Desperately Seeking the News 

Selling out

Selling out

As alternative papers like the Nashville Scene become increasingly profitable—and more subject to corporate takeovers by media chains—the nationwide Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) is considering amending its rules to make it easier for chain-owned, “alternative” papers to join the organization.

“Just because you’re a daily [paper], that doesn’t mean you’re somehow impure,” explained AAN board member John Saltas, publisher of the Salt Lake City Private Eye Weekly. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said, before many alternative papers are swallowed up by someone higher on the food chain. “We don’t like dailies. We don’t want to help them or teach them anything about our business, but we can’t keep hiding under rocks.”

In 1992, AAN voted to exclude any newspaper “owned by a daily newspaper publishing company” because, as one AAN member argued, everyone understood that “the daily newspapers are the enemy.” Now an AAN task force has recommended eliminating the automatic exclusion of daily-owned papers. AAN members, however, could still blackball papers that don’t present a “positive editorial alternative to mainstream journalism.”

AAN president Jeff vonKaenel said he trusts the organization’s members to prevent newspaper chains like Gannett or Knight-Ridder from buying or starting alternative papers and gaining a foothold in the organization.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “The [general] membership is made up of people who are competing with dailies. They’re more extreme on this issue than the people who run AAN.” VonKaenel predicts the rule change will allow AAN to evaluate newspapers on a case-by-case basis focusing on editorial content and independence rather than on ownership. He also sees little reason to distinguish alternative papers owned by dailies from papers controlled by other kinds of media companies. Even several AAN papers are now owned by rapidly growing chains of alternative papers such as Stern Publishing and New Times.

“What’s the difference between one chain and another?” asked Saltas, who voted against the dailies five years ago but raised the issue again last fall after learning that corporate media buyers had approached a number of AAN members.

“If someone comes in with a fat offer, well, we’re human beings,” he said. “Are we going to kick someone out of the organization who’s been a member for 20 years, just because he decides to sell his paper?”

Saltas said that if Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain and owner of The Tennessean, bought the Nashville Scene, Saltas would vote to throw Nashville’s alternative paper out of AAN—that is, unless Scene publisher Albie Del Favero and editor Bruce Dobie stayed with the paper. “As long as they’re still there, I would know that everything was OK,” he said. Saltas probably expects that Dobie and Del Favero would, if necessary, return the favor.

Del Favero said he’s “in total agreement” with those who want to change the rule so that, for example, he and Dobie “could also start a small daily paper in another market.” But when it comes to large daily chains like Gannett or Knight-Ridder buying alternative papers, Del Favero said, “I don’t care how good their [alternative] paper was, I guarantee you it would be voted down.”

Many midsize, alternative papers like the Scene started on a shoestring in the 1970s, struggled bitterly against the dailies for a decade or more, but today are well-established and fairly profitable. Now, as the first generation of alternative publishers think about cashing in or starting their own newspaper chains, owners like Del Favero and Saltas understandably want to remain part of the alternative media world they’ve created.

But once an independent, alternative newspaper becomes part of a corporate media chain, whether it’s a chain of dailies or of radio stations, the paper is no longer “independent” or “alternative,” no matter who sits in the editor’s chair.

Instead of eliminating the rule against ownership by a daily paper and trusting its board members to distinguish good publishers from bad ones, AAN should broaden its bylaws to include a presumption that, in most cases, no paper owned by an absentee corporation belongs in the organization. A presumption would keep most chain-owned papers out but allow for exceptions when, for example, one AAN paper buys another.

For the best of reasons, AAN is trying to adapt to the changing status of its members. But the enemy is still the dailies. They define the “alternative” press. And the danger, to paraphrase Pogo, is that the enemy could soon be us.

History lesson

Two weeks ago, both Nashville dailies trumpeted the news. “State last to ratify 15th Amendment,” read the heading on The Tennessean’s front page. “Tennessee finally ratifies 1869 black vote amendment,” said the Banner. The papers made the story look, well, black and white: Modern, well-meaning legislators had finally made up for the racism of some long-dead ex-Confederates.

But it didn’t happen that way. In 1867, by statute, Tennessee gave blacks the right to vote, the first Southern state to do so. In 1870 legislators rejected the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but only because the amendment was no longer necessary. The day before the vote, state leaders approved a new Tennessee Constitution that guaranteed the right to vote to all men.

Then as now, legislators had mixed motives for their decision. Some supported black suffrage for moral reasons. But most went along because, as one modern historian wrote, otherwise federal troops would have occupied the state.

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