IN AD DOLLAR SHOOTOUT, IT'S PRESS AGAINST PLASTIC
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif -- "San Pedro Magazine" is the name of an advertising supplement published by the Press-Telegram, a newspaper published in San Pedro's neighboring city of Long Beach. "More San Pedro" is the name of a different, soon-to-be-published, advertising supplement, the brainchild of another local newspaper, the Daily Breeze, published in another neighboring city, Torrance. Each publication is an example of what has evidently come to be the latest rage in the newspaper world, the monthly advertiser.
San Pedro Magazine has been coming out for almost a year. More San Pedro is expected to commence publication this month. So far, only a prototype edition of More San Pedro has been seen, but it is quite similar to San Pedro Magazine in layout and appearance. Neither is much to look at. Both come with a slick color cover and have inside pages printed on paper slightly above newsprint in quality.
There is a decided lack of controversial material in San Pedro Magazine and the same should be expected of More San Pedro. Each concentrates on wholesome local news dropped deftly into a vast sea of advertisements. San Pedro Magazine features half-page photo montages of local personalities, business leaders and politicians alongside feature articles on local businesses and port history.
Here is an excerpt from the contents page of the September, 2003 San Pedro Magazine: "The Buzz: San Pedrans on Football; Happenings: From the Lions Club Downhill Race to the Lobster Fest, This Month's Events; Locals Only: Theodora Kurkchiev; Pedro Pups: SPHS Students Study in Japan; Health & Fitness: Why Men Don't Visit the Doctor."
You get the idea.
There is no daily newspaper indigenous to San Pedro itself, but it does have an independent biweekly, Random Lengths (for those of you just dying of curiosity, the name Random Lengths comes from a description for one sort of lumber that was shipped down the coast back in the old days).
Random Lengths is every inch an alternative newspaper as the term is commonly understood. In practice, this means that it is highly critical of Republicans and President Bush, treats local industry - in this case the Port of Los Angeles - as the target for crusading editorials and articles, has a decidedly left wing cast of writers and editors, and has been almost entirely negative in its coverage of the military campaign in Iraq.
Random lengths also opens its pages to articles submitted by local people (disclosure: this includes a couple of mine, one involving the creation of the citywide neighborhood council system, the other on proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). These are the titles of just some of the articles published in the latest Random Lengths: "Beyond 9-11: forging Foreign Policy by Hand; Recalling History: The Progressive Roots of California's Recall Law; Port of Los Angeles Names Chief Harbor Engineers; Public Lands in Private Hands: The Missing Piece of the Waterfront Puzzle." Very little in the Random Lengths is entirely non-controversial.
In terms of editorial positions, content and tone, Random Lengths and the advertising supplements have almost nothing in common. It was therefore noteworthy that the longtime publisher of Random Lengths, James P. Allen, took a decidedly belligerent tone towards San Pedro Magazine and More San Pedro in an editorial published this week. Allen described the organizations behind the Press-Telegram (owned by Dean Singleton) and the Daily Breeze (a Copley newspaper) as "staunchly Republican, solidly anti-union and historically compromised by their corporate advertisers."
Allen continued, "They pay no employee taxes here, probably don't even have a business license here, and pay nothing in property or sales taxes to support local schools or government." (More disclosure: the Daily Breeze has published three of my opinion pieces on its editorial pages and has paid me a total of $50 compensation - they haven't yet paid me for the third.)
Allen then praised his own newspaper because it "has stood with this community, heralded its causes and fought its battles publicly and with courage. Where the corporate media has become lax in their obligations in the exercise of their Constitutional franchise, Random Lengths has and will continue to defend free speech protections for all in this community, regardless of rank or position."
And so on.
This is all quite a battle cry to carry against what are, after all, a couple of content-poor advertising supplements. Perhaps we can infer a little about what is going on here as we consider the final words of Allen's editorial: "After 24 years we are still the only newspaper actually published in Pedro. Think about it when Torrance comes knocking on your door."
What is James Allen so concerned about? We can speculate.
Random Lengths is an alternative newspaper politically and culturally, but it depends on local advertiser revenue to continue. The recent issue contains ads for surfboards, doors and windows, the antique stove store, plumbers and window installers, furniture and appliance and clothing stores and all manner of restaurants.
There are only so many people living in the immediate area, and there are only so many advertisers. It is all from the same shallow well that Random Lengths, San Pedro Magazine and More San Pedro will be extracting advertising dollars. Small businesses have only so many advertising dollars to spend and there is going to be a lot more competition to win those dollars in the local market. It's the old story of Wal-mart coming to town in competition with old-line businesses, only here the industry is journalism.
San Pedro Magazine is in every way a corporate creation: well capitalized, professionally produced, and utterly lacking in character and higher purpose. More San Pedro can only be more of the same. At a meeting with local merchants and community leaders, staffers for the new magazine described how excited they were about their new creation even as they explained how they were going to fill the void in local student sports coverage.
Random Lengths is a grizzled, eccentric old warrior, replete with typos, tendentious articles, and an occasional willingness to go a little over the top in the paranoia sweepstakes but it is does have substance. Its writers and editors may be overly suspicious of our national policies and a bit lacking in tact, but we know where they stand. One writer even referred to yours truly as "a beefy fellow with a grand vocabulary." I don't know if I can live up to the vocabulary part, but you have to love a paper that says things with this kind of style.
Back in the 1960s, an old word was appropriated as slang for things new, artificial, and lacking in substance: "plastic." It is an entirely appropriate description of new advertising supplements appearing not only in San Pedro but all around the country.
Still, there is a use for plastic, and the advertising supplements fill a niche in terms of noncontroversial local human interest stories, something that the dailies and the alternative weeklies do poorly. The danger is that they will choke off advertising revenues to publications with more serious intent.
It is not a question of style vs. substance, or Left vs. Right, or local vs corporate. It is a question of money: How many advertising dollars are available to go around, and where they are going to go? The answer may determine the fate of Random Lengths and its kin.