Lisa Chamberlain is editor-in-chief of Cleveland Free Times, an alternative newspaper owned by New York-based Village Voice Media. She started at Cleveland Free Times in 1993 as an editorial assistant, and later became a staff writer. In November 1999, she was named editor-in-chief. Under her leadership, Cleveland Free Times has
won numerous awards, including 15 in the 2000 Ohio Excellence in Journalism
competition, sponsored by the Press Club of Cleveland. Last year the Cleaveland Free Times beat out all of Ohio's major dailies for "Best Single Editorial."
Chamberlain grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and received a bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of California, Davis. She spoke with JournalismJobs.com about the growing presence of alternative newspapers and how they compete with mainstream media.
Lisa Chamberlain: We do the stories that the other papers either can't or won't do. For example, we did a story about how the county prosecutor's sister-in-law was busted for drugs. The person she was busted with was indicted and convicted, but she wasn't even indicted. Other media knew about this, and elected not to do the story. I can only guess because they're too heavily invested in the value of authority, so that when the prosecutor's office says there wasn't enough evidence to indict her, they took that at face value and didn't even raise the obvious questions. Plus, it just so happens that all of the other news outlets rely on the prosecutor's office for juicy crime stories, and probably didn't want to risk burning that bridge. This is exactly why alternative media exist.
JournalismJobs.com: Alternative newspapers have won numerous awards and become more popular in the past 10 years. To what do you attribute its success?
Lisa Chamberlain: The most obvious reason is that mainstream media is so neutered, so buttoned down and so devoid of any personality, that people simply cannot relate to it. The writing is usually overly simplistic and sometimes just bad. The stories are so stripped down - due to space constraints, I assume - that sometimes you can't even really understand what's going on. Alternative papers are the opposite of that. Because we aren't the "paper of record," we can pick and choose what we report on, and do it well. Cover stories take six to eight weeks; they're in-depth, they're well-written, not just reported. They're supported with graphics, photos and illustrations. And we do this every week. When the dailies do this, it's a special report maybe once a month or so.
The other thing is, computer technology has enabled alternatives to not only proliferate, but to achieve a very professional quality. Just since the Free Times started in 1992, the difference is amazing.
JournalismJobs.com: Traditional media have criticized alternative papers for their reporting style, saying sometimes the stories are overreaching exaggerations. Is this a fair assessment?
Lisa Chamberlain: I'm sure sometimes stories are exaggerated, but that is hardly unique to alternative weeklies. Look at the mainstream coverage of Gary Condit before the terror attacks. Talk about overreaching. Actually, part of our job is to point out when the mainstream media have gone overboard. For example, earlier this year, there was a media feeding frenzy about a new drug, OxyContin. We did a cover story about how the use of this drug was wildly exaggerated by the mainstream media. This was a very important story, but unfortunately, sometimes you're swimming against a very powerful current.
JournalismJobs.com: Was there a particular story or movement that put alternative journalism on the map?
Lisa Chamberlain: Clearly, the granddaddy of alternative weeklies is the Village Voice. A particular story doesn't come to mind, but over the decades, as the Voice and other pioneering papers broke story after story that the mainstream press wouldn't touch, it became clear there are other viable media out there, digging deep for good stories.
JournalismJobs.com: Most alternative newspapers are free. Will this revenue model ever change?
Lisa Chamberlain: I doubt it. As the dot-coms found out, people just aren't willing to pay for content.
JournalismJobs.com: In some cities there are several alternative newspapers. Can all of them co-exist and thrive in the same market?
Lisa Chamberlain: It depends on the city. Large cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where multiple papers are going after the same demographic, they can co-exist and thrive. But in some of the mid-sized and smaller markets, I don't think they can. Cleveland is an example of a mid-sized market with two papers going after the same demographic. So long as one paper is willing to lose money, they can co-exist. Otherwise, something's going to give.
JournalismJobs.com: A lot of alternative journalism can be found online, such as at Salon.com and Slate.com. Has this affected your market share?
Lisa Chamberlain: Most alternative weeklies are so locally focused, that Salon and Slate don't really come into play. If anything, we benefit from cross-pollination. The greater awareness there is of alternative journalism, the more our work is recognized as legit.
JournalismJobs.com: Alternative papers have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Is it really fair to still refer to them as 'alternative.'
Lisa Chamberlain: The term "alternative" really has become a label more than a meaningful description. I think alternatives have changed for the better. We've grown up without losing our edge. We've become more professional without becoming stodgy. The more professional weeklies aren't quite so knee-jerk liberal anymore, but truly independent. But, if we weren't the "alternative," I don't know how we would be identified.
JournalismJobs.com: Some claim alternative newspaper publishers such as New Times and Village Voice Media are becoming chains, and are smaller versions of media giants Gannett and Knight Ridder. Do you agree, and can an alternative paper remain independent in voice if owned by a large corporation?
Lisa Chamberlain: Well, New Times and Village Voice Media are chains. There's no denying that. The question is, is being part of a chain necessarily bad? I don't think so. Once upon a time, Knight Ridder was considered a great place for journalists to work. As for the New Times and Village Voice Media, there are two distinct corporate cultures. New Times is very hierarchical, very controlling about how all of the papers look and read. It's the Starbucks of weeklies. The upside is, any city you go to that has a New Times paper, you know what you're going to get.
Village Voice Media is much more hands off. Their philosophy is, 'You know Cleveland, you know Minneapolis, you know Seattle, you know Nashville. We're not going to tell you want to do. We'll give you guidance, but so long as the business is healthy, we're going to let you do your thing.' That's the philosophy I'm most comfortable with. And the fact is, when the Free Times was a small, family-owned paper, we did the best we could, but we just didn't have the resources necessary to really kick ass. So it's the best of both worlds.
JournalismJobs.com: Most of your pieces are features or investigative pieces. Do you feel it's a disadvantage to operate as a weekly, as far as the dailies getting wind of your stories and running something before you do?
Lisa Chamberlain: It happens sometimes. But because we really are two different animals, even when it does happen, it's usually not a problem. Plus, we're very agile and can retool our coverage pretty quickly.
JournalismJobs.com: What's the future hold for alternative papers?
Lisa Chamberlain: Aside from the ups and downs of the economy, I expect alternative papers to continue to grow. I think you'll see more alternatives getting into other media like radio, TV and the Internet. A lot of headway was being made in this regard before the economy went downhill. Once it picks back up, those plans will begin to materialize.
JournalismJobs.com: Why did you pick alternative journalism over traditional media?
Lisa Chamberlain: With the exception of perhaps the biggest fish like the New York Times, The Washington Post, the New Yorker, alternative journalism is one of the last places left to do really in-depth, hard-hitting work. Even worse, corporate control of the major media (and to a much smaller degree, even alternative media) has taken the life out of most of the journalism that exists today. Forget about TV and radio. NPR is great, but it's pretty soft stuff. Local dailies are too burdened with being the newspaper of record to do anything in-depth on a regular basis. And daily paper publishers are usually on every corporate board in town, hampering the paper's ability to blow the lid off of anything. Lately it seems the best that dailies can do is advance a story day-by-day when a big event hits.
JournalismJobs.com: What do you love about being a journalist?
Lisa Chamberlain: Well, I changed my major in college about six times. Never once did journalism even occur to me. I was just truly interested in everything from genetics to anthropology to American fiction to U.S. foreign policy. So when I did my first story for the Free Times, I just loved discovering a whole new world in the process. And then I put fingers-to-keyboard and came up with a killer lede, even though I had never written a word for publication before, and I knew I had found my calling. Journalism is the most important, creative and fulfilling thing I can do.
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