By Laura Putre
Like Superman in 1938, a big S emblazoned on his chest as he tears open his dress shirt—except substitute a swooping red E—the Cleveland Edition appeared in 1986. It was four years after the Cleveland Press, the scrappier of the city’s two dailies, closed, leaving readers with the Plain Dealer, the fat suburban paper.
The Edition was an alt-weekly newspaper distributed in coffee shops, booksellers, and record stores. Its pages were packed with columns by writers who could carry, and sometimes levitate, a sentence: Eric Broder, whose absurdist, satirical humor column might have gone over in the early 1900s (think George Herriman’s Krazy Kat or Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel), but wouldn’t have lived a day in the corporate daily newspapers of the 1980s. Amy Sparks, who dauntingly wove poetic language and first-person writing into engaging art and culture critiques. Mark Winegardner, whose literary yet accessible columns made me read 1,400 words about sports from beginning to end, for the first and last time. Roldo’s constant hammering away at the inner workings of City Hall—you’d find him camped out there, unassumingly overhearing people’s conversations—made me care about the politics of downtown.
The Edition was also an incubator for young talent. Comic book artist Derf debuted his trademark strip “The City” in its pages. Martha Southgate, the young adult novelist, was an intern there. Even the receptionist, Meredith Rutledge, went on to bigger things: She’s now a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
When I found the Edition, around 1988, I was in college at Kent State, and for the first time I dared to think that I could live in Cleveland and be a writer. In the southwest suburbs where I grew up, everyone’s dad was a vacuum cleaner engineer. Though we went camping a lot, I’d never been to a Cleveland Orchestra concert, only set foot in University Circle a couple of times. Coventry and the Cedar Lee Theater were apparitions to me. I was working on a journalism degree, and had written a handful of music reviews for Alternative Press, but the PD didn’t seem like a place that would hire me—I wasn’t interested in hard news. I didn’t have money or connections to try New York or Chicago. Thanks to the Edition, I finally knew there were writers in Cleveland, and art galleries that didn’t traffic in Thomas Kinkade paintings. And the Edition itself might be a place you could go to get your first writing job, if you had a roommate and were willing to take a second job in a bookstore.
Chris Potter, editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper, had a similar alt-weekly experience. The Rust Belt wasn’t like the big coastal cities, or even Chicago, where the cultural and political life of the city is inescapable. The racial politics, the economic inequality, and the post-punk bands were there, but you had to work to find them. You had to take three buses to get there, instead of hopping on a subway.
Potter grew up outside of Pittsburgh in the suburb of Upper Saint Clair. “It was basically the political birthing place of Rick Santorum,” he says. As a teen, he’d take the bus into the city, and pick up an alternative weekly newspaper called In Pittsburgh. In the city, “there were things, you kind of knew you weren’t in Kansas any more,” he recalls. “One of those things was the alt-weekly paper. It would help you feel your way around the city.”
When Potter graduated from college, one of the first things he did was send his writing clips to In Pittsburgh. “I got a gig writing art reviews at first, because basically I wasn’t too proud. I think my first story, I was writing about performance-art groups, these guys were walking around in shallow pools wearing hip waders. There were live lobsters and shit. It actually turned out to be pretty instructive because covering city council, it turns out, is not that much different. For me, it was the first time I had a sense of what a city was.”
Potter ended up working at In Pittsburgh and later joined Pittsburgh City Paper, his current employer. By the time I was back in Cleveland looking for a writing gig, the Edition was gone. I spent my early newspaper career at the Free Times, a spinoff of the Edition. Like Potter, I covered the stories nobody else wanted, because I was the new kid. I then worked at Cleveland Scene during the time the paper was owned by a Phoenix-based chain called New Times. Crime and salacious stories ruled at the New Times-era Scene. I was grateful for the paycheck at both places. But I kept searching for the spark, the liveliness and sense of fun, the smart-meets-subversive attitude I saw in the Edition. Even later, when I was editor of a weekly paper in Chicago—and now, helping start up Belt—I am still pursuing the Edition I read in college. I’ll let you know if ever I find it.
