most of the stories in this paper were practically unreadable. No for now, but I could see them pulling this all together in a couple of years with an improved product." "This paper could do with a healthy redesign; air it out." "This paper is eclectic, a little disjointed and not ready to be in AAN."

High Plains Reader -- Fargo, ND
The Vote: 1 yea, 10 nay.
The Committee declines to recommend for membership.

How does a 24-page paper survive for 10 years? Publisher John Strand's Dakotan determination would seem to be the only explanation. But true grit isn't always enough. "I admire the courage and perseverance demonstrated by the folks behind this newspaper. Fargo is probably a more lively community due to their presence, though perhaps not measurably better informed. The news reporting is very weak." "It's made observable advances since it last applied, but High Plains Reader is still mostly a jumbled mess. Apart from scatter-gun coverage and story selection, it's still really hard on the eyes." "No doubt this rag is revered by a loyal band of liberals in Fargo. But it simply doesn't cover a broad enough range of subjects to qualify it as an alternative weekly." "Weak, visually dull, poorly organized. They need to lock themselves in a hotel room for a weekend and decide what they really want to be, then go after it." "Some good writing and some good ideas, but most of the news content is in the opinion pieces. This paper has to get bigger and it has to write something about Fargo." "If HPR really wants to try to strike out as a lone voice for truth and justice then its writers need to become reporters, too, and talk to people." "Work on news, even out the design and make it consistent."