Underground papers: through an alternative lens

September 24, 2019

 

“We were the original media disrupters. It was our version of reality.”

 

That’s how Harvey Ovshinsky describes the impact of underground newspapers in the 1960s on high school kids. And he would know – Ovshinsky was a pioneer of the movement, founding the Fifth Estate in Detroit at the age of 17, considered one of the first and longest-running underground newspapers.

 

“I always wanted to get things off my chest, and journalism was my way,” Ovshinsky said. 

 

Raised in Detroit, when he graduated from Mumford High School, he said, “my mom took me out to Los Angeles. I was popular in high school, but I was a rebel. She wanted me to start over. I hated it out there. I worked for the Los Angeles Free Press, and I got enthused, and I wanted to run home and start a similar paper, and so I did.”

 

The Los Angeles Free Press was among the most widely-circulated underground newspapers in the 1960s, founded by an unemployed tool-and-die worker, Art Kunkin, who was also a former organizer of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), where he had served as the business manager of that group’s paper, The Militant. The LA Free Press was originally published from 1964 to 1978, and was notable for its radical politics, which had rarely been seen in print before. It is often cited as the first of its kind. The paper wrote about and was often directly involved in major historic issues and was in the orbit of noted people of the ‘60s and ‘70s, from the Chicago Seven, to Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg and Abbie Hoffman. 

 

In 2005, a new incarnation of the LA Free Press was revived, with no ties to Kunkin, as an alternative to “corporate-controlled media.” It continues to publish.

 

“This was a new kind of journalism of that time,” said Bob Levin, author of The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Underground. “The Free Press saw itself as an advocate of personal freedom as well as a vehicle to aid the anti-Vietnam war movement. Because of its coverage, of the Vietnam War and how it became a touchstone for anti-war activists, the Los Angeles Free Press is given degrees of credit for ending the war.”

 

“The first alternative weeklies of the 1960s were referred to as ‘the underground press’ because they appealed to cultural outlaws – think ‘drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll’  – and they sprouted up in big cities with titles like the Berkeley Barb in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angeles Free Press, and the East Village Other in New York City,” said Michael Fuhlage, assistant professor, Wayne State University.  “But they also appeared in smaller places, most typically college towns, in the midwest. The Kansas Free Press published its first issue in November 1963, in Lawrence, Kansas. Its goal was ‘to help remedy the inadequacy of the American Press.’ Its writers urged an end to racial oppression against black people under Jim Crow, nuclear weapons proliferation, and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.”

 

In Ovshinsky’s case, he returned to Detroit from LA in 1965 and began what he called an “under the radar” underground newspaper that was handed out at high schools. He called it the Fifth Estate.

 

“Everyone thinks I named it the Fifth Estate as a backlash to the fourth estate (mainstream media) – but that’s not true,” Ovshinsky said. “The Fifth Estate was the name of the coffee house in LA, in the basement where the LA Free Press was published, and I spent a lot of time there – so I called it the Fifth Estate.”

 

At the time, Ovshinsky said, there were dozens of underground newspapers. "They were mainly mimeographed or xeroxed or photo-offset, and handed out at schools. Increasingly, school papers were becoming the disrupters. They were investigating the news and looking into issues, both in content and graphics.”

 

The underground press was, for the first time, giving voice to the younger generation, and they had a lot to say.

 

Ovshinsky said it was a major change from the daily newspapers at the time, “who generally only wrote about kids if they got into trouble, or about women if they were in the society pages. But we were highly-motivated because of the war and the draft.

 

“Without motivation, things don’t get done. There has to be some level of jeopardy – just like in a good screenplay,” he pointed out. 

 

Before the Fifth Estate, Ovshinsky passed out newsletters for the “Creative Boys Club,” made on carbon copies. “I always wrote. I was always a writer and journalist. I started the Creative Boys Club, not to have meetings, but to have a newsletter to pass out in the neighborhood,” he recalled. 