Bill Gunlocke, a Lakewood English teacher and bookstore clerk, started the Edition with an inheritance from his dad’s office furniture company in rural New York. One day at Gunlocke’s bookstore, a customer walked in wearing a New York magazine shirt. “I thought to myself, ‘What publication in Cleveland would I wear the T-shirt of? None.’”
Gunlocke started thinking about starting a publication he wanted to read. At the downtown library, he studied up on alternative weekly newspapers in other cities: the Boston Phoenix, the Chicago Reader. “I thought hell, I could do one of these. I’m a mix of a lot of things. Not a genius or an expert at any of them, but I knew enough books, enough music, enough politics.” He sent himself to a New York publishing conference, where he blew off most of the sessions (“I spent a lot of time just walking around New York”). Between skipping talks at the conference, Gunlock befriended a magazine designer named Greg Paul who happened to be from Cleveland, too. Together, they got to work on a clean yet punchy design for the Edition.
Gunlocke rented some office space above the Publix bookstore on Huron Road, and hired his first employee, Eric Broder, who had recently received a journalism master’s from University of Michigan. Even more importantly, the girls Gunlocke knew thought that Broder was funny.
“Neither of us are hard-chargers,” says Gunlocke of himself and Broder. “At the time, we were flying blind.”
The pair hung out in the office for a good year and a half, says Broder, before they put out a paper. “We had to wait for the design—that took a long time,” says Broder. “It seemed to take forever.”
Broder’s first column was about the Beatles. “It was like, ‘To hell with the Beatles, they’re no good.’ It was one of the dumbest things that has ever been written . I just wasn’t into them. I liked the Rolling Stones. ‘They were of their time, I guess. They’re not cool. They don’t rock.’”
“The people who got it, got it,” he says of his column. “And the people who didn’t just thought I was an asshole.”
Gunlocke noticed that the other cities’ weeklies had arts and entertainment listings. “That seemed to be the mantra, you had to have good listings. If you had good listings, then no matter your cover story, people would be in the habit of picking it up.
“There was a template, no question. Every city did it just the same. Except we did ours a little different, to be honest. Our design was better looking than the other papers; the other papers even told us that.”
Gunlocke wasn’t interested in hiring reporters to write “boffo cover stories.” He was interested in columnists, people who were obsessed with their subjects—Doug Clarke from the old Cleveland Press on sports, environmentalist David Beach on the lakefront. “It became a little more writerly than the standard weekly—more individual voices. I used to say, ‘Small as we are, non-profitable as we are, if there were a media softball league in Cleveland, everybody would recognize our starting lineup because they week after week had their own column. It was a team of individuals and I liked that.’”
But he didn’t know how to sell it. The Edition ran out of money and closed twice, reopening when Gunlocke rounded up some more cash, and then closed for good in 1992. “I was so not a salesman,” he says. “I didn’t know how to cut through the bullshit. I just thought this Baby Boom we represented in our minds—and who the advertisers were more likely to want because they’d graduated from college and those kinds of things—we would just naturally bring in ads from places like the Cedar Lee. I never got one from the Cedar Lee. [Cedar Lee owner] John Foreman said to me once, ‘If we advertise in your paper, we’ll look like an arts theater and we just don’t want to be thought of as an arts theater.’ And I thought, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I should have just rolled up the tent then. If somebody’s going to use that kind of logic not to advertise in the fucking weekly paper, what the hell? What town have we got?”
1984 Edition Image courtesy of Cleveland SGS
Another weekly paper, a tabloid called Scene, fared better as a business. Started by gas station owner Rich Kabat with a family loan, Scene struck gold by covering the minutia of the acts playing at rock and blues clubs in town with an approach that was more boosterish than critical. An era-appropriate comparison: Scene was the wildly popular Bob Seger to the Edition’s self-defeating Replacements.
At the Edition, compiling the weekly arts and entertainment listings sucked up a lot of time. “And we still didn’t get the ads. Those people went to Scene. Really? We used to think, ‘Really? You’re gonna put it in Scene? But Scene had their obsession. They really gave a shit who was playing at these clubs. I mean, they really, really gave a shit and we didn’t.
