A Daily Paper Buys a Weekly; Bay Guardian's Brugmann Busts a Gut
The Advocate Papers Have "Sold Out" to Times Mirror. But Should Anyone Care?
Bruce B. Brugmann-thecantankerous publisher and editor of the left-wing weekly San Francisco BayGuardian-is on the phone from California, foaming at the mouth about why federalintervention's needed to stop more so-called "alternative" newspapersfrom selling out to big media conglomerates."The daily paper should notbe allowed to buy its direct competition!" he roars. "This is a clearviolation of antitrust!" he thunders.
What's got Brugmann so upset, of course, isthat last month Times Mirror, Co. purchased the New Mass. Media chainof Northeast alternative newspapers from its owners, Geoff Robinson and ChristineAustin, for a sum estimated at somewhere between $10 and $20 million. This means,among other things, that Times Mirror's daily Hartford Courant now ownsits only local competition, the former New Mass. Media's weekly HartfordAdvocate. That's a big development. Daily newspapers have purchasedalternative weeklies before. Shamrock Communications Inc., which owned the dailyScranton Times, for example, purchased the weekly Baltimore City Paperin 1987 and, earlier this year, the company-now known as Times-Shamrock-boughtthe Detroit Metro Times, the Orlando Weekly and the San AntonioCurrent. And while in 1998 the Thomson newspaper chain, which publishesLafayette, LA's Daily Advertiser, bought the Lafayette weekly Timesof Acadiana, Thomson's a relative nonentity, hardly the huge power thatTimes Mirror is. So a new frontier's been breached in the corporatization ofthe media-at least as far as the alternative newspaper world is concerned. Boltthe doors: The jackboots are coming!So it's unsurprising that Brugmann, who'sin his mid-60s and who styles himself the alternative press' conscience, iswaving the antitrust legislation flag, issuing threats about federal interventionsto stop such sales from happening again (see the sidebar for a partial transcriptof our phone conversation) and generally making his presence felt as he triesto accomplish something that most people-even people committed to the alternativepress-would agree is strange: contrive, in the future, to prevent peoplelike Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin from selling their property to whomeverthey want. Brugmann's even helping fund an antitrust lawsuit in Hartfordmeant to force Times Mirror to divest itself of the Hartford Advocate,and perhaps of the rest of the former New Mass. Media papers.
"This is a stake planted in the heart ofthe alternative press!" he screams at me over the phone-as he's probablybellowed for one reason or another every week since he founded the Bay Guardianin 1966. "Every daily newspaper can now go and buy its own competition!We fought this battle for years and years and years!"
Yes, it's singular that Bruce Brugmann wantsto dictate to you when and how you can sell your property.
"New Times now knows that it's always bestto check with Bruce Brugmann before we buy or sell properties," jokes NewTimes, Inc. chairman and CEO Jim Larkin. "I'm surprised Geoff Robinsondidn't know that before he decided to sell his paper to the L.A. Times.It might actually be in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act: You have to check with Brugmannbefore you do anything. If it's not, it should be in there."
Still, Brugmann, eccentric as he is-"Bruce,God bless him, is one of the industry's largest blowhards," an alternativeweekly editor told me, echoing a common sentiment-isn't being completely nonsensicalwhen he insists that members of the alternative media should pay close attentionto the Times Mirror development. Alternative weekly newspapers, with their risingcirculations and affluent young readerships, are one of the journalistic successstories of the expiring decade-a period of time during which many daily newspapershave watched their circulations decline. It's no surprise that troubled, staticdaily papers should sniff around the alternatives-and no scandal thatan alterna-press lifer like Brugmann should care when they do.
And of course, particular attention should bepaid to what's going to happen to New Mass. Media's constituent papers (theNew Mass. chain also includes the New Haven Advocate, the Valley Advocateof Hatfield, MA, and the two Weekly papers of Fairfield County, CT, andWestchester County, NY). How will a media conglomerate-a troubled, ineptmedia conglomerate like Times Mirror, no less-handle its new property? Will,for instance, the Hartford Courant's relationship with the HartfordAdvocate be characterized by the same sort of benign, but profitable, neglectthat's characterized the relationship between the Scranton Times andthe Baltimore City Paper since the former purchased the latter in 1987?(For the record, NYPress' owner, Russ Smith, sold Baltimore City Paperto the Scranton Times.)
