Cityview’s Switch to a Monthly a Sign of the Alt-Weekly’s Sad Decline

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Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Shane Goodman, owner and publisher of Des Moines alternative weekly Cityview, announced last Wednesday that his newspaper would no longer run each week and instead be revamped as a monthly magazine. Although the reason for the switch-up was financial (alt-weeklies, like their daily counterparts, have been hit hard by the print industry’s decline), Goodman put an optimistic spin on the news. He wrote that “you will see a new and improved monthly edition on the stands and online starting Aug. 11. It will continue to have much of the content you have come to know and love, but it will also have a number of new features and will be printed on glossy and high-bright stock paper, in a larger format, with more pages — in both print and digital formats” — that will publish on the first Thursday of every month as opposed to every Wednesday.

“Times have changed in the past 25 years, and they most certainly will continue to do so,” Goodman explained, adding that his publication planned to start focusing more on higher-income readers: “We know that readers want even more of our alternative style of reporting, but we also recognize that advertisers’ needs are changing. They want glossy paper stock. They want to reach higher-income demographics. They want digital editions and social media connections. And they don’t see the need to advertise on a weekly basis like they once did. With advertising as our sole source of revenue, we need to do all we can to accommodate these needs, or we won’t survive the next 25 years.”

(The Association for Alternative Newsmedia describes the qualities that its member publications, which include Cityview, supposedly share: “an intense focus on local news, culture and the arts; an informal and sometimes profane style; an emphasis on point-of-view reporting and narrative journalism; a tolerance for individual freedoms and social differences; and an eagerness to report on issues and communities that many mainstream media outlets ignore.” The description concludes that “AAN members speak truth to power.”)

A “2016 media kit” recently distributed by Cityview to potential advertisers in the Des Moines area and obtained by the Informer (read it in full at the end of this article), which includes Goodman’s letter, sheds more light on the publication’s plans. On another page, focused on advertising and readership, the media kit says, “A varying number of copies are mailed to complete neighborhoods with some of the highest home values in the area, allowing for in-home reach to this highly desired demographic.” Cityview’s current distribution reach, the page estimates, is more than 35,000 copies, with a monthly readership of 70,000 (in his letter, Goodman put the figure at 70,000 a week). “Its targeted distribution allows for saturated home delivery to many of the area’s highest income households on a rotating basis but also makes it available to everyone at any time in high-traffics [sic] locations,” the page says. A page about digital and social media efforts adds that 75 percent of the publication’s readers have an annual income of at least $50,000.

“With this testosterone-driven approach comes occasional static from some females about not having enough news for women.”

But on a page featuring the monthly publication’s advertising rates, the media kit stresses the publication’s interest in inclusiveness. “Cityview is written for people of all ages, backgrounds, races, sexes and experiences,” it says. “It showcases Des Moines and the metro area in a real way featuring not only the people, places and events that you know, but the ones that we think you should get to know, too. Our stories provide unique historical perspectives from people who have been here to experience them.”

In his letter, Goodman wrote that from its launch in 1992, well before he became involved 12 years later, Cityview has “pushed the envelope — sometimes too far, sometimes not far enough.” Since he took over, a more accurate description might be that, for years now, the paper has exercised baffling editorial judgement, dabbling in sexism, transphobia, conspiracy theories, and the brazenly unethical reporting of a prominent rape case.

In 2010, Goodman published a controversial article criticized as “appalling” and lacking “logic, research or intellectual honesty” by Rekha Basu, a columnist at the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register, which typically doesn’t even bother to acknowledge Cityview’s existence (the paper did report on the announcement of the switch to the monthly format). “Newspapers, especially corporate-owned dailies, have become more feminine, and that is quite obvious in the pages of the local Gannett daily,” Goodman wrote. “As reporters spend more time writing about the hot colors of throw pillows and less time investigating crime at city hall, it creates opportunities for papers like this one. But with this testosterone-driven approach comes occasional static from some females about not having enough news for women.” In the media kit, a page talking up 12 editorial staffers and contributing writers — including Chad Taylor, a music writer who is leaving the paper — includes no women.

On another page, the media kit does feature four account executives who are all women. A fifth was featured in Cityview’s final weekly issue, dated July 21-27 — as one of three bikini-clad models for the paper’s sixth annual swimsuit edition. (Unlike past editions, this year’s features no male models despite that, according to a recent survey by the Circulation Verification Council distributed with the media kit and embedded below, 49 percent of the paper’s readers and 51 percent of its “market demographics” are women.)