 

That morphed into the Transylvanian Newsletter, which sold for 10-cents a copy in his Seven Mile and Greenfield neighborhood, before he began a literary magazine at Mumford, the IDiom.

 

“That almost got me expelled from Mumford, because some counselor thought an image was pornographic,” he said. “It wasn’t.

 

“I always wanted to get things off my chest, and journalism was my way.”

 

After creating the Fifth Estate, the impact was immediate and strong. He was joined in his efforts by Peter Werbe, who continues to this day, and John Sinclair.

 

“I wanted to be a beatnik. I was a jazz fanatic. I wanted to write poetry,” Sinclair recalled. “I was a Negrophile, because of the music – R&B, Ray Charles, Charles Brown. I was a fanatic as a teenager. It was all black music and I wanted to understand what made it all so great.”

 

In addition, “I was  pissed off,” he said. “They killed the president.”

 

Ovshinsky tapped into Sinclair’s anger and talent, and Sinclair became the Fifth Estate’s arts writer from the second edition on. 

 

“In the underground press, I was a star,” Sinclair said, recalling he had been the editor of his college paper at University of Michigan-Flint. He came to Detroit in 1964, and with other artists, poets and musicians, started Detroit Artists Workshop.

 

“We were the weirdos around Wayne State University,” he said. “It was a Bohemian Embassy. We were learning about mimeographing poet magazines, music magazines. The mimeograph revolution was the beginning of the underground newspapers, and the tabloids came from that.”

 

“We were listening to underground music, underground culture, underground radio stations,” Ovshinsky recalled. “Underground then meant ‘below the radar’ – until the mainstream press caught on and we were in the dailies and on TV. We didn’t pay too much attention to the straight media because we were too busy doing our thing – but they all paid attention to us.”

 

Sinclair said a syndicate of underground papers – Underground Press Syndicate – would share articles around the country, extending their reach and influence. 

 

“No money was involved. Nobody got paid. But you would driven by your beliefs,” he said. “But my writing in the Fifth Estate was published across the country, so that was a beautiful thing.” Later on, when Sinclair became manager of the MC5 band, “I’d write about them, and they’d be reprinted all over. When it was printed in a New York paper, we got our record deal.”

 

Sinclair moved on from the Fifth Estate to edit the Detroit Sun during its brief run.

 

The counterculture moved to an area near downtown Detroit, on Plum Street, that Ovshinsky said “simulated Haight-Ashbury, with coffee shops, incense, candles. Barry Kramer (publisher of Creem magazine, which later had its offices on S. Old Woodward in Birmingham) had a shop there, Gilda Radner would hang out. It increased our circulation. The music companies really discovered us, and that increased our ad revenue. The records, books, art, cinemas, the full culture – we were all part of it. It was exciting.

 

“I didn’t know we were making history. I knew we were recording history.”

 

In 1968, Ovshinsky moved on from Fifth Estate. One, he said he was restless. And two, he was drafted. He became a conscientious objector, doing his alternative service at the Lafayette Clinic as a nurse’s aide, where he met his wife. Later, he became involved with radio, TV and screenwriting. 

 

“I told my story in different media,” he said. “Creativity and storytelling has always been my thread.”

 

Fifty-five years on, the Fifth Estate is still in existence, although Ovshinsky no longer has any ties to it. Werbe, still carries the torch forward, identifying it as an anarchic press.

 

“An anarchic vision to us is not violence – it is how people live a vision of a cooperative society,” Werbe explained. “In a village, no one dominates over another. Modern society has eliminated the change that philosophers envisioned for 19th century harmonious classes, like peaceful co-existence, not power over others. This society is one of chaos, one that is steeped in chaos, genocide, land dispossession. It might not be possible, but it’s our ethics.”

 

In its heyday of the early 1970s, Werbe said the Fifth Estate was one of 500 other alternative weekly newspapers in the country with a combined weekly circulation of four million. 