Certainly, the Scranton Times aside,daily newspapers and the companies that own them don't have great reputationsfor knowing much about the alternative newspaper business. (A good indicationof that was Mike Allen's condescending article in the April 15 NewYork Times about the Times Mirror purchase, in which Allen perpetuated thecanard that the Advocate chain papers are "lively." They are?Has Allen or any one of his editors ever read them?) So there's speculationthat Times Mirror will act like the big, dumb, heavy-handed out-of-town mediaconglomerate it is. Times Mirror chairman and chief executive and LosAngeles Times publisher Mark Willes is best known for laying people offand for scaring people with talk about the financial necessity of breaking downbarriers between the business and editorial sides of the paper. Times Mirror'sflagship Los Angeles Times is a joke, a newspaper the name of which hasbecome a synonym for a pandering, dumbed-down, "lite" newspaper.
Says Mecklin: "Times Mirror is a very rigidbureaucratic enterprise. Working at the L.A. Times is worse than workingfor the federal government. The idea that they would tend to be hands-off soundssilly." On the other hand, a number of alternative press publishers andeditors to whom I spoke speculated that Times Mirror would leave its new propertiesalone.
"I'd imagine that they'd let it run theway it's running and probably just look at the dollars and see how it's doing,"says Michael Cohen, publisher at Miami New Times, and who used to workat the Fairfield Advocate and NYPress. Why fix whatisn't broken, at least before its numbers fall?
Even New Haven Advocate editor JoshuaMamis sounds unconcerned.
"We met with [the Courant] people,"Mamis says, "and they're good people, and the Hartford Courant'sa good paper, and they understand what we do, and they're not going to comedown here and say 'You can't.'"
The optimism evinced above is probably justthat-optimism. Media conglomerates screw around with their properties. That'swhat they do. It would be surprising to not see wholesale changes at the Advocatepapers within the next several months.
But it's good that someone's taking iteasy, because Brugmann and his Bay Guardian colleagues, as well as afew others in the alternative press industry like Boston Phoenix mediacolumnist Dan Kennedy-are climbing the walls. What's particularly interestingabout their alarmed prose-and we'll get to it-is that it ignores the truth thatshould be central to this issue: that the Advocate papers aren't "alternative"papers in any sense at all. At best, they can be fun, useful community sheets,full of the sorts of arts and movie listings and reviews and personals thatcould help a relatively hip 30ish resident of Hartford or New Haven or Northhampton,MA (one of the markets served by the Valley Advocate) navigate his leisuretime.
Often, though, the Advocate papers aren'teven especially fun. The Hartford Advocate, to quote an alternative pressfigure who didn't want to be identified, is a "classic example of a predictablealternative newsweekly. You always know what side of an issue they're goingto come down on." The same person continues: "I think they're predictable.In my opinion, they're not one of the better AAN [Association of AlternativeNewsweeklies] papers, although they certainly win their fair share of awards."
The alternative press, in an unfortunate apingof the dailies, hands out bogus awards to its members at its annual AAN convention,which is being held in Memphis later this month.
Even an Advocate employee agrees thatthe chain, whatever its virtues, isn't exactly the sort of journalistic entityon the behalf of which one typically launches a crusade.
"I think our papers are often more boringthan we like to admit," New Haven Advocate associate editor PaulBass told me.
Bass also says that at the time of the sale,"There was a lot of initial chestbeating about how we better protect ouralternative culture and voice," but that "it occurred to us lateron that we're really not so alternative. There wasn't such a great thing toprotect. We like our paper, and we care about what we do, but it's long beena fiction that somehow the alternative press is all good and risky and the mainstreampress is all conventional and bad."
But it's not only the Advocate papersthat shouldn't claim to be practicing any sort of radical, antiestablishmentjournalism. It's also most of the other 114weekly papers that belongto AAN, the industry's trade organization (to which NYPress and the VillageVoice also belong). With a few notable exceptions-the Chicago Reader,the San Diego Reader (not related to Chicago's), the New Timeschain, Washington's City Paper, Seattle's Stranger, the AustinChronicle and on occasion the Boston Phoenix-all AAN papersare pretty dull listings tabloids that promulgate a wan, safe middle-of-the-roadliberalism (the 4/22 Westchester County Weekly recently endorsed HillaryClinton for Senate, for God's sake) and publish syndicated crap like Matt Groening'sdated "Life in Hell." (New Yorkers interested in checking out goodapproximations of a typical AAN paper should pick up a local community paperlike Manhattan Spirit or Our Town-neither of which actually belongsto AAN, but would fit right in.)