“So they got the ads that we wanted and we thought we deserved because we were better and we were better overall, but they cared about their niche and they wore black silk baseball jackets with some band on the back and it was cheesy looking, but it mattered.”
In 1965, an upstart Detroit paper called Fifth Estate was started by a politically astute 17-year-old named Harvey Ovshinsky, working out of his dad’s basement in suburban Bloomfield Hills. In 2015, Fifth Estate will celebrates its fiftieth anniversary as perhaps the longest continuously published underground newspaper (although now it’s a twice-yearly magazine rather than a weekly or biweekly newspaper).
After a summer internship at the underground Los Angeles Free Press, Ovshinsky wanted to get his own protest paper going at home, so he recruited a couple of his friends.
“Maybe that idea of zeitgeist was overused, but it really was what drove us,” recalls Peter Werbe, a Fifth Estate staff member since the beginning and longtime host of a leftist radio talk show. “The idea that teenagers and people in their early twenties could put out a newspaper was foreign—they were big, expensive operations—but literally with a portable manual typewriter, some glue and a kitchen table, you could produce a newspaper.”
The first issue, which ran four pages and was given away at concerts and at college campuses, announced that itself as “Detroit’s New Progressive Biweekly Newspaper.” It included an interview with a disillusioned U.S. soldier who had just returned from two years in Vietnam, and an editorial by Ovshinksy earnestly declaring “We are the fifth [estate] because we are something different than Detroit’s other newspapers. We hope to fill a void … created by party-controlled newspapers and the cutting of those articles which might express the more liberal viewpoint. That’s what we really are—the voice (I hate that word) of the liberal element of Detroit.”
The paper moved to a space in Detroit’s burgeoning “hippie district,” a development on historic Plum Street put together by a local entrepreneur named Robert Cobb. “When we moved down there, because of the nature of the times, [the paper] really took off,” Werbe recalls. “Here was this anti-capitalist paper, and it really owed its success and entrepreneurship to a capitalist who had little interest in the content.”
Circulation was helped by the Keep on Trucking Collective, some friends of the paper who had landed the Detroit distribution rights to Rolling Stone. Store owners who wanted to carry Rolling Stone also had to carry Fifth Estate and several other radical papers. “They’d say, ‘I don’t want to take this commie newspaper,’ ‘Well, you’ve gotta take it all or none.’ We wound up in stores all over the place,” says Werbe.
Kids and homeless people, along with Werbe and a few other staffers, sold papers on the street for 15 cents and kept the money. The main staffers drew a weekly salary of $35, plus the street sales. “It sounds like we’re talking about the 1910s, selling newspapers for 15 cents and being able to live on it,” says Werbe. “But we lived in an apartment, our rent was like $60 a month, and you could buy an old junker car for 50 bucks. You had young people freed up to work on the Fifth Estate. Now if you’re 20 years old, you’re thinking ‘I’ve got to get two jobs to buy my junker car for $4,000.’”
Werbe describes the paper in its early days as a “movement publication. It chronicled all the resistance movements of the era, primarily anti-war but certainly civil rights, civil liberties.” It was a voice of resistance to the Vietnam War, but it was also pro-G.I.—and the staff worked hard to get the paper into the hands of soldiers. Fifth Estate sent reporters into combat zones in Vietnam to interview soldiers on both sides.
In 1967, riots broke on Detroit’s Northwest Side after police in an African-American neighborhood arrested revelers at a party for two returning Vietnam veterans. Violence and looting spread to surrounding areas, and after five days, 43 people were dead and more than 7,000 had been arrested. Werbe and Ovshinsky were out on the streets taking photographs of the looters, some of whom were cops. A tear-gas grenade was thrown through the office window. Some suspect the grenade was thrown by the police or National Guard soldiers in retaliation for the photographs of cops looting, and the paper’s larger coverage of the riot, which included printing a memo from an Air National Guard commander imploring guardsmen to stop looting.
The guardsmen had set up camp at some of the area high schools. “Harvey and I went over to my high school alma mater, Central High School in Detroit, and—because we had to fight for them—we actually had Detroit police press credentials. So we rolled up to the checkpoint at the high school, and I said, ‘Hi, we’re from the press.’ He said, ‘Let me see your press credentials, and this guy looked at me and raised his M-1 Garand and said, ‘I know who you are. Get outta here.’”
