Page Two: The Never-Ending Story

Checking out of politics, checking in with the press

Page Two
[Note: Two editing errors that appeared in the originally published version of this column have been corrected below.]

The first part of this week's column offers a little politics; the latter part reports on last week's Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' annual convention – which naturally leads to considering the state of weeklies in terms of both business and content.

On Politics

'Tis the season of our discontent – to such an extent that we have arrived at disconnect. Given that so many of this country's problems are a result of the previous administration's actions and policies, it seems silly to get involved in political commentary.

The knee-jerk conservative reaction will be, "Goodness, those crazy liberals are still trying to blame everything on Bush." Without debate, it is safe to say that a key plank of the Republican platform has long been that there should be less government regulation. Since both the Gulf spill crisis and the economic collapse are largely due to insufficient and lax federal regulations, added to the fact those responsible for enforcement were both underfunded and discouraged, this seems an easy claim. But, of course, it isn't.

Instead, the right views the situation in opposite fashion: Barney Frank, leading those crazy Marxist Democrats, is responsible for the economic collapse, while President Obama's slow response to the oil well disaster resulted in even more oil pushing to the surface.

Regarding the latter, when the well blew, the ever-resilient Sarah Palin responded with a Facebook post titled "Extreme Envi­ros: Drill, Baby, Drill in ANWR – Now Do You Get It?" Con­ven­iently ignoring that her "Drill, Baby, Drill" position specifically includes offshore drilling, again she demonstrated that politically she is to Teflon as the nuclear age is to the stone age.

The current Republican posturing on cutting spending and balancing the budget would seem absolutely pathetic if it didn't seem to be working. After mismanaging the government in almost every way possible, the Republicans decided that by being the party of "no," they could position themselves as anti-government.

It's beyond reason how they've gotten away with pretending that the ridiculous spending during the Bush administration never happened. Regularly criticizing everything the Obama administration does, they seem to have successfully swept under the rug the extraordinary amounts of government spending, two unnecessary but costly wars, and tax cuts for the rich that resulted in a budget surplus turning into a serious deficit. Most of that was done in the name of stimulating the economy – except when the Bush administration was done, the country was in an economic crisis.

Nevertheless, many are predicting serious electoral gains by the Republicans in the November elections: Let's reinstate the party that didn't deal with serious issues (immigration) while spending like drunken sailors. In the face of this tsunami of political nonsense, I'm mostly hoping my beach shack holds. So I'm quiet. Why say much in the face of an unprecedented, roaring, impending disaster? Consider this the moaning of an incontinent liberal stuck in an unending nightmare.

On Newsweeklies, Part I

Last week, some of our staff members flew to Toronto to attend the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention. Right off, I think we can agree that the "alternative" label is archaic, the papers having become long established in most of the communities where there is one being published. These are not happy times for the weeklies. In general, the last three or four years have been economically very tough. After decades of steady growth, the industry as a whole, with only very few exceptions, has experienced declining revenues. Among the many reasons for this are the economy and online alternatives, especially for classifieds sections, which have taken a substantial beating.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: That much was obvious at the convention, where – though all present acknowledged the very tough times – the mood overall was surprisingly upbeat.

Founded in 1978, AAN started with 30 member papers but now has 132, with three more applying and accepted for membership this year. In the beginning, almost all the papers were independently owned. Beginning in the Eighties and accelerating in the Nineties and the early part of this decade, weeklies were hot, and quite a number were purchased by different publishing companies. Now, by my very rough count, 51 of the papers are owned by one of 11 media groups. The largest of these owns 14 papers, the smallest owns two, and five of them own three papers each.

Over the years, many of the founding owners and publishers have sold their papers – some to publishing chains, others to individuals or local groups. This served to place a greater emphasis on these papers' profits. In many cases, especially that of publishing groups, the money to buy papers came from venture capitalists who expect substantial and consistent returns on their investments.