Certainly, as Washington City Paper editorDavid Carr puts it, "True daily penetration" into the alternativepress "will doom the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for sure."But given the quality of most of the product churned out by the AAN's constituentmembers, should anyone care?
"Except for the Bay Guardian anda few others, [alternative] papers look the exact same way," says PaulBass-helpfully restating what needs to be reiterated until it penetrates AANmembers' skulls.
"...[E]ven people like me," Bass says. "I'm the wise-ass columnist in the front who hates the mayor. That's alwayson page 5 or 6. Then you've got, like, some decent reporting somewhere, maybenot-it depends on the paper, if they're going to pay anyone enough. Then you'vegot the calendar, you've got the literate art reviews that are by overpaid IvyLeague people that are young. They look exactly the same, and they sell it thesame. It's not a terrible formula, but it's a formula."
Nor is it hard to find alternative press memberswho aren't so measured as Bass in expressing what sane people who pay attentionto alternative weeklies already know.
"Most of the quote alternative weekliesthat I read, they're about as surprising as milk," says the SF Weekly'sMecklin. "They're just dull as hell. They're repeating the same old shit.They aren't a threat to anybody. They haven't pissed off anybody in years. Atleast not in any serious way, because they don't know how to do the researchto seriously threaten anybody who's in power. So the notion that the government'sout, or some big entity is out, to crush these crusaders for freedom, it's abunch of crap. I mean, there are good weeklies that do this stuff. But the vastmajority of them don't. They do a high percentage of pretty lame lifestyle andart stuff combined with empty snarling. There's a snarl there. They sound likethey're doing big, bad stuff, but there's no meat and potatoes there and nobody'safraid of it because it's just mouthing around."
Washington City Paper's Carr raises agood question, too: What kind of "alternative" paper so appeals tothe sorts of corporate soldiers who run Times Mirror that they'd want to goand buy it?
"You have to wonder about the nature ofyour appeal when corporate shoppers want to add you to the mix of brands,"Carr comments. "We should be so vile...from a corporate perspective thatthey wouldn't want our brands."
One speculates, half-seriously, that by theend Geoff Robinson was embarrassed enough by the alternative press to want tosell his papers out of it. Hartford Advocate publisher FrancisJ. Zankowski tells me that Robinson had the opportunity to sell within the industry-tothe New Times chain, for example, or to Stern Publishing Co.,the flagship paper of which is the Village Voice. The way Joshua Mamissees it, Robinson's move amounted to "a big fuck you to the alternativepress."
Still, Brugmann-who, ironically, himself publishesa paper that, when it's not publishing soft lifestyle material, doesbreak the milquetoast-liberal AAN mold with an unapologetic, if predictable,radicalism-and his allies seem to be doing everything they can to deceive themselvesabout the nature of the institution they're defending. Here's Bay Guardian'sTali Woodward, for instance, writing paragraphs like the following without ironyin the paper's 4/21 issue: "New Haven alderperson Jelani Lawson told us,'The citizens of Connecticut will lose out, because the Advocate paperspresent a fresh look at many issues not covered by the mainstream media-issuesthat have to do with communities of color, environmentalists, etc."
They might, for what that's worth. But Woodwarddoesn't mention that they also do thickheaded things like publish The BostonGlobe's crossword puzzle, or that the Westchester County Weeklyactually featured World Wrestling Federation's Vince McMahon in its 4/22"Best of Westchester County" issue. "The WWF and the Weeklyhave something very basic in common," the unsigned editorial introductionto the issue claimed: "We both want to be known as the renegades of ourmedium. That's why we're happy to have Vince McMahon help us out with our mainevent issue of the year."
Then there's Bay Guardian executive editorTim Redmond, who writes simplistically that "independent alternatives seethe world from the street level," while "corporate dailies see theworld from the executive suites," as if the media, and the world, weren'tmore complicated than distinctions like that one imply.
And here's the remarkable unsigned editorialthat the Guardian ran in that same 4/21 issue: "In an era of increasingmonopolization of the newspaper industry, alternative weeklies are often theonly real competition to dailies in major markets. The loss of that competitionwill hurt readers (who rely on alternatives for information that doesn't makethe dailies), political and community groups (who rely on weeklies to covertheir issues and events), and advertisers (who rely on weeklies to offer lower,affordable rates in competition with the dailies)."
