Zine but Not Heard

Few publications are growing in the Denver underground.

For many young urbanites, the cultural vitality of a community can be judged by the number of homegrown, advertiser-supported periodicals that are piled up near the doorways of CD stores or funky restaurants -- and by those standards, Denver's in the dumper.

At any given time during the last decade, the city has generated fewer magazines in this category than virtually any other major metropolis. Worse, many of the rags that unraveled (and success stories in this arena are rarer than award-worthy performances in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies) did so not because they were edgy, or outrageous, or contemptuous of the status quo, but because they were simply flat-out boring. And today is hardly an exception.

Among the theories frequently floated to account for this state of affairs (aside from the rise of the Internet, which is credited or blamed for practically everything) is the muscle of the very publication you're reading, and that shouldn't be overlooked. Because lots o' voices are better than not many, I'd personally like to see freebies flourish and multiply, but I'm guessing my friends on the business side of this office might have another point of view. Still, there are plenty of other cities with large weeklies that have managed to spawn and sustain more and better newspapers and magazines.

So why hasn't Denver? A big factor is what George Bush (the older one, not the scrunched-down, cross-eyed contemporary version, who stars in a blurb below) once referred to as "the vision thing" -- an original, clearly defined slant that sets a publication apart. That's why the Onion, a weekly Madison, Wisconsin-based humor newspaper, is so popular: It's different, and consistently funnier than hell. By contrast, too many Denver-based offerings -- especially the ones that aim to attract broad audiences instead of zeroing in on niches -- seem generic, interchangeable. A case in point: When asked to describe the approach of Go-Go, currently the city's most prominent new entertainment bi-weekly, its publisher, Gary Haney, hesitates for a moment before saying, "I don't know."

He did, initially. Haney, an import from Amarillo, Texas, hit town with the goal of producing the best freakin' porno paper in the Rockies ("Breast Reduction," November 25, 1999) -- but when his creation, Rocky Mountain Go-Go, proved unable to keep it up, he shortened its moniker and headed for the mainstream, with only the occasional cover shot of buxom babes as a link to its previous incarnation. Yet, while it's currently celebrating its first anniversary since buttoning its shirt -- a benchmark many Denver publications before it never reached -- Go-Go continues to search for an identity. Many of the 36 or so pages per issue are filled with listings or familiar syndicated features such as Chuck Shepherd's "News of the Weird," and the self-generated reviews and entertainment items are generally dull, hackneyed and stereotypically "positive."

This last quality is one that's often been embraced by Denver zines, almost always to their disadvantage. For instance, defunct music-oriented efforts such as Euphony Music News, Color Red and Pulp tended to make every Colorado performer sound like an undiscovered Elvis, and although that no doubt pleased musicians and club owners, it required readers to believe that mediocrity had been banished from the state -- a leap of faith that spouses and relatives were willing to make, but not many others.

Nonetheless, Go-Go editor Chris Magyar, to whom publisher Haney referred the question about the magazine's style, believes that positivity works. "We've decided that our coverage will be more on what's good and what needs support than in pointing out flaws in the system," he says. "Successes are a lot more fun to talk about than failures, which is why we want to keep it positive, especially in terms of the local scene."

At the same time, Magyar insists that Go-Go has tried to "point out problems" within the context of such articles, using as an example an August look at Willie B., the controversial KBPI jock who recently led a four-wheeling expedition on private land near Boulder ("KBPI Wrecks the Rockies," October 5). But just how hard-hitting this profile really was is indicated by Go-Go's response to complaints about another article.

"Sound Check," printed October 12, was an overwhelmingly sunny assessment of Denver music, but it contained a single negative paragraph. Author Judy B. noted, quite accurately, that "our radio stations do a pitiful job" of representing local music. This was hardly an indefensible position, and indeed, the writer softened her contentions in a subsequent section that singled out KBPI and the University of Colorado-Boulder's Radio 1190 for doing better in this regard than their competitors. But when Magyar received calls from KBPI reps griping that this salute to their station was too small, he responded with an extraordinary, bend-over-and-play-dead capitulation in Go-Go's October 26 edition. Under the heading "KBPI Champions Local Musicians," he wrote, "It has come to our attention that we made an egregious omission in our 'Sound Check' cover story." After citing a bare handful of minor KBPI local music promotions, including a "pay-to-play" charity fundraiser that required musicians -- often the poorest people in any neighborhood -- to pony up cash before the outlet would spin their songs (but stopped short of asking for a pint of blood), Magyar concluded, "KBPI has gone above and beyond the call of duty in supporting local music. They deserve the heartfelt thanks of this magazine and every musician in Colorado for all their hard work. Kudos, guys."

