This weekend, the Tucson Weekly is hosting the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Yes, for all you haters out there, Tucson has shown itself capable of attracting somebody other than the Jehovah's Witnesses during the summer.
You're probably wondering what such a gathering would look like. If you see a bunch of people who look like a renaissance fair collided with Woodstock, where the women resemble what Janis Joplin would look like today (dead or alive), and the men look like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (or at just about any other stage of his life), that's not the AAN convention; that's the Fourth Avenue Street Fair.
I've been told by my esteemed editor that the people at these things look and act surprisingly normal-ish. In calculus terms, they approach normal as a limit. For better or worse, they're pretty much mainstream. They don't drive cars made out of hemp. Most of them never took Ron Paul seriously. And many of them will only claim to be vegetarian if they happen to be attracted to a woman with armpit hair.
However, being normal-ish, they also fall prey to normal human emotions. After battling the grey ladies in their respective towns for decades, they now find themselves watching as, one by one, the once-great dailies (sadly) blink out of existence, their ownership muttering something about how maybe trying to maintain a 40 percent profit margin wasn't such a good idea.
Now, their innate competitiveness is being turned against one another. They'd probably deny it, but I'm guessing that, deep down, they're constantly trying to see who can out-alternative the others. As they stroll through the JW Marriott Starr Pass this week, they'll be eyeballing each other and thinking, "I'm way more alternative than that dude."
My editor is a gay ex-Mormon. That alone should allow him to pimp through the convention like Kramer wearing that velvet trench coat. You don't get any more alternative than that.
I've always been a big fan of alternative papers. My first experience was with the old Los Angeles Free Press, the one with Ron Cobb as the cartoonist. I picked up a copy once, opened it up and saw an ad that read:
"SAAB: The No-Bullshit Car."
I thought, "Wow, how cool, a newspaper that will print the word 'Saab.'"
It burned brightly and then flamed out, but other papers around the country popped up, carved out a niche and then served their local readerships well.
I'll admit I was a bit surprised by the success of the Phoenix New Times. I mean, really, Phoenix? How many times can they run a cover story on "The Great Stucco Debate?"
But the New Times has done a great job of covering Arizona's arcane politics, where the cynic and the bumpkin join hands and attempt to march back into the first half of the 20th century, when things were much simpler. It's an absolute hoot watching the New Times butt heads with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The Meskin'-hating Arpaio may very well be the most popular public figure in the entire state, a fact that sends the New Times people up the wall. (And, settling the argument once and for all, more often than not, it is a stucco wall.)
The AAN Web site has a list of its member publications. Some of the newspaper names are generic, others esoteric. Some cities have more than one alternative paper. Boston, for example, has the Phoenix and the Weekly Dig. That's when you know you've arrived as an alternative paper, when you're so big that somebody feels the need to provide an alternative to the alternative.
Among the other papers listed are:
• The Georgia Straight. They probably wouldn't hire my editor. This paper is actually in Vancouver, British Columbia, which borders the Strait of Georgia. Those zany Canadians really put a lot of effort into their puns.
• Eugene Weekly. I think I played ball with that guy in college. He would rather pass a kidney stone than a basketball.
• Isthmus, in Madison, Wis. Who would name a paper after the hardest word in the English language to say out loud? Every time you say it, you spit on yourself and/or others.
• Salt Lake City Weekly. An alternative paper in Salt Lake City?! What do they do, publish the Mass times at the Catholic church? (Actually, they have this really nice, big Catholic church up on a hill near downtown. My daughter and I attended Easter Mass there when she was playing volleyball for Cornell.) I went to the Salt Lake City Weekly Web site, and it says, "Having carved a large niche of young, affluent, and educated Utahns ... ." They're called "Utahns?" Can you say that without exhaling for 12 seconds? I feel like Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains, trying to say his name, Dr. Hfuhruhurr.
Anyway, alt-folks, welcome to Tucson. Enjoy the sunsets; hand out a few awards; then get back to work, because you're the last, best line of defense against both the powers that be and the attention-span-deficit knuckleheads who think that Twitter is a form of communication, and that blogging somehow advances the human race.