By Stik Mann
Nearly ten years ago, while editor of The Easterner, Eastern Washington University's student newspaper, I and a gonzo journalist friend started an experimental periodical that we called The Scene magazine. We did this by using the university's equipment and supplies, assuming that at any moment someone would surely stop us. Nobody did, even when Doug Clark broadcast the fact in a column. The Scene proved to be an odd mutation, ranging from serious attempts at real journalism, to outrageous humor that no one, including us, understood.
During the mag's mini-apex (that is to say, when we actually sold a few ads and when more than a few folks actually read it), I composed a letter to Stacey Cowles, publisher of The Spokesman-Review, asking him to grant us a meeting to discuss a rumor that we'd heard. The grapes of the vine at the time hinted that the Review was planning an "alternative magazine". This, to us, of course, seemed ridiculous - the mainstream media presenting an alternative to itself. I not-so-subtly offered Mr. Cowles our services, pleading that such a task would be impossible but for the inclusion of the right "outsiders-brought-in".
I was quite serious. Yet, because of some well-intentioned pressure from my peers (after all, we might have to ask Mr. C for a job someday), I never sent the letter.
As do most alternative publications in this city, The Scene whimpered and died a slow death.
Fast-forward to 1999: The Internet - no longer merely a glimmer in Al Gore's eyes - has exploded upon our culture. Where publishing in the early '90s meant computers, printers, telephones, desks, people to sit at those desks, layout tables, razors, pencils and pens, and lots of money; publishing in the late '90s meant, only, access to a computer.
I had a computer. I designed a magazine.
Where my peers in the early '90s were budding journalists and artists concerned about prospects of future jobs, my peers of the late '90s had jobs, albethem low-paying restaurant jobs. I told my co-worker Todd at the buffet on Third Street (where I've worked since The Scene folded) that I 'd designed a magazine and was thinking of sending the publisher of The Spokesman-Review a fairly wacky letter. I asked Todd what he thought.
"Cool, why not?" he said.
"He's not gonna have you killed or anything, is he?"
The OTHER Spokane - a new electronic magazine covering modern culture as it manifests in that hotspot on the surrealistic powergrid known as Spokane, WA - would like to invite you to preview our publication before its release date of Jan. 1, Y2K at 12:01 a.m.
I'll get right to the point, sir. It is our hope that you will consider "buying us out," and bringing us into The Spokesman-Review fold as a unique experiment in modern journalism.
As a completely autonomous organ of the S-R empire, The OTHER Spokane would continue in the manner of our prototype issue - brash, experimental, slightly irreverent - and to also include the playful poking of fun at, and/or outright criticism of, our parent company, thus setting into motion, and reaping the benefits of, "The David Letterman Effect."
Letterman won mass appeal by biting the hand that feeds him (first NBC, then CBS). CBS, I believe, wisely accepted this, knowing that the public would respect that this faceless conglomerate would allow such shenanigans when at any moment they could crush him like a bug beneath their big corporate thumb.
Sir, would you like to further discuss this unique proposal?
To be honest, I thought the chance of him even respond to my "unique proposal" was about as likely as him having me killed. At best, I thought some underling would send a cleverly disguised, but borderline polite letter telling me to get a life, which I'd print in Issue One and we'd all have a semi-chuckle.
To my surprise, just a few hours later, I
received the following e-mail:
Thank you for thinking of me. I don't know whether I'd have an interest or not. Can you be more specific about what you are proposing? And could you please send me a resume? Many thanks.
Not what I expected.
Here's where I should say, "Switch to Plan 2," but, alas, I had no Plan 2.
A resume? I hadn't made up a resume in over ten years when I applied at some pizza joint, and even then it was mostly bull.
I needed more input. I consulted a few
old Scene magazine
cronies. Jon quickly wrote back:
Sounds like you're in. I'm just not sure how serious you are.