Goodman’s letter announcing the switch to the monthly format made no mention of women, as a result notably omitting a prominent former employee: Amber Williams, a reporter at the paper who was promoted to managing editor in the fall of 2012 despite having penned a cover story the previous year sympathizing with a 9/11 truther. As editor, she continued to embrace conspiracy theories, falsely suggesting that vaccines can cause autism and Des Moines water fluoridation is hazardous to human health while misquoting Martin Luther King Jr. in a separate article criticizing others as “dangerously naive.” (Williams later took a job as editor of the Dallas County News after it was purchased by GateHouse Media along with the Ames Tribune, and now works as a contributing writer and designer for Des Moines Catholic Worker House newspaper Via Pacis.)

In his letter, Goodman claimed that under his direction, Cityview’s “unique content included the expansion of news to cover more politics, crime, music, film, theater, sports, television, technology, books, dining and nightlife.” But far from spending more time digging into corruption at city hall, the sort of investigative political reporting that’s long been a hallmark of alt-weeklies is now all but nonexistent at Cityview. Instead, most of the publication’s cover stories are fluff — often self-promotional fluff about events like the beer and martini festivals it hosts every year, or its reader surveys of the city’s sexiest people — more akin to a superficially edgier version of the substance-free lifestyle magazines like Ames Living that Goodman also publishes (and blankets central Iowa mailboxes with whether residents want them or not) than a proper alt-weekly like City Pages in Minneapolis or the Chicago Reader or, long ago, Cityview itself. When it has recently tried its hand at serious reporting, it’s failed badly, for example when an otherwise sympathetic story about the troubles transgender people face with public restrooms was accompanied by a tasteless 3D rendering of a trans woman at a urinal dressed up like a hooker with a skimpy dress only partially covering her ass on the issue’s cover.

“Goodman has built something very good out of something that wasn’t very good, and I think his company will continue to grow and prosper.”

The front page of Cityview’s media kit shows a mockup of the first monthly issue, which promotes a summer arts and entertainment guide and other articles including one about local residents who have struck it rich on TV game shows but nothing even vaguely resembling hard news coverage. An advertising calendar in the media kit (which says the August issue will feature a fall, not a summer, arts and entertainment guide) has bullet-point lists of the publication’s monthly ad features, including wedding guides in January, April, August, and October; car care guides in March and October; “patios” in June, July, and August; the swimsuit issue in July; and a party planning guide in November alongside the annual Des Moines’ Sexiest feature.

Cityview isn’t entirely devoid of political coverage, and its media kit notes this on the page featuring the 12 editorial staffers and contributing writers. Douglas Burns, who writes a regular political column, is one of them. He also publishes the Carroll Daily Times Herald, a small-town daily that, like Cityview, is independently owned but, unlike Cityview, has established itself as one of the best newspapers in the state whose reporting typically dominates its fellow small-circulation publications at the Iowa Newspaper Association’s annual awards banquet. By contrast, Cityview hasn’t been recognized by the Association for Alternative Newsmedia’s annual AltWeekly Awards program since 2002, two years before Goodman’s arrival, when it received an honorable mention for editorial layout.

The most prominent among the Cityview writers is Michael Gartner, the longtime journalist, Iowa Cubs owner, and former Iowa Board of Regents president who writes the popular Civic Skinny column and co-owned Cityview parent company Big Green Umbrella Media with Goodman until last year. But even Gartner isn’t immune to the publication’s editorial malpractice. In seven separate columns, Gartner named the woman who was allegedly raped by former Iowa State University basketball player Bubu Palo and his friend and fellow Ames High graduate Spencer Cruise (nearly all journalists avoid naming possible victims of sexual assault). The criminal case against the two men was dropped over a technicality but the case wound up in civil court; after university sexual misconduct sanctions against Palo were tossed out by an appeals court, Gartner titled a Civic Skinny column “It’s final: Bubu Palo didn’t rape [the woman],” backing up his definitive statement about the far-from-clear situation by selectively quoting from a prior decision by an administrative law judge who wrote that from “an objective review of the situation” — specifically, non-sexual text messages between the woman and Palo earlier in the night — “this was just another ‘hook up.’” The judge also concluded that Palo had consensual sex with the woman immediately after Cruise raped her, leaving her traumatized — a detail Gartner conveniently omitted.

“[Goodman] has built something very good out of something that wasn’t very good, and I think his company will continue to grow and prosper,” Gartner told the Register after the announcement about Cityview’s switch to the monthly format under the person responsible for running the paper into the ground, in a feeble attempt at revisionist history. “I suspect this is a smart move, and I’m all for it.”

 

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.