The editorial goes on: "The independentand alternative press-and the tens of millions of readers and advertisers whorely on competitive papers-need to sound the alarm and make this issue a topjournalistic and political priority."
Yes, it's true: Media monopolies can blow. Butagain, the Bay Guardian remains here righteously incognizant that so-calledalternative papers in actuality represent an alternative to nothing much-exceptperhaps to exciting journalism. (And they probably never did. Says Mecklin,even though he points out that he wasn't on the scene at the time: "Therewere no good old days. Everybody was starving, and the papers sucked.")
The Bay Guardian then proceeds to call,outrageously, for the Justice Dept. to "refuse to approve this deal, anddeclare a moratorium on any further mergers between dailies and their nondailycompetition."
And more: "And the Connecticut attorneygeneral should investigate and hold public hearings. Then Congress needs tohold extensive Judiciary Committee hearings on the issue... Ultimately, thereought to be new legislation strictly limiting these types of mergers."
Call in the cavalry! In other words, and torepeat, there ought to be laws against people selling their property.Next Brugmann will demand legislation preventing Geoff Robinson from sellinghis sailboat or his watch. What's this "types of mergers" crap? Robinsonsold his property fair and square; sold a concern that he, along with his partnersEd and Linda Matys, started building in 1973 (Austin came later, when she marriedRobinson; the couple has since divorced). No corporate executive held a gunto Robinson's head. What's Brugmann going to do with his Bay Guardianwhen he decides to pack it in? Just give it away?
Maybe. But maybe not. Brugmann's been knownto look out for himself financially. In 1975 he ran into complications whenhe resisted a unionization drive among the Bay Guardian's employees,claiming that unionization could put the paper out of business. "Here Iam, the liberal publisher," Brugmann was quoted in The New York Timesat the time. "They say, 'You're not down on unions, so how come you don'thave one at The Guardian?'" In 1975, the Bay Guardian was one ofthe plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the San Francisco Examiner and theSan Francisco Chronicle. The plaintiffs claimed that those daily newspapers'joint operating agreement violated antitrust laws. In the spring of 1975the Bay Guardian won $500,000 dollars when the defendants settledout of court, and Brugmann's employees wanted a piece of the pie. They didn'tget it, and the Bay Guardian remains nonunionized to this day.
And Brugmann's not just talking and writingabout the Times Mirror affair. There's that antitrust suit that's pendingin Hartford right now. A Connecticut automobile dealer, who advertises in boththe Courant and the Advocate, and a Connecticut citizen who readsboth papers, are the plaintiffs in the suit; University of California law professorStphen Barnett is representing them; and the Bay Guardian, among othersources, is funding it. ("That's not to imply that the suit is well-funded,"Barnett joked when I talked to him.)
Dan Kennedy, meanwhile, succumbs to alarm thusin his 5/6 Boston Phoenix column:
"In a media nation in which virtually everydaily newspaper is owned by one of a half-dozen or so megacorporations, andnearly every major city is served by just one daily (Boston is a fortunate exception),alternative weeklies such as the Advocate papers serve a crucial roleas a critical, independent voice. But the Advocate has now been neutered.Nowhere is that more true than in Hartford, the largest city served by the chain.The Hartford Advocate has morphed overnight from the Courant'snemesis into a marketing tool for clueless Courant executives tryingto figure out how to appeal to those crazy twentysomethings with their coffeeaddictions and body piercings."
Again, there's sense mixed in here with thealterna-press self-dramatization. The implications of media conglomeration aresomething to think about. And yes, the Advocate is now part of aconglomerate, too. But Kennedy shouldn't mislead people into thinking that justbecause the paper belonged to Geoff Robinson and Christine Austin, and not toTimes Mirror, that it wasn't essentially an establishment voice-as wan and predictableas any "corporate" daily. As Jeremy Voas, the editor of PhoenixNew Times, asks, referring to newspapers owned by conglomerates: "Whyall the handwringing? Let's read their damn papers, something very few peoplebother to do anymore. They just want to stick a label on an owner and say 'You'rebad.'"