If you're really interested, you should try to sell the mag as a "tool" of the Cowles Co. to better reach the on-line market, then expand on how the internet is the wave of the future, blah, blah, and that ONLY you (because you are so talented) have the ability to run such a propaganda machine. Make a resume and overstate everything. This will satisfy them until a year from now when they figure out you're not really related to Ronald Reagan and not Oxford educated. But by then it will be too late as they will be making money. As the money pours in, then go into the Letterman bit. The popularity of The Other Spokane will shield you from harm, as it shielded Letterman. Cowles doesn't need to know your ulterior motives yet, not until he's convinced you're clocking thick bank.
Sorry if I
sound preachy -- but it seems clear you have one helluvan
opportunity at your door.
Hmmm. Some good advice, I suppose (though I can never tell if Jon is being serious or not).
I tried to imagine Mr. C thumbing through back issues of The Scene, reading George Bush's Kinder and Gentler Carpet Bombing ad, or the Rush Limbaugh guide to the Ice Pick Lobotomy, or Jon's cartoon adventures of Giant Fetus ("Just gimme some smack!"). Then I tried to imagine Cowles trying to imagine the words, "Copyright, Cowles Publishing," following such mutant aberrations.
I just couldn't see it.
Still, Cowles did ask me to elaborate. That I could do, being endowed with a fairly vivid imagination. But should I take a step back and be more serious, as Jon seemed to suggest? Or should I step forward and push the wacko factor, see how much he'd swallow before he choked?
I decided to take one step back and two
Dear Mr. Cowles,
You asked me to elaborate on the proposal. I do so by offering the following fanciful scenario:
The Paper (The S-R) announces that it is launching an "alternative" electronic-magazine. This, of course, would be a ludicrous utterance but for the fact that an elusive, mysterious editor is hired to run the e-mag. This editor has a history of unusual and rebellious publications - first as editor of a local student newspaper, and later as publisher/editor of a sporadically appearing, experimental magazine.
Doug Clark writes a tongue-in-cheek column questioning the sanity of The Paper's upper-management, and pleading with them to reconsider this unsettling and potentially dangerous endeavor.
The Paper sets up the mag in a ridiculously small office in the Fox building (literally in the shadow of The Paper), and provides little more than moral support, a couple of phone lines, access to the morgue, an ad in the "Life" section when space permits, and some legal advice.
At first glace, the mag seems conventional enough - a journalism section, politics, art, fiction, music, travel, religion. But there is a pervading humor that runs throughout. The articles are short and choppy, even kaleidoscopic - easily digestible by its web-savvy, MTV-indoctrinated readership.
The journalism section is experimental and a bit odd: A reporter writes of a personal tragedy and injects it with his bizarre dreams. The results of an e-mail version of the surrealist game "The Exquisite Corpse" are printed. A reporter covers a Democratic fundraiser and ends up interviewing the beautiful bartender on how to make a decent martini. There is a collection of work from an obsessive Spokane cartoonist whose work is simply terrible. A writer goes to local bakeries asking if they can make a cake in the likeness of Friedrich Nietzsche, and documents the reactions.
The political section is necessarily an eclectic concoction, due to its adherence to the simple democratic exercise of letting everyone speak (after all, there's lots of space on the net). Some writers are invited to be videotaped and set to streaming audio/video - their three minutes of Larry Kingesque fame accessible by the click of the mouse.
The travel section abhors the middle-class, four-star-with-room-service, beach-guide type article, and instead focuses on dirt-cheap travel, hippie vagabonds, the how-to of freight hopping, and got-arrested-in-Santa Rosalia-for-taking-photos-of-drunk-women stories.
The religion section is a hodge-podge of serious clergy students honing their sermon-writing skills, New Ager's spouting New Agespeak, and local Buddhists contemplating the flight of geese. There are message boards where debates on the existence of God, evolution/creationism, and the nature of evil are in perpetual motion.
The arts, music, and fiction sections likewise tiptoe the edge of the left field fence.
