Adelstein raps consolidation at IPA conference

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Consolidation of media rapped at indie confab

by Reyhan Harmanci, San Francisco Chronicle

The Independent Press Association Conference, as most conferences do, handed out name tags. And because those attending the Argonaut Hotel conference over the weekend came from various magazines, their tags reflected a dual identity, resulting in conversation starters like, "Hi, I'm Lisa from Bitch" or "So, Jen, what do you do at Clamor?"

The association, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to supporting independent publishers as the "antidote to media monopoly," held its fourth annual conference this past weekend, drawing more than 320 publications to the Fisherman's Wharf hotel and featuring speeches by Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, National Public Radio and Air America radio personality Laura Flanders, Barnes & Noble newsstand director Jaime Carey and venture capitalist Melissa Bradley. Registrants spent three days boning up on direct mailing, magazine design and -- the big subject -- distribution, or "distro," what all independent publishers need to get their product into stores.

A scan of the rows of people unpacking their box lunches for Friday's noon lecture revealed that, like owners and their dogs, people tended to look like their magazines. The man who writes for Jest was cracking jokes. The women in long white robes were from a spiritual rag. Rockrgrl Publisher Carla DeSantis had streaked blond hair and funky glasses. Which, in a way, was the point of the conference. As Antonia Blue, publisher of Oakland's Kitchen Sink magazine, put it, "We're here to give a face to our publications."

Said FCC Commissioner Adelstein at Friday's lunchtime lecture, "This past year has truly been the year for the independents. Independent media brings necessary new perspectives, and can change and shape opinions in important ways." Focusing on "the effects of media consolidation on democracy," Adelstein talked about the public's appetite "for a more nourishing media diet" in the face of the "McDonaldization of the media."

"Don't get me wrong," Adelstein said, "I love McDonald's, once in a while. But when you have to deal with so much homogenized, prepackaged, predigested . .." Adelstein paused as the audience chuckled, "uh, material, coming at you every day, you can get sick."

The timing of Adelstein's speech was fortuitous. Friday morning the Bush administration announced that it would not appeal a court decision that struck down the FCC's ruling to allow looser ownership rules across newspaper, television and radio markets. As Adelstein said later, "Today is a historic day, and I feel personally very gratified, since the third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals used parts of our dissenting opinion as the basis for their rejection of FCC policy."

Adelstein linked current issues, such as the Armstrong Williams payola scandal (in which a radio commentator was paid by the Bush administration to hype No Child Left Behind policies) and other breachings of editorial- advertising lines, to the broader problem of consolidation. "In the increasing quest for revenue, managers are under huge pressure from their bosses to perform, and that bottom-line pressure forces the commercialization of the news at the expense of truth."

For independent publications, working alone to break into the distribution and advertising channels of the mainstream media can be nearly impossible. Enter the IPA.

"We provide business services, the nuts and bolts, for print media," said membership services director Michael Tekulsky. With offices in New York and Chicago, loan programs and a distribution broker, Big Top, that helps publications figure out their best strategy given budget and circulation, the IPA aims to help independents help themselves. "Some publishers join the IPA before their magazine even exists," Tekulsky said. "It's that important to leave the isolation of a small office and amplify your power by joining a group."

The one-on-one meetings with distributors took place in a large room with many rows. It was like a large speed-dating event, with lots of smiles and friendly words exchanged as the distributors dutifully looked at the magazines.

Jedd Gould, owner of Mediabids, a company that pairs advertisers with publications, spoke less diplomatically about the one-on-ones. "Look, I'm sure it's good for both parties to meet each other, but the reality is that there's just not enough space on the newsstand for most niche magazines."

Some, like Brokenpencil magazine's Hal Niedzviecki, said it was more important to focus on subscribers than newsstands.

Educational workshops and interesting lectures aside, the conference really boiled down to one thing: networking. The IPA provided opportunities like a nighttime Dave Eggers event on Friday, and coffee breaks and receptions throughout the weekend. Conference attendees seemed thrilled with the opportunity to connect with one another. Rockrgrl's DeSantis, who lives in Seattle, said, "We work in a vacuum, so this is an amazing opportunity to meet other people passionate about, well, whatever topic," she said, gesturing to a bulletin board featuring magazine covers ranging from Queer Ramblings to Sea Kayaker to New Witch.

"If you are trapped in a hotel for two days with strangers, eventually you will make a connection, and that could lead to getting bigger distribution, that could lead to getting hired by another magazine or to your magazine being bought, or articles getting written, or ... " Blue says, laughing, "it could, like, lead to a night at the Argonaut with a handsome stranger. Who knows."

The final event, a wrap-up party and reading, took place at the Makeout Room, a bar in the Mission District. It was like the last day of summer camp, only with alcohol, as people crowded into booths and huddled around the bar, hugging and promising to keep in touch. Connections were definitely being made.

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