 

“There were lots of publications, and many military ones, that opposed the Vietnam War,” Werbe said. Around 1970, a police informant was planted in their midst. “Some suppression was local,” he said. “Local police would sometimes come to printers, and say, ‘Why are you printing this Communist paper? They’re opposing our boys.’ Yet we supplied to many GIs, and we still do.”

 

People reading the Fifth Estate, “and the 499 other weeklies, weren’t believing The Detroit News but believing the alternatives. We took on all alternative movements – civil rights, black rights, gay rights, youth and labor struggles, women’s rights. There were a lot of grass root movements,” Werbe said. “Strident calls for revolution became standard fare on our covers.”

 

After the war ended, he noted, “499 or so other underground and alternative papers disappeared. We were the only one who still had a critique of the whole system.”

 

At one point, the Fifth Estate had a weekly distribution of 20,000 papers. Today, Werbe said the goal is to publish yearly, with a distribution of about 4,000 papers. As they always were, a lot of their distribution is free, because Werbe said that is the expectation. There are also no ads in the paper.

 

“We refuse any ads. We call it the ‘Voice of Capital.’” 

 

Unlike other papers, mainstream or alternative, the Fifth Estate has no editor or publisher, but an editorial collective of about five people, each with an equal say. “We used to be in the Cass Corridor. Now we’re in cyberspace,” Werbe said. Each issue costs the paper about $4,000 to print and mail, with all revenues coming from subscriptions and donations.

 

Ken Wachsberger, an underground press chronicler living in Ann Arbor and author of Voices of the Underground series, helped start and work on a few underground papers in Lansing after becoming what he called an “accidental revolutionary” in 1970, when he casually attended a student strike at the student union at Michigan State University following the shootings of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. Before he knew it, “the doors swung open and the cops came in. They had the doors and windows blockaded, and if anyone had wanted to escape they would have jumped into the arms of a cop.”

 

Wachsberger, previously unpolitical, was the first of 132 to be arrested – but the last to be arraigned. 

 

“I finished the semester, but needed to pull back and reflect...all of a sudden school wasn’t relevant,” he recalled. He finished the semester but dropped out two semesters shy of graduation, moving off-campus into a house with his friend Davey Brinn, who had been working on the underground paper Generation, “an anti-war, counterculture, lifestyle, pot, women’s rights paper. We were best friends and we did everything together. That was my intro to the underground press. Then I worked on another underground paper, on campus, Bogue Street Press, that was more into health food, and was also anti-war. 

 

“Every underground paper was anti-war.”

 

The two papers combined and put out the Joint Issue, from 1971 to 1975. He said they were the one of the first underground papers that came out free, supported by ads.

 

“We got huge readership – and then we got more ads,” he laughed as he recalled selling the ads, as well as writing for it. 

 

“When the Vietnam War ended, a lot of them moved on. The underground press was everywhere. They spoke to all difference voices of the counterculture. They were all united against the war – whether the gay press, lesbian, women’s rights, black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, prisoner’s rights, socialist, labor, or New Age – they were all different genres and different readerships. All of them were anti-war, and that was what unified them,” Wachsberger said.

 

For those who primarily read The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, alternative newspapers, or alt-weeklies, are newspapers that don’t cover general news but instead choose more stylized social and political reporting, with opinionated reviews and columns, investigations into avant-garde or offbeat topics, including in-depth magazine-style longform feature stories, and have an emphasis on local arts and culture. Typically published weekly in tabloid format and printed on newsprint, they represent a more commercialized and mainstream evolution of the 1960s counterculture underground press. Some of the most famous of the era were The Village Voice, The Stranger, LA Free Press, LA Weekly, SF Weekly, Houston Press, Boise Weekly and Detroit’s Metro Times, all of which were always free, earning their keep through advertising. 

 

Wayne State University assistant professor Michael Fuhlage said other eras of upheaval have seen their own versions of underground or alternative newspapers.

