Into the Future
October 21, 2016
Berl Schwartz began a traditional journalism career 50 years ago as a copy boy at his hometown daily, the Toledo Blade.
He began an alternative journalism career 15 years ago as founder and publisher of Lansing’s weekly City Pulse, although he’d gotten his feet wet in high school when he started an alternative newspaper dubbed The Machete as a counterweight to the official student rag, The Tomahawk.
In between were encounters with Mohammad Ali, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Ted and Bobby Kennedy, W. Averill Harriman, Noam Chomsky, Alice Cooper, Fats Domino, Helen Thomas, Billy Joel and Margaret Mead, among other celebs, newsmakers and American cultural icons.
Schwartz recently talked about his half-century in journalism, including the decade and a half in alternative journalism, at a Historical Society of Greater Lansing event and in two interviews with me.
But Schwartz’s story is more than a geographic roadmap that landed him in Lansing via Philadelphia, Louisville, Washington, Knoxville, York (Pennsylvania) and finally Oklahoma. It was while teaching at the University of Oklahoma that he “gave up on mainstream journalism” and headed to Michigan to become general manager of the State News, the independent student daily at MSU.
His story gives rise to questions about the evolving role of alternative news media at a time when many mainstream U.S. news organizations are struggling to stay afloat. Mainstream organizations are resorting to such survival tactics as chopping staffs, eliminating print editions and sharing newsrooms with competitors. Some get sold to companies that know as much about journalistic excellence and journalism’s mission as, say, they know about running sauerkraut factories.
City Pulse is among the few surviving Michigan’s high-caliber alternative papers such as Northern Express in Traverse City and Detroit Metro Times in Ferndale. Others have come and gone.
Schwartz started City Pulse in 2001, but the roots of alternative newspapers in Michigan’s capital region reach back to the Vietnam War, student unrest and civil rights era. In a 2011 Domegazine.com column, I wrote about East Lansing’s first underground newspaper, The Paper, founded in 1965. Its mission and that of similar grassroots endeavors, I wrote, was “to fill information voids, to provide forums for alternative voices, the voices of people whose views were suppressed or ignored by mainstream commercial media.”
That description still fits. Thus City Pulse’s self-label as “a paper for the rest of us.”
Thus the paper’s coverage of social and political issues in Lansing and its close-in neighbors. Even with that focus, Schwartz observes, “we don’t do enough to look out for less advantaged people but we do a better job than anyone else in the market.”
City Pulse has riled an array of local and state officials, as illustrated by Mayor Virg Bernero’s on-again, off-again willingness to talk to the paper, a bevy of freedom of information requests to public agencies reluctant to make things public and in-depth coverage — often not flattering — of the inner workings of government agencies and their officials.
And while its geographic scope is small, Schwartz stresses that “local” isn’t the same as “parochial.”
On the financial front, “it was tough and still is tough,” he says. It took about four years before City Pulse — which is distributed free and is supported solely by advertising — turned a profit. It’s continued to break even or run in the black every year but one since then, even during the Recession.
So how does a free alternative newspaper — in print and online — survive in the face of the difficulties facing traditional media and amid a proliferation of free content? One strategy is providing a mix of content that’s like a tripod, divided evenly among arts and entertainment, news and events. “If we remove only one of those elements, we’d fail,” he says.
Then there are the readers who tend to be well-educated (84 percent with bachelor’s or graduate degrees), upper income (almost 60 percent from households with annual income of $50,000 or more) and skewing left politically (54 percent are self-described as liberal or progressive, and only 10 percent as conservative.)
He says, “They can at least tolerate liberal politics.”
At the 50-years-a-journalist mark, Schwartz has been looking a lot at the past, but what does he see as the future for alternative media like City Pulse?
“If they’re truly alternatives, I don’t think their mission will change much,” he responds. “That’s not too hard to do in Lansing. It may be harder in a big city with serious-sized newsrooms,” but even in such communities there’s “so much room to explore and go deeper than mainstream ones usually do.”
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.