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Meeting: News is good on alternative papers

A conference of alternative newsweeklies in Philadelphia gets a message that their tradition is alive and well.

As founder and publisher of the alternative weekly Philadelphia City Paper in the 1980s, Bruce Schimmel had an unusual edict, one not taught in Journalism 101 class.

"It's a publisher's prerogative - if you want to run escort ads, so be it," he said. "We always pushed alternative lifestyles.

"We never backed down from that. That's part of our mission - to define the edges," said Schimmel, who was publisher until 1996, when he sold the paper.

Such risqué sex and personal ads, combined with edgy, in-your-face investigative journalism exposing local government wrongdoing and hypocrisy and solid arts and entertainment criticism, made alternative publications such as the Philadelphia City Paper, the Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Chicago Reader and others stand out.

And that tradition will live on, say many among the T-shirt-and-jeans-clad crowd at the Pennsylvania Convention Center this week, where they gathered for the 31st Annual Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Convention.

This was the first time the convention had been held in Philadelphia - home of two alternatives, City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly - and the mood among the nearly 400 attendees was resoundingly upbeat.

One reason was a shared belief that alternative weeklies will do just fine in the age of cyberspace and newsroom downsizing, and even with a shaky economy and the seismic shift of advertising from newsprint to online.

"It's upbeat because a lot of people here have a sense that we are filling a niche that's really well received by the communities we serve," said Chet Hardin, news editor for Metroland, based in Albany, N.Y.

Hardin listened intently as one of his role models - Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the conference's keynote lunch speaker - spoke about his craft yesterday.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, said his group had 129 members with a weekly circulation of more than 7 million and readership of 20 million.

"They are free-circulation, tabloid papers that cover news, arts and culture with a point of view," he said.

Alternative weeklies depend completely on advertising for revenue.

Despite that, Erin Sullivan, managing editor of Baltimore City Paper, said they pull no punches. Her paper specializes in long, narrative investigative pieces.

"As the economy tanks, our page counts have gone from 148 pages to 128," she said. "It's a question of how to best use our resources in a changing environment.

"We're taking our resources and focusing them on investigative reporting and increasing our criticism," Sullivan, 35, said. "Things that the dailies can't or won't do with the same level of depth."

Schimmel said alternative newspapers "are willing to cut off as many noses as possible to get the job done."

Schimmel, 55, said competition from blogs and other electronic media had pushed alternative weeklies to be even more aggressive.

"Everyone has access to your morgue," he said, "so you better get it right."

Schimmel, who writes a weekly column, Loose Canon, for Philadelphia City Paper and remains its editor emeritus, said that when he was publisher, he looked for a certain type of hire.

"I looked for the strangest, most intelligent people I could find," Schimmel said. "The weirder the better."

He saw that in Mark Burkert, a butcher-turned-musician whom Schimmel hired in 1992. Burkert is currently circulation director for the paper, which has a weekly circulation of about 93,000.

Burkert, 43, of Roxborough, said alternative papers were sticking to what had worked for them in the past, even taking it up a notch.

"We make our money from advertising, which is shifting to digital," he said. "You have to be completely creative. "You can't play it safe."