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Having our cake…

… and eating it, too

Celebrate Cityview’s 15th anniversary at Brewfest

By Andrew Brink, Sean J. Miller and Michael Swanger

It seems like yesterday when the first issue of Cityview rolled off the presses and hit the streets, forever changing the landscape of the Des Moines media market and providing the public with a much-needed alternative news source. Then again, you know what people say about time when you’re having fun.

Fifteen years might not seem like a long time to some, but relatively speaking in the short history of the alternative press, Cityview has proven itself to be a survivor. Over the years, we’ve experienced our share of growing pains, from changes in personnel, publishers and content, to cutthroat tactics by our competitors — many of which have come and gone over the years. But we’ve weathered the storms and will continue to do so.

Of course, we’ve had our share of triumphs, too. We’re especially proud of the stories that have created positive changes. From breaking scandalous political news, to reporting hilarious celebrity skinny and exposing crooks (white collar and blue collar), to playing the role of media watchdog, showing taxpayers where their dollars go and being the definitive source for cultural coverage, more than 75,000 loyal readers look to us every week for information they won’t find anywhere in Greater Des Moines.

Most important, Cityview has experienced unprecedented growth in the past two years since being purchased by Big Green Umbrella Media — no easy fete for a locally-owned independent publication that has to battle national corporate giants like Gannett and their upstart niche products. Sixty-four pages is now our weekly average page count thanks to an increase in advertising and editorial content — more than twice the average number of pages found in Cityview’s first 13 years — and the paper can now be found at more locations than ever before while enjoying its highest pick-up rates on the racks.

Along the way, our market surveys show that as Cityview has grown over the years, so has the scope of our readership. Though the paper continues to attract young audiences, there are just as many, if not more, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers — and, dare we say, some older empty nesters — that read Cityview each week. As you’ll read later in the story, it’s a trend most alternative newspapers experience as more and more people rely less and less on traditional daily newspapers.

Speaking of tradition, crystal is the time-honored 15th anniversary gift, but since we’re unconventional, we’ll settle for cake… and beer. On Saturday, we’re hosting the first-ever Cityview Brewfest at el Bait Shop in downtown Des Moines. We’ve partnered with the downtown bar and SRO Productions to throw a birthday bash that includes dozens of beers and live music [see sidebar for details]. Come join the fun and celebrate our 15th anniversary. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Join me, Skywalker

A period of transformation in Des Moines’ media landscape started in 1981 when Connie Wimer founded Business Publications Corp. “I was very new in publishing at the time — I was pretty naïve,” she says. “The one thing I knew from the beginning is that your content has to be compelling.”

Wimer says her commitment to publishing worthwhile stories is what led Dave Carlson to approach her with an offer to sell her his start-up newspaper, The Skywalker. Carlson had founded the by-weekly paper in 1983, which then consisted of 12 pages of content that included an advice column called “Miss Manners,” crossword puzzles and stories that focused on the clerks and secretaries who worked downtown.

Carlson was concerned his paper would be turned into an advertising flier, Wimer says. “So he brought it to me thinking I would keep it as a regular newspaper, and I did.” In 1983, Wimer took control of The Skywalker when a new trend in publishing started to emerge nationally. “The alternative newspapers around the country were starting to thrive at that point,” she says. “It was the big move in publishing, just like online is now.”

Wimer tried to replicate some of the content the new alternative weeklies were publishing. “I watched very carefully and we would periodically try different things,” she says. One of the things she experimented with was allowing her editors leeway to give the paper some character. “The different editors all had their own touches,” she says. Arthur Orduna was one of the editors she remembers most. “He could make people cry with his columns,” Wimer says.

But some of the explicit language or confrontational tones used by alternative weeklies in cities like San Francisco or Chicago didn’t work in Des Moines, she says. “Some people think Des Moines is conservative now, but it was far more conservative then.” But after a decade of owning The Skywalker, Wimer says she was ready to transform the paper. She started with an in-house contest to change the name of the paper. “Several [of the suggestions] started with ‘city’ and several started with ‘view,’ so I just combined them,” she says.