In short, experimentation is stressed; failure is accepted as a necessary slip-on-a-banana-peel in the stumble-bumble search for new territory.
The mag works closely with student journalists, assisting and (if necessary) providing space for their newspaper's website in exchange for their participation.
Some of the writers from The Paper use the mag's pages to try out their non-journalistic pennings. They use phony names, but "somehow" the word gets out.
The mag holds its financial own by utilizing college business students as salesmen. They target the small businesses who shy from The Paper's more expensive ads - the mom-and-pop's, espresso shops, bookstores, pizza joints, etc. - moving in on those ad revenues previously gobbled up by The Inlander.
After a few months, to no one's surprise, the mag announces that, in addition to its electronic presence, a monthly hard-copy is about to be released.
Editor, The OTHER Spokane
I mail the letter late in the day and don't expect an answer right away. I work on the magazine until late into the night. I nod off. I wake. I work some more. I nod off again...
And I see a strange vision. I am back in the cavernous office of The Easterner, Eastern Washington Universities student newspaper. Paper is strewn everywhere and people are shouting at people telling them to stop shouting. It is an hour before deadline for The Scene magazine and all the old gang is all there: Rick has just started his column and is madly poking the keyboard with two fingers like a madman squishing bugs. He stops and drinks from a spray paint lid half filled with brandy. KT is at her desk proofreading something that I hope isn't mine because she keeps shaking her head and typing many corrections. "Please stop shouting," she says calmly, without looking up. Pat is on the phone, supposedly trying to make a last minute ad sale to someone he'd finally located in a Cheney bar. He says something about a dominatrix, a rabbi and a shoe salesman, but I have too much on my mind to hear it out. I am at the layout table, looking for a photo to go with the "Taking LSD with Timothy Leary" article. "KT," I say. "To your right," she says, without looking up.
Suddenly everything is quiet. I turn and look to the door and see a tall, well-dressed man. "Good evening," he says with a strange accent. He explains that he is a very rich publisher from a distant, big city. He turns. We all rise and line up behind him and follow him out like street urchins behind the Pied Piper.
I woke. I knew it was morning because Katie and Matt
are cooking something on TV with a rotund man in a goofy hat. I
considered the dream, which I found unusually troubling. I began
to write down the dream when I heard a gunshot, signifying that I
just received e-mail.
What happened to the resume? I don't know that I'm interested in exactly the concept you've outlined, but I am very interested in the potential of web newsletters and e-zines. I'd be glad to sit down and talk. My assistant, Jenni Knoll, can set up a time if you'd be so inclined. Thanks.
I read this e-mail in awe. I suddenly develop a strange respect for this very rich, very powerful, and presumably very busy man who would agree to "sit down and talk" with someone who wants to bake cakes in the image of dead German philosophers. To top the nuttiness of my proposal would require me to skateboard into the meeting in Burmuda shorts and sunglasses.
I still did not believe that Cowles would ever consider anything even remotely similar to my proposal. At best, I assumed he might offer me a job writing updates to Review employees about the Christmas party, or editing some stupid newsletter about upcoming business folks. This, to me, had the appeal of breading chicken (one of the uglier jobs at the buffet).
If anything was to come of this, it would be a story for The OTHER Spokane.
I began to compose a letter to Mr. C's assistant when there was another gunshot. It was an e-mail from trouble-maker, poison penster Erb Cane, reponding to my call for advice.
move, Stik Mann. Convincing Stacy to buy you out will let
you weasel your way into the company and take over The
Don't do it, Stacy! You'd be responsible for creating the Charles Hurwitz of publishing, the Leona Helmsley of editors. Resist at all costs!
Well, I thought, no enlightening advice here. But then I looked closer - the maniac had sent a copy of the e-mail to Cowles.
I figured that Mr. C would read this and assume that I was mass e-bragging about pulling one over on the main Reviewmeister and would immediately slam shut the gate.
If I wanted to salvage a story out of this, I'd have to work fast.
Next month: Salvaging the Story