This has led to the "alternatives" becoming far less alternative. There are still a number of weeklies that do excellent local and state political coverage or offer genuine alternative views, but far fewer than there were when The Austin Chronicle hosted the AAN convention in 1994. Some just dropped politics entirely, because it is expensive to cover and generates very little direct revenue. Others specialize in "gotcha" journalism, which is more concerned with exposing embezzlers, corrupt elected officials, and pedophiles than with the regular workings of government.

The Chronicle, as I've pointed out, doesn't win awards very often, because – and most people miss this – to win awards you must enter material in contests. Some papers have staff that regularly work on submitting to appropriate media competitions. The Chronicle doesn't. (Here, I have to point out an exception: the small but mighty Texas Observer, which obviously has no such staff yet constantly wins awards.)

Most of the time, I don't really care about awards. However, during my one year as editorial chair on the AAN board, I initiated the AltWeekly Awards. There had been talk of doing something like them since the organization was founded; it was time to do them. It isn't like I feel that there is some quid pro quo obligation, but all too often it seems the awards honor the editorial content that is most like that of slick weekly and monthly magazines.

Nonetheless, the Chronicle has made a respectable showing over the years. Staff writer Jordan Smith and Arts Editor Robert Faires, standing defiant on the bridge together, have maintained our honor. This year in the AltWeekly Awards, Smith won first place in the investigative reporting category for her piece "Believing the Children," News, March 27, 2009.

Below is our list of other awards won over the past decade. There are two groups in each category: papers with circulation of less that 50,000 and those with circulation above that number. The Chronicle is in the latter category.

2009 Blog, honorable mention: "Newsdesk," by News staff

2008 Arts Criticism, second place (tie): "Waiting for the Barbarians," The Arts, Jan. 26, 2007; "Afterplay," The Arts, March 1, 2007; and "Take Me Out," The Arts, April 13, 2007, by Robert Faires

News Story-Short Form, third place: "Red Ink on Second Street: Default or Confusion?," News, May 4, 2007; "'Texas Tough' Sex Crime Wave Hits the Dome," News, Feb. 9, 2007; and "Lost in Cyberspace," News, March 2, 2007, by Wells Dunbar

Web Site, second place: staff

2007 Ad Design, third place: "Trade Up," by Karen Barry, Cassidy Frazier, Dan Hardick, Erin Collier, Aubrey Edwards

Media Reporting/Criticism, third place: "Media Watch: Snoring Out Loud," News, Jan. 13, 2006; "Media Watch: KUT by the Numbers," News, Jan. 20, 2006; and "Media Watch: Are You Being Served?," News, July 14, 2006, by Kevin Brass

Web Site Content Feature, second place: "Am I McMansion or Not?" by staff

2006 Drugs Reporting, first place: "Crackpot Crackdown," News, Oct. 21, 2005, by Jordan Smith

2001 Arts Criticism, second place: Robert Faires

Column, second place: "Letters at 3AM," Michael Ventura

The Chronicle has long stood out from most other weeklies because of our demographics, readership, and market penetration. Relative to market size, we're among the most successful weeklies. The Chronicle is not and has never been among the most profitable for any number of reasons. The main one is probably that we've never expended much effort in that direction. The Chronicle has never had a profit target; at many publications, often staff are let go or coverage curtailed in service of such a target.

The past three or four years have been as rough on the Chronicle as on other weeklies, though being privately owned with almost no debt has certainly helped. Most important, the emphasis of the business operation of the Chronicle is and has always been on putting out the best paper that we can while taking care of the staff.

This is neither here nor there: We're certainly not looking for or expecting kudos, although we are pretty sure the naysayers will say nay and the haters hate. This column's readers may nod their heads, while many of our regular readers skim or skip this column to get to the sections they most enjoy reading or routinely check in this paper. It's just part of the ongoing overall story.

Next column: Newsweeklies, Parts II and III

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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