 

“We’ve had an alternative press in the U.S. for as long as we’ve had political dissenters with the means to pay to fund their own publications,” Fuhlage said. “Newspapers provided the connective tissue of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, the suffrage movement from the 1850s through passage of the 19th Amendment a century ago, and radical protest movements against the Vietnam War. 

 

“That kind of alt-weekly also was available in Ann Arbor. When the Ann Arbor Argus debuted in 1969, its credo declared, ‘There has to be an alternative to the Ann Arbor News – Michigan Daily, Detroit News/ Free Press ‘objectivity.’ … we want to get as much down as possible with what’s happening news-wise, politically, musically and everything else that’s happening.’ So they were doing what a good community newspaper does: fulfill the needs of their readers by reporting on topics they were interested in, in ways they could relate to, and in ways they could not find in the mainstream press. ‘Objectivity’ wasn’t enough. They wanted to know what was going on from people who shared their point of view and related to the world in ways that they did.”

 

Fuhlage said that not all of them were so focused on politics. “The first issue of Detroit’s The Sun, in 1967, contained tips on how to get high by smoking banana peels and how to not get arrested for selling and using drugs. It also promoted the local music scene and alternative newspapers at Cass Tech and Grosse Pointe high schools. When they were able to endure, it was because they provided news and opinion that their readers and patrons thought was worth supporting through single-copy purchase. If you look at the actual issues, you can see that they also relied on advertisements by clothing boutiques and bookstores and anyplace else that saw potential customers in those papers’ readers. Those that didn’t get revenue from those sources got it from donors, but many alt-weeklies had to be funded out of the editors’ own pockets because they saw them as labors of love. Those editors really were in it out of a sense of mission.”

 

Over time, some of the same forces facing traditional media have impacted alternative press. Some alt-weeklies succumbed to their time. Others merged, and others have been purchased by media conglomerates. 

 

“The pressures we’re facing are similar to the ones facing the dailies and magazines. They’re all going through the same things, not just for print, but everyone revenue-wise,” said Jason Zaragoza, executive director of Association of Alternative Newsmedia, a trade association of alternative weekly newspapers in North America which currently has 131 newspapers in 42 states, Washington D.C. and four Canadian provinces. 

 

Zaragoza said a tenet of alt-weeklies is “We don’t have a subscription base, which the dailies have had, and advertising revenue has plummeted. So some of our papers have been looking at online components.” Among the different courses of actions different papers have been sampling are reader revenue, subscription programs, paywalls, and offering extra perks, including early entrance to stories, and member-only monthly events.

 

“And some are asking – can you pitch in $5 or $10 a month? And that’s not just us – it’s across the board, at magazines and dailies,” Zaragoza said. “This is not just us, it’s industrywide because the advertising side is plummeting and will continue as advertising keeps going to Google and Facebook.”

 

Once upon a time, classifieds, including apartment listings and phone sex and escort service ads, filled the back pages of many alt-weeklies. Then came Craigslist and other online sites.

 

“The back-of-the book ads have basically vanished – the massages, personals – they’ve gone to Craigslist,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst, Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists. 

 

Readers who assume all the income is being made on publications on the internet would be wrong.

 

“That industry has been slow to adapt to changes to the rhythm of producing a weekly to the demands of up-to-date websites,” Edmonds said. “If you’re the New Yorker, they have a terrific website that’s up-to-date daily, but they have tremendous resources. It’s more difficult for others.”

 

Edmonds noted it’s compounded by the nature of alt-weeklies advertisers, who are often restaurants and nightlife, “where there is more competition to verticals, other places to get that information.”

 

“For a little while, they (online alternative publications) were flying high because investors, including venture capitalists, were betting on their economies. Then they cut their losses and decimated their staffs,” Zaragoza explained. “Things like Buzzfeed, Mike, the Huffington Post, Patch, Vox Media – all have had major layoffs and closures.”

 

Edmonds points out that the costs for printing and distribution are very expensive – but there are costs for digital only as well, including the necessity of having quality systems in place, such as a content management system, a good mobile system, “as well as the cost of producing the journalism. None of that is completely easy or cheap. I hate to be pessimistic, but we’re kind of in a transition period.”

