MEDIA MASH: Did I Come to the Wrong Convention?

Did I Come to the Wrong Convention?

If you were invited to a conference and the featured speakers included porn mag czar Larry Flynt, anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly, anti-media violence crusader Jack Thompson, anti-bilingual crusader Ron Unz, Lucianne Goldberg (Linda Tripp's conservative confidante) and Jack Valenti, the sophisticated bullshit artist who represents the Motion Picture Industry, what kind of a gathering might it be? A right wing confab? A series of self-promotional press conferences?

Actually, this rogue's gallery of sandpaper personalities was the big draw at the annual convention of the "alternative" press held on June 1-3 in Phoenix, Arizona. As this line up demonstrates, the term alternative has evolved to something quite different than the leftish, hippie days of yore.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) convention was held at the fabulous and very upscale Phoenix Biltmore hotel, which is circled by 36 holes of picturesque golf course. George Shrub Bush had spent the night before the meeting opened in this choice spot, and the Red Hot Chile Peppers were hanging out by one of the 8 or so swimming pools during the conference's proceedings.

The programming was primarily in the hands of Michael Lacey, the provocative patriarch of the New Times newspaper chain, owner of a collection of papers strewn across the Mid, South, and Far West. New Times papers are known for fierce, sometimes obnoxious independence, fine writing, and contrarian points of view.

Lacey told the Masher he wanted those attending the conference to enjoy themselves but also to think about things in new ways. Lacey laments the flaccid and predictable style of writing in AAN papers, in which "you know where the article is going from the first paragraph." Many of the conference speakers reflected the New Times world view, which focuses on colorful personalities waging individualistic struggles against conventional wisdom and battles against evil or corrupt politicians, without much analysis of institutions and systems in which these individuals operate. Not surprisingly, the majority of the speakers at AAN were aging white guys over 50, mirroring the leadership of most of the AAN papers.

If nothing else, Mike Lacey hates boring. He was intent on making sure his conference did not go the way of predictable programs of past conventions. Despite the headlining speakers, the program was more diverse and interesting than it seemed first glance. For example, Lacey wove issues like new music technologies, Hip Hop activism and the Seattle protests into the program, based on his belief that these issues and events took the media by surprise and have had an unexpected affect on our culture. Tom Hayden moderated a passionate discussion on globalization, and a dynamic panel of youth organizers and Hip Hoppers -- including author Billy Upski Wimsatt -- sparked some important outside-the-box thinking. Unfortunately, these two discussions had fewer than 40 people in the audience and were overshadowed by other events.

All in all, the New Timers gave the old timers an unpredictable, but generally good time.

LA Magazine Tabs Rachlis

In a noteworthy editorial change, former Village Voice executive editor and LA Weekly editor Kit Rachlis is headed for the top job at LA Magazine, after a long stint as an editor at the LA Times Magazine. What makes this move interesting is the potential head-to-head with the LA Weekly, which Rachlis left in anger along with what many feel was the best collection of writers ever assembled at an alternative weekly newspaper. (The Village Voice of Newfield, Barrett, Conason et al were of a different stripe).

Many might remember that in the summer of 1993 Rachlis left the Weekly because of "editorial and managerial differences" with publisher Mike Sigman. The departure kicked off quite a brouhaha. A collection of the top writers and editors resigned -- including John Powers, Ruben Martinez, Tom Carson, Steve Erickson, Ella Taylor and Michael Ventura -- over perceived business interference in editorial operations. Only Ella Taylor returned, to do film criticism.

In those days the Weekly enjoyed an intense creative output from a gaggle of big egos, strong opinions and pure writing strengths. Some of the writing was excessive, but it took risks and broke new ground, creating an unusual mix of the cultural, intellectual and political, something rarely seen in today's industry. Political critics labeled the newspaper too intellectual, and that was a fair point, but there was a sense of excitement and anticipation during that period that the Masher hasn't seen duplicated in the alternative press since.

Yes, the times have changed in the alties, in part because of economic factors. There are more corporate priorities exercised by chain ownership, edit budgets have been reallocated, there is more synergy between business and editorial and clearly some weariness on the part of owners past their prime. Sue Horton, who was hired by Sigman to replace Rachlis and remains the current editor after a convoluted search, has taken the LA Weekly in other directions -- both more traditionally political (under the influence of executive editor Harold Meyerson) and more quirky, with cover stories that seem to come out of nowhere.

Today's LA Weekly offers probably the best labor union coverage anywhere in the country, along with a constant supportive ear to local activism, in synch with what the alternative press used to do well. But the big cultural thinkers and the sometimes grandiose efforts have long left the scene.

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