By the early 1970s, Ovshinsky had left Fifth Estate. He had registered as a conscientious objector, and thought the paper’s views were becoming too radical. Werbe and some other staffers, however, thought Fifth Estate was going soft, so they staged a peaceful takeover, refusing to take ads any longer. They declared the Fifth Estate an anarchist paper. Coverage in the 1990s included a takedown of unions during a Detroit newspaper strike, which didn’t go over very well in the labor capital of the world.
“I think that [the union coverage] is fairly complex and fairly nuanced, and getting it out in a couple of sentences is difficult,” says Werbe of the controversy over the newspaper strike, “but as revolutionaries who were interested in overthrowing capitalism, we were saying what institutions were an impediment to that. One of them was these institutions of unions—that were almost by their very nature conservative and accepted the definitions and parameters of capitalism.”
Fifth Estate has since mellowed. “We don’t make any real combative critiques any longer,” says Werbe. “Not of people who are involved in protests and resistances. Because I just want to see, what are people doing for reforms, to improve people’s lives, to help people. It’s pretty easy to be critical. We were almost critical of everything.”
Today the paper, describing itself as an “anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-profit project” focuses strictly on national and international coverage. (Online, it’s organized into two sections: “Contents” and “Anarchy Section.”) Its circulation has never topped 20,000. “It was the publication of a community,” says Werbe. “We never saw it like that, but it was the voice of a particular community with a particular set of beliefs that were annunciated and reaffirmed every week.”
During the 1990s, Pittsburgh had competing alternative newsweeklies. In Pittsburgh literally rose from the castoffs of the steel industry in the 1980s. Founder John Burstin used profits from his scrap-metal business to start the paper because he believed the city needed a liberal voice. “[Burstin] came at it from an activist point of view,” recalls Charlie Humphrey, editor of In Pittsburgh in the 1980s, now working for two Pittsburgh arts non-profits. “I think he had a vision for how the alternative press could impact a community.”
The writers, recalls Humphrey, “all really understood the importance of the alternative voice—while the journalism and reporting is rigorous, the actual voice of the writing is of a real sentient human being who is experiencing this. It does away with some of the stylistic conventions you see in the daily media. We were writing in a tone native in its snarkiness, and people of a certain age, they could identify with that.”
A weekly column called “Eyesores” profiled a run-down building in the city and how it got that way. One cover story, titled “Trajectories,” catalogued all the war monuments depicting guns and cannons in the city and calculated—according to the caliber of the gun and the ordnance it carried—where a shot would land if the symbolic weapon were fired.
In 1990, a businessman from Colorado named Brad Witherell started the City Paper. Witherell owned interests in Pittsburgh-area Christmas tree farms, fireworks warehouses, and phone sex hotlines. He started the City Paper after In Pittsburgh decided to stop running phone sex ads.
“You had these two papers who were just the yin and yang of alternative journalism,” says City Paper editor Chris Potter, “high-minded liberal and revenue-based.” Both alt-weeklies got a windfall in 1992, when the two daily papers, the Press and the Post-Gazette, went on strike. Advertisers migrated to the alternative weeklies, and some never left.
Potter worked at In Pittsburgh from 1995 to 1997. During that time, the paper mounted a big investigation into police accountability after a black motorist died at the hands of suburban police inside the city limits. “What we found when we did some stories, was there were people from all walks of life, whites as well as blacks, who had these sort of experiences with police,” says Potter. “We took a strong advocacy position on the creation of a citizen review board, calling for the oversight of the department. I don’t think there was anybody in town paying attention to that in the way that we were. We turned up individual cases where this had happened that had slipped under everybody else’s radar.”
Potter left for City Paper in 1997, when Philadelphia-based Review Publishing bought In Pittsburgh. The paper had been critical of then Mayor Tom Murphy’s pro-downtown investment strategy. One night not long after the sale, the new owners of In Pittsburgh were invited to two parties—Murphy’s reelection victory party or that of the supporters of the police department citizen review board, which was on the same ballot. “Our new owners went to the mayor’s victory party, so we saw the handwriting on the wall,” says Potter. In Pittsburgh struggled to keep up with the competition for a few years. In 2001, the City Paper bought its rival and shut it down.