The first edition of Cityview hit the racks in July 1992. “The publication and the audience grew together,” Wimer says. Despite it’s popularity, Cityivew was never as successful as some of her company’s other publications, she says. “Cityview was never a star financially, by any means. But I thought it was good for the city.

“I look for a need in the community when I start a publication,” Wimer says. “There is a need for an alternative [weekly] in Des Moines.”

Demand for alternative weeklies around the country continues to remain strong, says Jim Kennedy, vice president of audit services at the Circulation Verification Council, an independent newspaper monitoring service based in St. Louis, Mo. Daily newspapers, however, are struggling to compete with new online publications, Kennedy says. “The trends over the last few years have been downward.” Daily newspapers are seeing a drop of 2-4 percent in their subscription counts per year, he says. Part of the reason for the drop is that daily newspapers require a “time commitment,” and readers have more available sources of news and information.

The impending death of newspapers, however, has been greatly exaggerated, he says. Readers “can go to the Web for a quick hit, but they want something they can carry with them in their hand, something they can go back to.”

In-between a shout and a whisper

Cityview is a member of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), a group comprised of 125 alternative weekly papers that reach an audience of more than 25 million readers in the United States and Canada. The AAN, which includes papers as diverse as The Chicago Reader, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Maui Time Weekly reserves membership for papers that can meet its strict standards, including demonstrating they can produce first-rate journalism.

“The role of an alt-weekly is to provide an alternative to the mainstream press in terms of news coverage and cultural coverage,” says Richard Karpel, executive director of AAN, based in Washington, D.C. “Every alt-weekly sees themselves first in relation to a daily newspaper and what stories they aren’t telling. Alt-weeklies started their heyday 30 years ago, when there was no cable, no Internet. So that’s part of the crucible out of which a lot of these papers were formed. They see themselves doing things differently.”

Karpel says papers like Cityview can be more responsive than the mainstream media to a community’s needs. “When you have a paper like The Des Moines Register, it’s a huge institution that has to deal with certain things an alt-weekly can ignore. [Cityview] can ignore what the mainstream covers, like the mayor’s press conference,” Karpel says. “At the same time, it can write about issues that are often ignored, like what it’s like for the poor to live in the city or what’s really happening on the weekend scene.”

Cityview’s publisher Shane Goodman views the paper as providing a weekly menu of food for thought. “I want whatever we publish to be an intelligent read,” he says. “We want to provide information that challenges traditional thought patterns. Over the years, Cityview has been viewed in different ways. The paper has gotten away from offering sophomoric opinion. Some people find humor in cutting others down or ridiculing them in print. But I don’t see the need for that. When we bought the paper, we wanted it to be a responsible news source. So we coined a mission statement for the newsroom: ‘more facts, less fucks.’”

Goodman, along with business partner Michael Gartner, former editor of The Des Moines Register, purchased Cityview from Connie Wimer in 2005. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Connie and what she did,” Goodman says. “Des Moines needed an alternative weekly, but Des Moines wasn’t ready for one. She tested the waters and took a beating early on, but helped take us to where we are today.”

But as alt-weeklies continue to act as promoters of culture and agents of social change — Cityview’s own mission statement reads: “an agent of change raising social, moral and political issues to increase community awareness and action” — Karpel says they are struggling against more than just the mainstream press to reach readers.

“Generally, audiences are getting older,” he says. “Some cities, like Pittsburgh, are getting older than others, and each newspaper has to deal with that. And the Internet is a challenge. Each paper has to make sure they are using it the right way in terms of making it work in concert with your paper.

“But people talk about the death of print media, which isn’t the case. In New York City, Boston and Chicago, an incredible number of niche publications now exist that didn’t years ago. Alt-weeklies used to be the niche publication. We are now being out-niched by shoppers, classifieds and entertainment [guides]. There’s just a lot more out there. This used to be our turf, and it’s been difficult to defend.”

Another addition to the turf are what Karpel calls “faux-alt” weekly papers, published by large media companies and targeted at youth, like Juice, published in Des Moines by Gannett. Gannett has also launched nearly identical faux-alts in other markets, with names as pointless as Juice — Noise in Lansing, Mich., Velocity in Louisville, Ky., and All the Rage in Nashville, Tenn.

