Politics & Media
Jul 17, 2008, 07:18AM

Can The Message Overcome The Medium?

We all know that print media is dying, but that death means different things for different papers. Alternative weeklies, especially, have been important challengers of a status quo that is all too often supported by major papers. In recent years, like many weeklies, the Free Times of Cleveland has fought to stay afloat. Now they're finally merging with another weekly for financial reasons. Here a few of the  people involved look back on their muckraking past for inspiration going forward.

Village Voice Media bought Free Times in 1998. Soon after, longtime Scene owner Richard Kabat sold the music-focused weekly to New Times Inc., the Phoenix-based chain, and we all knew the Free Times was up against a formidable enemy. Having served on the national board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, I had heard rumors that the New Times bosses were aiming for a takeover of the top 20 markets in the country; amongst the industry folks who believed in locally owned alt-weeklies with regional flavor, the New Times, which always came in and cleaned house to create their own cookie-cutter-style alternative, was commonly referred to as “the evil empire.” And I knew something was going to happen in the Cleveland market when I found out one of the New Times execs was a former Clevelander and an Indians fan; New Times had a pompous swagger about buying in cities where they might like to also buy season tickets.

It’s evident to anyone who follows the newspaper/media industry that putting out any kind of print product in the age of instant information is only getting harder. And my tale of having to drive hard copies of pages to the printer is only a romantic story, as alien to button-pushing kids today as the idea of setting metal type on a giant press was to me. In the end though, no matter what format, the best way to attract readers is frank discussion and good stories about things that matter. If you have to lose the long-standing tribute to founder Richard H. Siegel (1935-1993) from the masthead, I hope you at least hold on to his mission. “Dialogue journalism. Advocacy journalism. Tough-minded, responsible and gutsy coverage of what’s really going on in this town — in politics, arts and entertainment, race, ethnic and gender relationships, business and sports.”

To Richard, I’m sure it would not be about the name but the ability to stay in the game and keep up the fight.


A lot has happened to the news business since then. Many new voices have been given life by the Internet via blogs and Web sites. There are many alternative voices but they vary greatly in quality, experience, exposure and impact.

Therefore, there remains a dire need for a strong alternative newspaper voice in this town.

Frankly, I’ve been disappointed by both the Free Times and the Scene, with some notable exceptions, for their inability to act as an alternative voice to the more and more corporate (and boring) Plain Dealer. And for the failure to be a sharp, consistent and credible critic of the established order here.

The opportunity is there. I wonder, however, where the passion and combativeness have gone. Possibly, it is the times. More likely, it is simply a dearth of honest anger that should be the foundation of anything that wants to call itself an “alternative” to what is.

We now await a new paper. The name really doesn’t matter. Its thrust does. It needs to be a vigorous voice against what is and for what should be. Then it can call itself a true alternative.


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