 

“It’s not that people’s appetite for news and information has decreased. The reach, between papers, online and social media is greater than ever,” Zaragoza pointed out. “We have a bigger reach than ever. It’s just that it’s not converting to advertising dollars.”

 

“Alt-weeklies had a really good readership in their heyday, but they really stuck with an audience that is now older, and as they’re aged, some of their audience has died off,” Edmonds said. “Hence The Village Voice. It’s why many of them have died off.”

 

For devotees of alternative press, the August 2018 closure of The Village Voice was painful and poignant. It was first founded in 1955 as a nickel weekly by three New York writers, including Norman Mailer, and assembled investigative journalists, writers and critics – many who became famous for their work – who engaged readers with wit and intelligence. 

 

While it had been sold before, including to Rupert Murdoch and pet-food magnate Leonard Stern, the final death knell came when Pennsylvania publisher and billionaire Peter Barbey bought the company in 2015, promising to invest heavily in the publication. By August 2017, he stopped print publication, becoming an online-only newsweekly, and by the time he closed it on August 31, 2018, editors and staff had become a revolving door. 

 

Zaragoza said many of the association’s papers have found renewed strength and revenue in creating events “because they’re known for cultural events.”

 

It’s not uncommon to find a Margaritafest in many cities in the midwest and south, a Baconfest and a Bourbonfest. 

 

“They steal from each other,” Zaragoza said of various publications’ events. “People are making those into moneymakers at local bars and restaurants. Some of them pay to participate. ‘Best of event’ – and the ‘best’ pay to participate. 

 

“It’s a change from the missions the founders started the presses around,” he acknowledged, noting that many current owners of alternative papers have bought into the papers.

 

Detroit’s own Metro Times is one alt-weekly that is forging on, and true to what Zaragoza said, with a change in ownership since its founding in 1980 by Ron Williams and Dr. Laura Markham, who met at Antioch College in Ohio in the 1970s.

 

“We were driven to start Metro Times out of a desire of promoting the social good,” said Williams, who today is executive director of Free Speech TV in Denver. “There were many fine precursors to ours in the Detroit area that didn’t fill the void that we felt we could. The Detroit Sun was the most significant predecessor who successfully did it for a year or two or three, but weren’t able to make it continue. 

 

“Laura and I weren’t innovators,” he continued. “Alt-weeklies were very establishment by the 1980s. Detroit was just one market where they weren’t yet established. But when you looked at the top 10 markets, Detroit didn’t have one, so it made sense to come home and promote the social good.”

 

Markham said she had never been to Detroit before, “but Ron said, ‘Detroit needs us, and we can do great things.’ At the beginning, I wanted to the make the world a better place. I wanted to change the world. I was a journalist – ‘if you give people information, they will make good decisions.’ It’s a little crazy to think you can just start a paper, but my mother was an entrepreneur, and in high school, I grew up in Washington DC during Watergate, reading the Washington Post. When we started out, Reagan had just been elected, and we saw the dismantling of social systems. We saw ‘trickle down economics’ – when really, the economic structure, money flowed up.”

 

Williams recalled they started the paper with $5,000. He wrote the business plan; she did the budgeting.

 

“When I wrote the original business plan, I thought we needed $250,000 in order to get started – and we were unable to raise any at that point,” Williams said. “We had a friend from college who gave us $5,000, and we said either we’ll roll the dice or we give the money back.”

 

They opened a small office on the 24th floor of an office building on Grand Circus Park and Woodward. “Herb Boyd, who was an African American scholar, came on as editor, and he got us cardboard desks and got us chairs. Toni Swanger (prominent in the women’s rights movement) was one of our original employees – she had been a typist at Ford – and she eventually became a managing editor.”

 

Williams said 1980 was hardly a prime time to start a newspaper in Detroit. 

