'Time Is Right' for Birth of Barcelona Alt-Weekly

october 12, 2006  12:51 pm
'Time Is Right' for Birth of Barcelona Alt-Weekly
In May of this year, the first free, English-language alternative newsweekly in Barcelona's history hit the avenida. Since Vol. 1, No. 1, BCN Week has put out 18 more issues. “It's like a baby,” says BCN Week Publisher Jennifer Cross. "You just can’t believe that it is happening and you haven’t dropped it on its head yet.”

BCN Week was founded by the Barcelona-based design team Jardí + Utensil. Marcus Villaça, a k a "Utensil," the paper's founder, first came to Barcelona in 1998 to do a redesign for the Spanish edition of Playboy. “I fell in love with the city,” Villaça recalls. His next thought: "Why don't we come back here and do something like a magazine?”

He and partner Enric Jardí put the idea aside until they did back-to-back redesigns of the Chicago Reader and the Boston Phoenix in 2004 and 2005. Consequently their original idea for a city magazine mutated with their alt-weekly experience and the realization that there was an untapped, "critical mass" audience of 120,000 English speakers in Barcelona. So Villaça called up Cross, a sales and advertising veteran with whom he had worked in New York, and asked her to manage sales for the start-up paper. “All of the [other] English publications fall short on both style and content,” Cross says. “Nothing similar to BCN Week has ever been attempted before in Barcelona or the rest of Spain – that being a free, cultural newsweekly completely in English.”

The founders of BCN Week aren't the first to get the idea of launching an English-language alt-weekly in Europe. In March of 2004, former Chicago Reader freelancer Todd Savage launched Amsterdam Weekly, the first publication of its kind in The Netherlands. The paper, which won three European Newspaper Awards this year – ¬¬for front page, illustration and photography – helped establish a niche previously unknown in Europe. German newspaper designer Norbert Küpper, who founded the awards contest, calls the Amsterdam Weekly 'fresh and innovative' and says that this was only the second time in seven years of the Awards that a free weekly has won. He expects the trend to continue.

The exact number of alternative newsweeklies operating in Europe isn't clear, according to Savage. There are a few other English-language weeklies, including the Prague Post, that share some similarities to American alt-weeklies, but which vary in ways – some are not free, some are not "alternative" – from their U.S. counterparts. But the niche is growing, Savage says. “What I like to think is happening here is akin to the period in which the first wave of alt-weeklies developed in the U.S. following the growth of urban youth culture," he says "With the development of the EU in this generation, I see young Europeans growing increasingly mobile and therefore European capitals becoming ever-more cosmopolitan, with English as the lingua franca among these internationals and the resident population. That calls for a medium that reflects their interests and aspirations.”

Villaça had heard of Amsterdam Weekly and went to the paper seeking advice on starting a European alt-weekly from scratch. The BCN Week team drilled Savage and his staff on "all the logistical stuff on how to get the paper from the printing press to the reader,” Villaça recalls.

Indeed, there is an excitement among BCN Week's staff that they are working in a historical moment similar to the early days of alt-weeklies in the United States. Except for a few editors, who are paid a "nominal fee," and sales staff, who earn a percentage, the paper is still entirely volunteer-run. “This is a community-based project, much like many of the U.S. based alt-weeklies were in the beginning,” Cross says. “We currently have between 40-50 ex-pats that have joined us to help bring BCN Week to life: contributors, columnists, sales reps, designers, and photographers. Everyone who is working on BCN Week is doing so on a volunteer basis and it is a pretty amazing thing to watch develop and grow. Right now I am personally putting in between 14-16 hours per day. It probably sounds a bit exaggerated or insane but it's true!” The paper's current circulation is 20,000, a number they intend to keep steady for now.

Publishing in Barcelona comes with its own quirks and challenges: “The biggest lesson for me personally, has been learning to be patient – a virtue I don’t posses naturally," Cross says. “It isn’t a stereotype that things happen much slower here." Cross also soon discovered the value of having sales staff who speak the Catalan dialect of Spanish. "Lastly, the biggest lesson has been dealing with so many people coming from so many different backgrounds," Cross says. "The way I sell to someone from Pakistan is different than the way I sell to someone from here.”

Being a foreign-language publication also changes editorial dynamics. “On the topics we cover we tend to be somewhat niche in that we discuss things that affect the foreigners who live here,” Villaça says. “We do address local politics, but we take the point of view that while we're part of the city, we're still guests.” Although BCN Week publishes in English, there are still language barriers. “One of the difficulties that we face with this “is that we have writers from all over the world who have come to call Barcelona home,” Cross says. "English isn’t a first language for many contributors, which can make editing a bit tricky. That is also part of the beauty of it though.”

BCN Week's content has so far been similar to that of any American alt-weekly, with perhaps more of a focus on arts than news, and with an irreverent local flavor – a column called “La Fatxa,” for example, parodies a Catalan columnist bemoaning, in poor English, the invasion of "Guiris" – English-speaking tourists. The paper is flashy, and Villaça describes his design for it as “what I would call retro or pseudo-retro, stuff that's made to look like it's beginning of the century. . . a lot of publications here have a British, airy, minimalist look.” In The United States, says Villaça, “There's a lot more pop, more bang on the cover, and that's what we picked up on.” The paper's printers, he says, are unused to so much color, and the staff has had to work on reducing the number of color ads and features.

Overall, both founders agree that response to the paper has been encouraging. “The reaction we have gotten has been above and beyond what I could have hoped for,” says Cross. “Every week we are getting letters from readers thanking us for starting this."

Right now is the moment of new journalism here. Remember, Spain was under a dictatorship until 1975 and is just really fully coming out of that now. There has been no history of questioning the status quo per se. Spain is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. The time is right.”