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Agenda's Bottom Line

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For the last three months AGENDA has been making public appeals for financial support from its readers. So far we have raised $5,000, one-half of our goal. Last month's intake of donations and subscriptions was substantially less than that of the first two months of this fund drive. At the risk of appearing ungrateful, we have to say that this is not enough. What follows is another attempt to explain AGENDA's unique predicament and dependence on your financial support.

AGENDA is a business. It must pay bills like any other business. There is the printing bill, payroll, office rent, utilities, etc. And like most businesses there is a bottom line. The bottom line for AGENDA is that it can no longer afford to borrow money to keep publishing. AGENDA is not seeking to make a profit, it just needs to break even and not go further into debt.

Why can't AGENDA pay its bills? The key word is "alternative." In other times, the paper might have called itself "underground," "anti-establishment," or "radical." Alternative is just another way of saying that we are not mainstream. In Ann Arbor, it is a way of distinguishing ourselves from the two dominant area publications - The Ann Arbor News and Ann Arbor Observer.

Why is an alternative news source important? If we examine one recent and very important local issue - the controversial Kline's lot parking structure - the difference between mainstream and alternative coverage becomes much clearer.

According to the News, the death of the Kline's lot parking structure can be blamed on "Madame No" (Mayor Liz Brater) and her notorious double-crossing Gang of Three (or is it Four?). Remember these criminals, the News editorialized, the next time you can't find a parking space downtown. Forget that it was the former mayor (Jernigan) who asked Ann Arbor voters to make the April election a referendum on the parking structure. Forget that the News printed this very plea in their own pages (the editors certainly forgot it). And forget if possible that the News formally endorsed both Jernigan's re-election and the building of the parking structure!

In short, the News covers the news from a pro-business point of view. They are for growth and profit both for themselves and other big businesses. They must print a paper that is attractive to their customers. And who are their customers? Not the reader who pays 25 cents for their daily copy. The real customers of a chain newspaper like the News, owned by the Booth Newspapers, Inc., and Newhouse News, are their advertisers.

The Observer's analysis of the structure's demise was more benign, but nonetheless incomplete. The structure's death, the Observer observed in their June issue, was "at the hands of the Democrats." The April elections foretold the eventual doom of the project, they said. True enough but not nearly the whole story. The Homeless Action Committee (HAC) and their relentless grassroots drive to defeat the parking structure merited only two paragraphs, one of which was to say they had "little effect." On this issue, the Observer was doing what it does best when it comes to local politics - covering city hall from the Democrat versus Republican orientation.

Whereas the Observer is locally owned and covers the news from a more civic-minded orientation, the bottom line remains that the Observer also exists to serve their main customers - advertisers.

For AGENDA, and this is what gets us in trouble, the real customer is you - the reader. It's not that we are against selling more advertising space in AGENDA. It's just that we will not use that as our reason for existence. We would rather not publish than compromise this principle. Thus our coverage of the parking structure controversy, and local politics in general, is oriented to parts of a story that get left out or distorted by the mainstream press. Our coverage focuses on the grassroots level of civic activity, a level where people tend to act without ulterior motives of profit or desire for re-election. It's also a level of activity filled with controversy, and not necessarily conducive to selling advertising.

AGENDA pays a price for being controversial. Our June front page article "People 1, Cars 0: Anatomy of a Grassroots Victory" cost us at least one advertiser, and a couple of distribution spots. AGENDA's coverage of the Persian Gulf War, with front page titles like "Kicking Ass For Gas" (January), "Ignorance is Strength" (March), and "Wars R Us" (May), flew in the face of popular polls and put AGENDA at odds with more real and potential advertisers. Because of controversial articles like these, some businesses will not allow AGENDA to be distributed from their stores (send a SASE for a list of "cool" places we are banned from). In short, AGENDA is not an easy product to market.

So, why do we do it the way we do it? Because we are more interested in respect from our readership than dollars from our advertisers. Does AGENDA deserve your continued support? Do you think Ann Arbor needs more than the News and the Observer can offer?

If your answer is yes, send us a donation and renew your subscription. Send a subscription to a friend or relative, friend or foe. It is a vote of confidence for us and perhaps a mind opening experience for them. And, of course, it pays the bills.