 

“At the time, Detroit was a deeply divided metro area, which harms everyone,” he said. “We called it ‘Metro Times’ because there was a sense of apartheid with an African American city with a predominately white ring and incredible tensions surrounding it. 

 

“We were deeply committed to publishing a newspaper that was valued and respected in the city and the suburbs, by people of color, African Americans, people in Dearborn, the suburbs, people who were white,” Williams said. “We felt the sense of separation – that issue being addressed was central to the metro area, whether you lived in Detroit, Clawson, Sterling Heights, Royal Oak, Warren, Birmingham. No one cares where you play. At that time there was this thing about 8 Mile Road. One of our central issues was creating shared experiences across all false lines of separation – but especially across the false line of 8 Mile.”

 

Williams and Markham both sought to focus on local issues – “we were a fiercely Detroit newspaper,” she said – and to cover news, but also to emphasize arts coverage, primarily music coverage, and to do a calendar that would be both a “must see” but also a “must be in.”

 

“We wanted to be a guide to all the hippest, coolest cultural experiences, political as well as arts and cultural,” Williams said.

 

“The idea that there was nothing going on in Detroit was so wrong. We had a calendar full of events,” Markham said. “At the beginning, we hired someone to call and find information of what was going on in Detroit. It helped the clubs and organizations build attendance and grow. We benefitted from those because as they grew, we received advertising from them.”

 

“Before we could establish our journalistic integrity, people were looking for our calendar of events,” Williams said, along with looking for their classifieds, which he said they ran for free, “and many were quite quirky – entertaining and unique. Combined with a controlled distribution, it removed the primary barrier, cost, and we were able to run up the circulation. Then we were able to do the work to quantify who your readers are and sell them to your advertisers.

 

“At one point, at our highest, we were doing 120,000 papers a week in circulation.”

 

“We wanted local issues on the radar of the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News,” Markham said. “We always put stacks of papers in the lobby of the Free Press, and by noon Wednesday, they were always gone. Yes, we would be thrilled with the credit, but often we knew if they saw them, they would pursue the issues. It was so fulfilling to see the power of these articles, that people knew about things because of these articles.”

 

After five years, no longer a couple, Markham decided to go back to school and moved to New York, returning every three months for the next 15 years, even as she became a successful psychologist and author, with a husband and family. “You work on what’s important to you,” she said.

 

Williams said that by 1993, “the paper was quite profitable, and we were able to do what we aspired to do, which was investigative journalism, our original focus.” 

 

He said Metro Times hired Curt Guyette from the ACLU, and along with two other full-time investigative journalists, “we did profound, significant groundbreaking pieces. They did many investigative reports that were months and months of work. The investigative component was the final step that distinguished it from being bar ads and a free paper. We became a respected and impactful source of local, state, national and international news. Everyone began to follow us – TV, the dailies – and we began to set the agenda. That is the highest level as a newsroom. It took us to final level of financial success, and made us a very profitable business for a time.”

 

With himself as CEO, Markham COO, and a consultant, they decided to expand, purchasing alt-weeklies in Columbus (which they closed after a while), Orlando and San Antonio. 

 

Then, in 1999, he and Markham knew it was time to move on.

 

“Alternative media was at its peak in 1999,” Williams said. “The internet was starting to pick up, and classifieds were starting to migrate to Craigslist. We had been approached to sell many times. We put the chain on the market. We had Larry Gabriel, W. Kim Heron and Desiree Cooper, three top level African American journalists. We said we’ll take less money to find the right owners. And we did. We felt the family company out of Scranton, Pennsylvania (Times-Shamrock Communications) had great journalistic integrity.”

 

Metro Times was sold once again in 2014, to Euclid Media Group. Jim Cohen, the associate publisher, started as an ad rep in 1983, and today handles the day-to-day business of the alt-weekly. 

 

“The market has changed in many different ways, but we’ve stayed true to our roots,” Cohen said. “We let people know about hippest, coolest things the best. We do really good restaurant coverage that is different than others. You’re going to find out about a place that you don’t know about. Same with all the arts.”