Potter and his colleagues brought to the City Paper coverage critical of the mayor and his love affair with downtown retail, which included a multimillion dollar tax incentive for a new Lazarus department store. In 1998, the City Paper staff met with the editors of the Cleveland Free Times and the Cincinnati CityBeat and hatched a plan for a collaborative series on the public funding of sports stadiums. Cleveland already had Progressive, nee Jacobs Field and Quicken Loans nee Gund Arena. The Edition’s Roldo Bartimole had already spent years warning readers about the hollow promise of public money for wealthy sports team owners—to no avail. Pittsburgh was considering new sports facilities. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which owned a piece of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was cautioning readers (which is to say, voters) that if Pittsburgh didn’t fork over the cash for new arenas, their rival city to the northwest would beat them for good.
“We did this joint package deal where [all three alt-weeklies] had almost the exact same cover,” Potter recalls. “It was three hot dogs with the names of the cities spelled out on them, and we had this thing where we showed the lineup in each city—who was playing which role, who was the pitchman.” Each city’s stadium financing lobbying campaign “was all coming out of the same playbook. Whether you’re in the American or National League, it’s the same game and they’re telling you exactly the same shit.”
“We found out Cincinnati had the worst deal of all of them,” recalls John Fox, the CityBeat editor in Cincinnati at the time. “We compared how those things were funded, how much they cost, how much they were supposed to cost. It was a great series, though it didn’t make any difference. The sales tax passed anyway, and the overruns were huge.”
Fox, previously the editor of a mom-and-pop paper called Everybody’s News, started CityBeat in 1994 with money from an investor named Tom Schiff who had made his money in insurance and was most interested in better arts coverage.
Fox was inspired by a paper called Nashville Scene. “Two guys had taken a shopper newspaper and turned it into an alternative weekly. I thought ‘Crap if they can do that in Nashville’—I had lived in Nashville and didn’t like the South—‘there’s got to be a way we can do it in Cincinnati.’”
More than Detroit, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, Republican-dominated Cincinnati was hurting for a liberal publication. “The Enquirer was conservative and the Post was sort of middle of the road—it wasn’t anywhere near being liberal,” says Fox. Fox and Schiff made a good team because Schiff, the money man, wasn’t interested in meddling in the paper’s political coverage. That was Fox’s department.
“I know that first year, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and had very few ads,” says Fox. “But we got the critical mass going—most of the arts organizations and music clubs backed us right away. Then the restaurants came along as well. It always takes a while for the more established people—the car dealers and banks and retail stores to come around—because this is a hippie newspaper and the word ‘fuck’ is in there so it’s like giving money to devil worshippers.” A right-to-life group and an anti-gay marriage group called Citizens for Community values “used to hound us all the time,” Fox remembers.
The conservative groups mounted letter-writing campaigns, which got CityBeat banned from Kroger grocery stores for a good long while, “but eventually we got back in. There were people who supported us. There’s definitely a subculture of musicians and artists and young people who want to live in the city—that was what I always thought—a paper like CityBeat, if you were somebody who was different, a musician or artist or gay or a Democrat, there was a newspaper for you. It made you feel like ‘Hey, I’m not the only freak in Cincinnati.’ It made you feel better, and maybe it made you want to stay in Cincinnati.”
Many alternative newspapers don’t do political endorsements. But endorsements were the bread and butter of CityBeat. “Our endorsements were pretty much the opposite of what the daily papers’ were,” says Fox. They were the only paper to endorse Mark Mallory in his 2005 mayoral campaign against a popular city council member. Mallory won, becoming the first elected African-American mayor of Cincinnati. “It was one of those things where I thought, maybe we actually made a difference there,” says Fox.
Like In Pittsburgh, CityBeat also pushed hard for a police citizen review board, in their case after the 2001 riots sparked by the police killing of an unarmed African-American man. “We covered it every week for months and months and months,” says Fox. “We were very critical of the police.”
