Consider the Alternative
With its attitude-laden mix of long-form narrative pieces, heavy entertainment coverage and personal ads aplenty, the New Times weekly empire is burgeoning.
By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida
NEW TIMES STORIES START WITH slain Everymen, absurd politicians, low-level cops. They unfurl their tales with Act 1, Scene 1, dishing up drama with a healthy dose of attitude until the curtain call 90-odd column inches later.
They most certainly do not start with the most important thing first. That's for dry old dailies. And that's exactly what New Times--a group of free weeklies stretching from Los Angeles to Miami--adamantly refuses to be.
``We don't do newspaper journalism,'' says John Mecklin, editor of New Times' San Francisco-based SF Weekly. ``We tell a story as a story, a narrative, something with themes and characters and character development, a narrative line with rising and falling action--all those things you learned in English class about how people tell stories to each other. We tell deeply researched, extremely factual stories so that we never use a pyramid style, because people don't tell stories to each other in that crap-ass style--they interest each other.''
Are you reading New Times? If you've perused Westword in Denver, New Times Los Angeles or the Observer in Dallas, you are. And thanks to an amalgam of muckraking cover stories, heavy entertainment
coverage and listings, and the human sideshow of personal ads (``Einstein blessed with Barbie's looks on Ghandi's quest''), the alternative chain hatched in Arizona by college dropouts has steadily grown to encompass 10 papers. The weeklies have an estimated combined circulation of about 1 million and have won a slew of state and national journalism awards.
Some critics have made much of that aggressive growth, maintaining that the expansion is nothing more than a cloning that offers pallid approximations of what a true alternative press should be. Others ridicule the papers' stories as overreaching exaggerations. But many staffers believe they are living out their fantasy job in journalism--unusual in these days of low morale. And they say it's simply the papers' slavish commitment to the good story--commitment that goes far beyond what the dailies have--that has brought success their way.
New Times got its start in Tempe, Arizona, as a college publication founded at Arizona State University in 1970. One of its co-founders was Michael Lacey, now the executive editor of all of New Times' papers. Lacey left for a time, returning in 1977 to take over the paper with Jim Larkin, who now heads the business end of New Times Inc. They moved the paper to Phoenix that year. Expansion began in 1983 with the purchase of Denver's Westword. Then the pace accelerated. New Times acquired new papers in Miami in 1987, Dallas in 1991, Houston in 1993, San Francisco in 1995, Los Angeles in 1996. Last November, New Times launched its first startup, Florida's New Times Broward/Palm Beach. This year, it purchased an entertainment publication in Cleveland and, in September, an alternative paper in St. Louis. It plans to transform them into New Times-style papers.
NO MATTER WHAT THE CITY, the papers' format is similar. There's always a lengthy cover story, sometimes two. The aim is to make these pieces meaty, investigative explorations of a local issue, or at the very least a good yarn about some local person. There are also a couple of shorter, newsy pieces of about 20 inches or so, sandwiched in with columns. There's plenty of entertainment copy--reviews of movies, bands, clubs--and lots of calendar listings. The back half is devoted primarily to the cash cow: classifieds.
But talk to New Times staffers about content and most of the conversation will be about those cover stories. They're long--5,000-word pieces aren't uncommon--and readable. They're intensely local. They have those anecdotal leads that mainstream reporters get to use on weekenders.
Take ``See Yvonne Run,'' a September 1997 Dallas Observer piece on then-Dallas School Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez:
``It was arguably the strangest school-year kick-off Dallas had ever seen.
``Forget all those bright-eyed, backpack-toting first-graders bouncing onto their buses--that time-honored, Rockwellian image so dutifully trotted out by thousands of school districts nationwide was not quite what [Dallas] superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez had in mind for the momentous launching of her first full school year.... [O]n the morning of August 12, the day before the district's pupils returned to school, Gonzalez summoned her 18,000 employees to work. She then dispatched a fleet of charter buses to pick everyone up at their schools and offices and haul them to Reunion Arena. When everyone had taken their seats inside the cavernous hall, Gonzalez appeared before them, replete in her fantasy role--roaring onto the arena floor behind the wheel of a bulldozer.''
Most of the time there's substance to go with the style. ``See Yvonne Run'' went on to chronicle Gonzalez's numbers-fudging on how much the stunt ultimately cost and other areas in which she'd shaded the truth. It came a few months after the Observer told Dallas readers that though Gonzalez had insisted she'd spent only $12,000 on office renovations once she assumed the helm of the school district, documents showed she'd actually doled out $92,000.
``We were the first to print any kind of critical story, and we won national awards,'' says Observer Editor Julie Lyons. ``We focus a lot on investigative stories, and it stands out in Dallas because we have such a fat, lazy daily paper. The Dallas Morning News has enormous resources and some good writers, but you just don't see the results. There's no initiative to pursue local news. It's left the door wide open to come in.''
(For their part, Morning News editors respond that the Observer's reporting simply isn't up to their standards.)