"Even worse, the acquisition of the Advocate-thefirst time a major daily chain has purchased its alternative competition-couldbe the start of a sad trend. Rapacious media executives will no doubt take noteof how easily the Advocate was silenced and start looking at those pesky,and economically attractive, weeklies in their own backyards."
Pesky? Who's pesky? Not the Advocatepapers. And sure, it could be the start of a trend, although not necessarilysad. Let's assume that every AAN paper in the country will eventually be "co-opted"by a conglomerate. New newspapers will then crop up to rail against them. Informationwill circulate somehow-and probably, in this online era, more freely than ever.Unless, that is, people like Brugmann are running around presiding over bureaucraticcommissions and handing out money to lawyers and telling everybody what theycan or cannot do.
A weird, if minor, tangential media developmentto which the Times Mirror affair has given rise, meanwhile, is that The NewYork Times-not usually noted for its attention to the alternative press-gotinto the act, uncritically accepting Brugmann-style alternative-press self-mythologizing.(The Nation also weighed in, with alternative press veteran Bruce Shapiroreferring, erroneously, to "the Advocate newspapers, five spirited...alternativeweeklies in southern New England"). The Times' Mike Allen, in his4/15 piece, reported that "some readers reacted with alarm to The Courant,seen as reliable but bland, adopting the lively Advocate chain. The local artscommunity treated today's announcement like a death in the family."
"'This is big brother taking over,' saidAlyssa S. Peterson, owner of NetFX, a Web design firm. 'The Advocate is everythingThe Courant isn't. Where do we go now?'"
Why doesn't Allen challenge Peterson's distinction?(Peterson, by the way, is one of the plaintiffs in that Hartford suit.) Doesn'the know that you could drop the Hartford Advocate into almost any marketin the country without anybody noticing that anything's changed? The Advocatecertainly is everything the Courant isn't. It's a middle-of-the-packalternative paper, while the Courant's a respectable, if not great, daily.
Brugmann and Kennedy make a valid point aboutmonopolistic practices-if we're talking about steel mills or food suppliersor even computer operating systems. But the information business isn't a heavyindustry; there's no means of production for an establishment to monopolize,and no industrial infrastructure for an upstart to approximate before one cancompete with the big guys. Don't like the thought of corporate media? Well,buy yourself a computer, genius (and be prepared for the Brugmanns of the worldbraying for your scalp every time you break a story about the President thatthe corporate media's afraid to touch-but let that go for now). Or go out atnight and plaster handbills on every telephone pole-every planar surface-inwhatever city you're looking to influence. Or wear a sandwich board, or buya cowbell and wander through the streets like a town crier, or hand out mimeographsheets, or-returning now from the realm of the absurd-Start your own newspaper.
"It will be very, very hard!" Brugmannscreamed at me when I mentioned that idea during my phone conversation withhim last week, and he's right. But if there really exists in Hartford a readershipfor the sort of journalism the AAN's alarmists want to see, and if neither theAdvocate nor the Courant will provide that journalism, you'd thinkthat that readership would welcome a third voice.
Bring up that possibility, though, and you'llbe called naive by alternative press apologists.
"The notion of someone starting his orher own independent alternative is nice in theory," Kennedy wrote me inan e-mail. "Sort of like Steve Martin's theory of how to have a milliondollars and not pay any taxes: First, get a million dollars."
Presumably Kennedy doesn't mean to imply thatit requires a million dollars to start a weekly newspaper, because of courseit doesn't. Brugmann certainly didn't need a million dollars, or the 1966 equivalentof it, when he launched the Bay Guardian. That sort of dismissiveness,though, implies what seems to be the unexpressed fear that haunts people inthe weekly newspaper industry: the fear that their own alternative press establishmentis being rendered obsolete by the mythical kid with a website, who may or maynot believe, as so many in the alternative press community do, that publishingTom Tomorrow's insipidities or subscribing to a middle-of-the-road liberalismdefines what "alternative" media should be all about. The Brugmanniteshave a weirdly pessimistic view of history for self-proclaimed leftists: Everything'sgoing to hell, and the only way to stop that is to...stop everything from changing.They seem to want their establishment to stand, institutionalized for allperpetuity, as the ultimate expression of alternative journalism. It's not enoughfor them that information should circulate: It has to circulate theirway. Every time a Hartford Advocate merges with a Courant,it upsets the reassuring, decades-old balance of power: The Courantsof the world play the Establishment in this stage play; alternative weekliesmasquerade as the irreverent rebels, even if they haven't done anything irreverentor rebellious for years.