In 2012, Fox and Schiff sold CityBeat to Southcomm, the Nashville-based owner of Nashville Scene and six other alternative weeklies. The 2000s were hard times for alternative newspapers. Craigslist sucked away much of the classified advertising, the shift to online publishing fragmented the market, and larger economic trends didn’t cooperate. “We were doing well until the riots and 9/11 hit, then from 2002 through 2008, we were struggling,” says Fox. “In 2008, we were doing much better, but then the economy collapsed and we were back down again.”
In Pittsburgh, Potter is constantly finding ways to stretch a shrinking budget, while still publishing in print once a week and updating content continuously online.
“It’s tough,” he says. “My paycheck clears, but the staff is smaller. The paper is absolutely smaller—there’s just a lot less space to do stuff. When we had much larger papers, it was possible to cover all the bases in terms of the hard news you wanted to cover and the bands people wanted to hear about, and also do a three- or four-thousand word story on what was up with the mayor’s fucked-up downtown redevelopment strategy. And we’re not in that position now. We had an ability, that I think we lack now, to set an agenda for ourselves say, ‘as a paper we’re mission-driven in this, that and the other.’”
To cut costs, Potter got rid of all the paper’s columns (“that function of alt-weeklies has gone by the wayside,” he says), figuring money would be better spent on reported pieces—like an exposé on the Pittsburgh-based for-profit college company Education Management Company, a billion-dollar firm that was posting huge revenues largely comprised of government-funded student loans.
Potter doesn’t see alt weeklies as central to the identity of a city or region as they were in the 1980s and ‘90s. “I think that existential mission as I originally encountered it, there are other places you can find that too.
“There are times when you have to do a story about artisanal ice cubes—I’m not making this up—and I’m thinking, ‘This is not what I signed up for. I don’t want to pay $14 for a goddamn cocktail.’
“I don’t know where this ends up. I don’t know where this paper is in five years. I don’t think anybody knows where their paper is in five years. I’m just going to play out this dream as best I can, and just try to find stories and people getting pushed around. If it all comes to an end today, I would like to leave something behind besides … yet another cutting-edge, paradigm-shifting cocktail bar. I’d like it to be about something more than that.”
BELT’S QUICK GUIDE
TO ALT-WEEKLY HISTORY
|Paper||Fifth Estate||Scene||Edition||City Paper||CityBeat|
|Founded How||By a 17-year-old in his parents’ basement.||By a gas station owner with a loan from his dad.||“I saw someone with a New York magazine T-shirt. I thought, ‘What publication in Cleveland would I want the T-shirt of? None.’”||By a Christmas tree farm and dating hotline magnate, to compete with a paper that wouldn’t take dating-hotline ads.||“If Nashville can do this, so can we.”|
|Coverage of the Detroit riots in 1967.||“Comrades in Crime,” an expose on an East Side computer smuggling ring.||Roldo Bartimole’s columns hammering away at the sin tax for Gateway.||Rich Lorde’s series on subprime mortgage lending in the early 2000s; for-profit art school investigation.||Coverage of police misconduct that culminated in the 2001 riots.|
|National Guardsmen threw hand grenade through their office window.||A 1999 cover story on swingers with racy art drew a torrent of hate mail.||Readers sent in money in a last-ditch effort to try and save the paper.||City officials yanked the paper off their press release list and then denied that they did it.||Letter writing campaign to Kroger by right-to-lifers who didn’t want CityBeat near their produce.|
|Current Status||Same ownership since the beginning.||After 15 years of out of town owners, now back in local hands.||Closed and resurrected twice. Lid nailed on the coffin in 1992.||Since 1998, owned by Steel City Media, which also owns classic rock and light FM radio stations. “We have the worst hold music in the world.”||Sold in 2012 to a Nashville-based alt-weekly company.|
(Dead or Alive)
|Creem, Metro Times||Alternative Press||Free Times,
Buddhist Third Class
(published by poet D.A. Levy)
|In Pittsburgh||Everybody’s News|
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review supported taxpayer funding of new sports facilities in Pittsburgh in the 1990. Only the Post-Gazette took a pro-stadium editorial stance.