 

As Zaragoza, of Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and Edmonds, of Poynter Institute, pointed out, “the business has changed,” Cohen said. “The biggest challenge is advertising. The business is dominated by Google and Facebook, and we’ve had to learn to do social integration with social media. We’ve had to learn to master social media, to drive people to our site. It’s been a huge adjustment. We have unique content in print.”

 

Another area Metro Times is active in – like other alt-weeklies around the country – is by creating events and social experiences. 

 

“We sell tickets that not only creates revenue, but creates a different experience – not just for readers, but for our advertisers to get in front of readers,” Cohen said. “It’s interactive. We’re deep into that, and it’s where we’re headed, and will continue, with more events and more social media.”

 

Not all alt-weeklies are struggling, and not all markets have been hurt as hard as others. “The biggest closures were in the big markets,” Zaragoza said. “Some of the mid-size and small markets are hanging in there. The east coast in particular has been hit pretty hard – Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore have all been gutted, closed down. San Francisco and LA technically are around, but have been purchased by conservative investors who have laid off all the staff – the papers are shells of the original papers.

 

“When we have conferences, the big presence is coming from Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee, Vermont, New Orleans – smaller markets, the middle of the country, often in cities where dailies have been decimated so they have stepped up,” he pointed out.

 

Edmonds concurred. “If you’re in a place that has been abandoned by a good daily – and you’re starting with a strong digital only, occasionally doing print, may all be on digital – that may be a way to rebuild the approach. Because it’s happening so fast on the web and with social media,” he said.

 

Berl Schwartz, publisher of Lansing City Pulse, has gone against the tide, founding the alt-weekly in 2001, following a lifetime in traditional journalism, including as the Washington bureau chief for Scripps Howard and United Press International, and instead of encountering declining revenue, “these last two years have been extremely profitable.” He lays credit “we have an incredible sales guy. Because of him, we’re staying ahead of the curve.” 

 

While Schwartz said that competition from the internet, especially for younger readers, is an issue, “we’re not growing. We’ve been at 20,000 (issues a week) for quite a while, and what we’re finding is that as they get out of college – we’re free. We have a huge listing, so they pick us up, and we’re considered cool.”

 

From the beginning, the “mainstream/ alternative” newspaper has focused on news, primarily Lansing city government, the environment, lots of arts and entertainment and “the strongest events marketing in the area,” Schwartz said. “What we’re doing is branching out. Two years ago, we started a Margarita Festival, and sold it out twice. We’re going to expand into a couple other smaller events, and do a bigger event with the legalization of pot, called the Cannabis Cup. We have a strong brand. This will be added revenue,” he said. “For some other alt-weeklies, they’re barely breaking even, so their events are making them profitable.”

 

What is challenging the paper, is an unexpected crisis – in early September, Kroger had decided to eliminate all free publications from the front of their stores.

 

“For some us, its 15 to 25 percent of our circulation,” Schwartz lamented. “For us, it’s 15 to 20 percent of our circulation a week – that’s 3,000 to 3,300 newspapers a week that people are picking up.”

 

When asked why, he responded, “Kroger has decided that print is dead, everything is digital, so why are we allocating space to something that lacks customer engagement?” Schwartz said, noting that they encountered a similar attitude from Meijer about seven years ago. “So we’re going to convince them otherwise. It’s so hard when a corporation’s made a decision – it’s like turning around a steamship. Alternative newspapers are at the mercy of their distribution points, and we do pay to have them in the stores, to have the racks in the stores. It’s scary when Kroger – who you are paying – decides to not have us.”

 

Currently, the Lansing City Pulse has about 50,000 readers, Schwartz said, with a weekly distribution of about 19,000 copies. 

 

He’s confident that by the time this article is published, they’ll have a strategy in place.

 

“I’m 72. Someone’s been paying me for journalism since 1966.”

 

Almost as long as Harvey Ovshinsky. 

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