"I actually think the question of ownershipis more important than whether the Advocate is any good or not,"Kennedy e-mailed me. "If the term 'alternative newspaper' means anything,it means that it must stand as an alternative to any given area's dominant mainstreammedia institution... It doesn't matter whether the Advocate has beendoing courageous reporting on the Courant [a reference to the Advocate'sself-image as a Courant watchdog], what matters is that as long as ithad its independence, it could have, and now it can't."
For the record, AAN executive director RichardKarpel avoided expressing a definitive opinion of the Advocate papersor of the Times Mirror takeover, claiming that he doesn't "get a chanceto read the Advocate papers that much." When pressed about whetherthe majority of the papers were really "alternative papers," Karpelsaid: "There's 112 [114, according to AAN's website] of them, andI don't get the chance to read all of them. But I get the sense there's lotsof different kinds of papers." One wonders what the executive directorof AAN does all day if he's not paying attention to his organization's newspapers.
But again, not that many of Brugmann and Kennedy'salternative press colleagues seem to have bought into the same oppositionalmyths that those two have. Even Tim Whitaker, who edits the PhiladelphiaWeekly-a paper that, like the Bay Guardian, is self-consciously "progressive"-doesn'tseem to be rushing off to man Brugmann's barricades, even though he expressesadmiration for Brugmann as "the most aggressively independent voice inthe alternative world."
"I don't think there is any guarding against"the alternative industry's maturation, Whitaker says. "There have beensome people in the alternative world that have sort of carefully [chosen] whothey wanted to buy them, to sort of keep their legacy going in a certain kindof way. And then there are others who just sort of look for the highest bidder.You kind of hope that there's some independent spirit left in those guys fromthe 60s and they sort of want to keep what they started going in the same direction,and don't just go for the buck."
Whitaker expresses hope for "a grassrootsmovement of some sort that will start somewhere and pick up some momentum alongthe way" and "target the big alternatives as the bad guys in the waythe alternatives targeted the big dailies."
"Bruce Brugmann is a fucking idiot,"a source in San Francisco says. "He doesn't know shit about business orany of this stuff. Whether it's technically an antitrust violation would dependon the circumstances in that market, which nobody on the West Coast knows wellenough to comment on. I don't."
Adds John Mecklin:
"Here's a guy whose paper literally never,ever breaks a real story about San Francisco-never-running across the countryto expend time and energy on a lawsuit over some weeklies in Connecticut."
"Oh no, no..." Albie Del Favero, who publishes theNashville Scene, responded when I asked him if he's worried about thefuture of alternative media. "If I were to sell my paper to the daily newspapertomorrow, there'd be somebody else to come along and fill the void. That's what'sgoing to happen in Hartford if they lose their edge and if they are not doingtheir job."
Besides, says Del Favero, "A lot of usare in our 40s and 50s, and you can make the argument that we're too damn oldto be doing this anyway."
Louis Black, editor and co-owner of the AustinChronicle, expressed much the same sentiments-implying that what Brugmannsees as a corporate fascists' rampage is nothing much more serious than a changingof the guard. Out with the crummy, smug, lazy, old, politically complacent old;in with the youthful new.
"The alternative press was at its strongestwhen each paper represented its individual owners or creative teams or personalities..."Black insists, explaining how he can see that Brugmann's got a general point."One of the reasons the Village Voice sucks so badly and NYPressis such a great paper is that the Press is so dominated by a creativeteam and the Voice has become such a corporate mess."
Still, he says, the economic "maturation"of the alternative press is "going to happen whether I like it or hateit." He adds, "We can't stay kids forever. Our roles have alreadychanged. The Chronicle used to be able to...say anything we wanted, becausethe people who read us were not powerful. Now we have to double check everythingwe say." Black predicts that we'll increasingly see youthful "webzinescoming up which are doing what we were doing 10 or 15 years ago."
Even the New Haven Advocate'sPaul Bass, who's presumably one of the beneficiaries of Brugmann's efforts,sounds elegiac.
"I don't think we're outside the mainstream,"Bass says of alternative press. "We probably would like to think we are,but it's not risky... I think the alternative press really stopped being soalternative around '75 or '76. No, that's okay. I think it was a cool thingthey invented at the time."