“My sense is that overall, [faux-alts] are not doing well. But this doesn’t surprise me,” Karpel says. “Those papers are hatched in marketing departments, and papers don’t do well when they are started by marketing departments. It’s hard for a company like Gannett to let go, but you need to let go to make a weekly work.

“Plus these papers tend to go after younger people. The trend is clear — younger people go to the Internet and spend less time with newsprint. The younger the age, the more integral the Internet is to their lives. These papers are a bad idea started at a bad time. Having said that, Gannett doesn’t break out their financials.”

Goodman says that to understand the future of Cityview, one needs to understand the future of its competition. “Our editorial content differs greatly from Juice, yet they have sought out our advertisers. But we know what we want to do and we are going to do it,” Goodman says.

“When I worked for The Des Moines Register in advertising sales just out of college, I worked with all the local Ford dealers. Each dealer wanted to know what Charles Gabus Ford was doing for advertising. But Mr. Gabus never once asked what the competition was doing. And that’s the approach we’ve taken.”

According to Goodman, Cityview is looking good at 15. “Fifteen years is a long time to do anything. The bottom line is that our pickup rate is higher than ever, we have more advertisers than ever, higher page counts and we are turning a profit. That’s how I know what we are doing is working. You can put out a good news publication without sophomoric trash or filled with photos of young people drinking in bars and grow it.”

Michael Gartner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for his work at The Daily Tribune in Ames in 1997 and co-owns the Iowa Cubs, remains a minority investor in Cityview.

“Every community needs an alternative source of news from the established newspaper,” Gartner says. “They keep an eye on issues that for one reason or another aren’t reported on.

“They also provide a fuller complement of information that is particularly important to the 18-35 demographic, as well as people involved in political and civic affairs.”

Gartner says alt-weeklies can vary from the scatological type, which is usually a name caller and filled with commentary, to ones that are straightforward newspapers.

“Cityview comes in-between. It has evolved into being the center between the shouters and the whisperers. And I think that’s why it’s successful in terms of respect.”

Gartner recalls a recent evening at Principal Park, where the man sitting next to him pointed out someone sitting in the third row reading Cityview while the game was in full swing.

“I’m proud to be associated with it. It’s evolved into what it should be for this market and time.” CV

Drink up at Cityview’s Brewfest

On Saturday, music will play, food will fry and beer will flow as Cityview celebrates 15 years of reporting local news and entertainment, digging up dirt and, of course, adding some colorful commentary. And what better way to commemorate Cityview’s dedication to life in Greater Des Moines than to go out with the people who live it and throw back a cold beer or two.

To celebrate our 15th anniversary, Cityview has partnered with SRO Productions and el Bait Shop to bring the first-ever Cityview Brewfest to life. From 3 to 8 p.m. Cityview Brewfest will be serving over 100 varieties of the best domestic, micro-brewed and imported beers available at el Bait Shop (200 S.W. 2nd St. in downtown Des Moines). El Bait Shop will also provide food and live music by local groups Mr. Baber’s Neighbors and Dr. Gonzo.

Steve Madson of SRO Productions has been organizing a similar festival in St. Paul, Minn., for 15 years and says he has wanted to partner with Cityview to bring Brewfest to Des Moines.

“There is a tremendous interest in beer and especially in sampling it,” Madson says. “There are some great but expensive beers that people like to sample before they buy.”

Brewfest isn’t the first beer festival to be held in Des Moines and won’t be the last if one of the owners of the el Bait Shop can help it. Co-owner Jeff Bruning hopes to revive Des Moines’ tradition of beer festivals that ended with the last Heartland Brew Festival about four years ago.

“It just made sense for us to host Brewfest because we carry over 500 different beers companywide,” Bruning says. “Brewfest will give people a chance to taste and try and break out of their shells. We hope to get it off its feet this year and have it for many years to come.”

As if music, food and beer weren’t already reasons enough to attend Cityview Brewfest, a portion of the event’s proceeds will benefit Young Variety of Des Moines, a group that works to better the lives of disadvantaged children. Tickets are $20 in advance through, by calling 277-3727 and at el Bait Shop, or $25 at the door. An $8 designated driver ticket is also available. CV — Emily Garrett

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