Lyons' is a common refrain. New Times editors and staffers, many of them converts from the ranks of daily journalism, say there's ample room for their weekly publications to play ball with the big boys. And they seem to take special glee in throwing rocks at people who are getting good press in the city's mainstream media. New Times Phoenix was beating up on former Gov. Fife Symington long before the Arizona Republic, and it still adores pointing out the foibles of the media-loving and money-spending Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio's publicity-friendly stunts--which included having prisoners dig graves for indigents and dyeing inmates' underwear pink to cut down on theft (inmates were stealing prison underwear so that they could prove they had done hard time after they got out)--have made national headlines for America's self-appointed Toughest Sheriff. But when New Times staff writer Tony Ortega started dissecting Arpaio's claim that he was saving thousands of dollars with the pink underwear, he uncovered a host of sources that hadn't been plumbed by Republic reporters, New Times Editor Jeremy Voas says.
``From this little story Tony wrote, he got a lot of sources inside the department who began calling him,'' Voas says. In 1997 he won the Arizona Press Club's sustained coverage award, and by that time the Republic was stepping up its own reporting on the sheriff.
``I think that we have really turned the tide on the coverage of Arpaio,'' Voas says. The Republic ``covered him like a cartoon character.... Well, people are dying in his jails, and he's costing the county millions of dollars in settlements. The Republic in the last year and a half really has put, I think, more experienced, more investigative-type reporters on the sheriff, and they've done some good stuff. But I really do think that we did alter the way that they saw the sheriff.''
(Republic editors didn't return phone calls seeking comment.)
And New Times hasn't shied away from targets that might seem surprising for alternative papers. In August, the Observer featured ``Toxic Justice,'' a harsh indictment of asbestos lawyer Fred Baron. The Dallas lawyer had become a liberal hero for his dogged advocacy of workers who had contracted cancer after working around asbestos. But the Observer's piece, based on documents and interviews with several former lawyers in Baron's firm, charged that as the number of real victims dwindled, attorneys had taken to coaching witnesses--in some cases even planting testimony. (Baron says he and his firm operate within ethics guidelines and have never suggested false testimony.)
``I think when critics charge that the press is too liberal, what they're really talking about is the natural inclination of journalists to think, `We ought to be on the side of the victim,' '' New Times Executive Editor Lacey says. ``We overcame all of our natural instincts.... These lawyers start out as true reformers and change industry. It's now 20 or 30 years from when they began this fight, and [reporters] have found truly a horrific set of circumstances, where you have people implanting ideas, coaching witnesses. And these writers didn't let their preconceptions, their heartfelt feelings, get in the way.''
INDEED, STAFFERS SAY, IN AN AGE of waning daily competition, New Times plays an increasingly important role.
``If you're not going to have two dailies in a town, [New Times is] the new competition,'' says David Pasztor, who's written or edited for the company's papers in Dallas and Phoenix and now writes from San Francisco. ``It's fascinating, because it's no longer competition framed in terms of economics and circulation. We don't care; we give our papers away. Competition is directly in terms of content. Who's going to perform in journalism?''
Not surprisingly, the papers' daily counterparts aren't so sure New Times is blazing trails. And there's a wide range of opinions among competitors as to whether that competition is meaningful.
Tommy Miller, deputy managing editor of the Houston Chronicle, says while the Houston Press has ``different objectives'' than his paper, he doesn't ignore the weekly.
``We read it and pay attention to it,'' he says. ``They do some stories that I would have liked to have done before they did them.'' Pressed to give examples, he declines with a laugh: ``I don't think I want them to know which ones they are.''
The Chronicle will sometimes speed up its own schedule on a story if it hears that the Press is working on something similar. When editors discovered that the Press was pursuing a profile of a new city council member the Chronicle planned to write about, the daily shifted into overdrive and published its story the Sunday before the Press' version was slated to come out.
On the other hand, Stuart Wilk, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, will barely acknowledge that the Observer crosses his desk. ``I look at it, but I don't read it religiously,'' Wilk says, then adds, choosing his words carefully: ``Their reporting standards are such that I don't feel compelled to stay abreast of what they're reporting.''
Asked to elaborate, Wilk says there was a time when he'd be able to cite examples. Now that the Observer's not on his radar screen, he can't.
Wilk would only have to head west to Arizona to point to some well-publicized lapses. Just as New Times loves to poke fun at its broadsheet brethren, the tactics of some New Times staffers haven't escaped the spotlight.
In 1996, as New Times was about to enter the Los Angeles market, the Arizona Republic published a piece about the chain's expansion with a sidebar detailing a litany of over-the-top antics. New Times staffers coaxed Arizona's attorney general into posing with a hot dog vendor in front of the jail, telling him it was for the Best of Phoenix issue; the real goal was to get a photo of the state's top law-enforcement official with the vendor--a fugitive from the jail he was posing in front of. A music critic called a state senator backing a bill to limit children's access to obscene lyrics and told her he was a reporter for a different paper, then got the legislator to repeat some lyrics. The newspaper recorded her against a backdrop of rap music and played it on the state capitol lawn.
Lacey told the Republic at the time: ``Our theory is that our readers get it. And we're not the least bit worried about our credibility.''