The following is an edited transcript of a May5 phone conversation with San Francisco Bay Guardian publisher BruceB. Brugmann, whose newspaper is leading the alternative media's crusade againstcorporate media monopolization.
Bruce Brugmann: [We were dealingwith this issue] when we started the Guardian and we take it extremelyseriously. Russ Smith, to him it's just a big joke.
Andrey Slivka: (laughs)Right.
BB: And to you too, apparently.
AS: No, no, no, no. Thequestion is, you must read the Advocate papers pretty regularly.
BB: Yes, they model theirpapers after the Guardian...
AS: Well, I don't quitebelieve that. The Bay Guardian is-
BB: That's what he said.You have to ask [Geoff Robinson].
AS: Do you believe that?
BB: That's all I know.
AS: Do you believethat?
BB: That's what he said.That's what he told me.
AS: Do you believe it? Doyou believe-?
BB: I believe that hebelieves it... He had Guardians there at the press when it came out,the first time. You see, that's not the issue. The issue is a chain daily buyingthe only direct competition in the community and in the state, which is thealternative paper. The only reason for the existence of an alternative paperis if it is competitive, and...it's no longer when it's owned by the L.A.Times chain... The alternatives came in and they were the competition tothe daily paper!
BB: ...These are crybabymillionaire publishers and they want a crybaby millionaire deal to screw theirpublic and their staff and their cities and their readers and their advertisersand everybody else. They want a million-dollar relief bill so that they canbuy their direct competitor!
AS: All right. The questionis, these papers-the Advocate papers-a lot of these papers don't seem to meto be alternative papers at all.
BB: Well, that's bullshit...
AS: Well, what if I said,"Let them buy that paper. And then someone else should start a real paper."
BB: That's not the point.
AS: Why not?
BB: That's not the point.
BB: That's not the way antitrustlaw works. The daily paper is buying its direct competitor. This is why it'sso serious. This is a stake planted in the heart of the alternative press. Everydaily paper can now go and buy its own competition, whether it's an alternativepaper, a community paper, an ethnic paper, whatever. We fought this battle foryears and years and years!
AS: Does that then precludesomebody starting a third paper?
BB: No! It doesn't precludethem, but it makes it extremely difficult! And then the third paper starts,and then they can buy the third paper.
BB: It gives the chain theopportunity to buy out its competition, which we consider a violation of theClayton antitrust act! That's why we... Look, goddammit! Are you trying to getsome answers, or are you just trying to be argumentative with me? I don't wantto waste my time.
AS: Well, I'm not-
BB: Are you trying to bea reporter or a goddamn argumentative artist?
AS: I'm not trying to pissyou off-
BB: Well, you are, becauseyou're an asshole the way you come on!
AS: I'm not an asshole!
BB: YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE!I DECLARE YOU AN ASSHOLE!
AS: I AM NOT AN ASSHOLE!
BB: Well, you sure as hellare! You sure as hell sound like it! You sure as hell aren't a reporter!
AS: We shouldn't argue aboutthis.
BB: You don't even know...aboutthe federal suit in Hartford to block this?
AS: Yes, yes.
BB: Well that's good. Youat least know something. I hope you put it in the paper.
AS: I just think it's different-
BB: IT'S NOT DIFFERENT,GODDAMMIT! This is buying your direct competition! You cannot buy your directcompetition! And they did this quietly! There were no public hearings! It rollsthrough the Justice Dept., nobody writes about it! It's a scandal the way thishas happened!
AS: Well, I'm not goingto convince you-
BB: Hell, there's no convincing!I've been working on this issue for 33 years!
AS: I know, I know.
BB: We got a suit filedon it, and we're gonna ultimately make this an issue in Congress with the JusticeDept. and we're going ask for a moratorium on these kinds of deadly mergersand see if we can get some kind of law to protect the independent press fromthis kind of buyout...
AS: Isn't this just a businesscycle?
BB: No! No! This is an invasionof the antitrust act! Nobody should be allowed to dominate an industry in theircommunity like this, and certainly not the newspaper industry... Why shouldthe city of Hartford be under the thumb of the Los Angeles Times andthe city of Los Angeles, California?
AS: It doesn't need to be.I mean, information can circulate freely.
BB: Oh, bullshit! How?
AS: Well, I thank for yourtime. You've been extremely helpful.
BB: Yeah, great.
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