Lacey, who oversees the 10 papers and still writes columns and cover-length stories, is an almost mythic figure in the chain. He is by turns described as an incredible journalist and a barroom brawler. He's been profiled with partner Larkin in Forbes magazine as a successful entrepreneur and derided by several former staffers as the force behind an atmosphere of fear they say pervades the New Times' newsrooms.
Boring, he's not. Mercurial, yes. He responded to interview requests for this story by asking that certain New Times stories be read, then had boxes containing two years' worth of award-winning stories shipped. He didn't return phone calls seeking an interview for a month after the shipment arrived--he was immersed in the ``Toxic Justice'' story, he explained later--then resurfaced and offered himself up for a thoughtful, unhurried interview.
For Lacey, the joy of running New Times is that its papers have not devolved into a collection of briefs and 15-inch stories. Most of the papers have a circulation comfortably in the 100,000 range. New Times readers, says Lacey, are generally ``more literate''--the kind of people who are willing to sit down with a longer story that tells them truly what is going on in their community. The target audience is college-educated people between the ages of 18 and 40.
``Really what we're doing is we have replaced the Sunday magazine, the Sunday magazine that has atrophied across America.... It's all an effort to explain this remarkable place that we find ourselves [in],'' Lacey says. ``Movies give us the fantasy explanation, religion gives us the theological explanation and journalism gives us the factual explanation.''
It's a bit of profundity from the same man about whom not-so-genteel stories abound: the time he punched out a reporter in a bar, the numerous times he's told someone to ``kiss my ass.'' He ruefully acknowledges that he hasn't always been the calmest of men. But he says his anger stems from a passion about his work, the same force that drives him to get into bed every night worrying about whether all of his ``children,'' as he calls the papers, are doing the best they can. And he doesn't exempt himself from scrutiny.
Mecklin, the San Francisco editor, says people often focus on Lacey's colorful behavior and lose sight of his abundant talent. ``What's kind of missing from all of that is he's one of the best journalists I've ever known. He is a great writer.'' Indeed, one of the numerous New Times staff award winners in 1997 was Lacey, who picked up a medal from the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families and was a finalist for a national Medill honor, in both instances for a 15,000-word story called ``Family Affairs.'' The piece was a cautionary tale about a middle-class Phoenix woman's decision to take in a foster child and the near-disaster it wrought on her biological family.
IT'S AT LACEY'S BEHEST THAT ALL the editors write at least part of the time. Critics say that's to keep costs low. Backers say it's what keeps the editing good. ###
``You keep your chops up,'' says Rick Barrs, who was lured away from the Los Angeles Times by Lacey and now edits New Times Los Angeles. ``Overall, it's just a better intellectual process. I think everybody's had editors who have not written anything in like 20 years. They'd just kind of lost contact with the street; they forgot what it was like to go out and get a story.''
Lacey also has imposed a quota system, requiring most writers to author one cover-length story a month as well as a few shorter pieces. Staffers say the workload can be grueling--a far cry from what most daily reporters imagine life is like at a weekly alternative.
``It's a grind,'' says Jim Schutze, a former Houston Chronicle reporter who now writes for the Dallas Observer. ``The standard is fairly demanding in terms of what reporting we need to do.'' But, he adds, it's also rewarding.
Some former staffers maintain the pace is intentionally breakneck to keep reporters fearful: Most don't want their names used, but they say the quota system creates a sword-of-Damocles effect that stifles good work rather than encourages it. And though reporters often are hired at salaries competitive with those at dailies, not meeting quotas can mean no raise.
Others talk of sudden, inexplicable firings that make surviving reporters wonder who's next. But New Times editors point out that small operations like theirs can't afford deadwood. If you can't deliver, you're out.
``In any organization there's going to be disagreement,'' Lacey says. ``In some instances, I think that there are bitter feelings because it didn't work out. And, you know, how does any ballplayer feel when they've been sent back to the minors?''
``It's a meritocracy,'' Barrs says. ``Everybody goes around saying they want to do this, they want to go out and go after corrupt officials, but sometimes when they get here, they can't do it--they can't pull the trigger, you know?'' He says the ``core group'' of reporters who started at New Times Los Angeles is still there.
Whatever the formula, the output is winning kudos. This year alone, for example, staffers at Denver's Westword collected 18 awards from Colorado's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. New Times Phoenix garnered 27 Arizona Press Club awards, including the Journalist of the Year designation for writer Paul Rubin. Dallas' ``See Yvonne Run'' won the Observer a national Fine award for education reporting, and New Times Los Angeles film critic Peter Rainer was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Though Lacey happily embraces success, editors and reporters alike bristle at the idea that the fast-growing newspaper group is a newspaper chain just like the Gannetts and the McClatchys of the world. ``We're an anti-chain,'' barks San Francisco's Mecklin. Still, they're dipping a toe into resource-sharing: The Houston and Dallas papers now receive copy from the same Austin reporter, and all the papers use film reviews from the Los Angeles critic.
New Times is a private company that doesn't reveal its profit margins. But its pace of acquisition suggests a healthy bottom line. And don't look for that pace to slow down any time soon. ``There is no limit,'' Lacey says. ``It's a great country; we have great cities here.... I see the need in America for what we do.''