How does Magyar justify this enormous crock of guano? "We had built up a relationship with KBPI during our coverage of Willie B. and set ourselves up as advocates of them in the face of other detrimental media coverage." (So much for pointing out problems.) "And they were upset that we didn't give them more credit. So they said, 'Hey, friend, you know we do more, and we're upset that you didn't mention it.'" Go-Go types then responded with one of the sloppiest in-print blow jobs since the development of papyrus. Kudos, guys.

Perhaps an allergy to offensiveness will keep Go-Go going for the long haul -- but tiptoeing around hasn't helped similar publications. Despite the sad experiences of predecessors such as the largely forgotten Up the Creek, the Sol Day News, financed by investors from Aspen, burst onto the metro scene in May 1998 with an unlikely concept: It disseminated soft-hitting granola-and-Birkenstocks features on Sunday, directly competing with the Denver Post's and the Rocky Mountain News's largest issues. The idea was that people have more time to read on Sunday. But according to Allen Best, Sol Day News's former editor, that's not the way it worked out.

"Basically, you can start out small and build or you can start out big, but if you do that, you must have the money to bleed for a while," Best says. "Sol Day had it backwards, starting out big with a small budget. We started out with forty pages and a press run of 80,000, then fell back to 36 pages with a press run of about 40,000. But we had enough paying ads to justify about twelve pages and enough editorial staff to go about sixteen pages." He adds that, as opposed to the mountain communities where he cut his teeth as a journalist, "It's harder to locate well-defined communities in a place like Denver, and we never really did." Less than six months after its bow, the publication folded.

Among those who were less than shattered by Sol Day News's demise was Chris Logan, who signed up before its launch but bailed early: "When they put a fucking bobcat on the cover of the first issue, I knew it was going all wrong," he says. But the experience didn't sour Logan or partner James Corbin on the free-magazine biz, nor did their association with a potpourri of other departed salvos, including Freestyle and Seed. In early 1999 they gave birth to Shame, a pocket-sized publication that's still in existence; its next issue is set for early December. But it can't really be considered a member of the same genre as Go-Go. Rather, Shame is part of a less commercial, more individualistic tradition associated with idiosyncratic efforts, such as the late, lamented Modern Drunkard, that placed personal expression above financial considerations. "We want to unite people who are flipping their middle fingers in the air and saying, 'I don't care about the establishment,'" Corbin declares in a charmingly anachronistic way. "Our motto is 'Art, Noise, Mind.'"

Shame doesn't always live up to this manifesto. The local-music column in its current issue advises any performer who's apprehensive about "an honest critique" to "send that shit to someone who's in this business to gain friends" before raving about ten recordings in a row (Corbin says he likes to give leeway to anyone who "goes to the trouble of going to the post office and buying a stamp"), and some of the essays on various topics, many of them having to do with sex, are a little too inside, like private jokes only the cognoscenti will get. But at least Shame is lively and unafraid to infuriate -- hence the photograph of a nude young woman with her pubic zone covered by a "scratch and sniff" label. (No, it doesn't work.)

Running a publication on sheer passion can be exhausting, though. "It does get frustrating," Corbin concedes. "You wonder why you're putting yourself out there sometimes. But we have something to say that's not being said by other publications, which is what keeps us going."

That pretty much explains why John Reidy is still in the zine game, too, albeit in a lower-profile way than he once was. As the brain behind The Hooligan, one of the most personal publications Denver has seen, he takes delight in savaging anyone and everyone, often including yours truly; in his view, I am to journalism what John Wayne Gacy is to the campaign to make clowns seem less creepy. (Who among us can argue with that?) Reidy is sometimes guilty of hammering the same note over and over again, but because it's a note no one else is playing (and a bitingly amusing one at that), he has a sizable following. Yet his cult-sized audience hasn't been enough to keep him going full-time. He published every month or two from late 1993 until 1996 before stopping for around eighteen months, and since starting up again, his pace has been sporadic. He put out only one Hooligan in 1999, and if he doesn't make a self-imposed December deadline, he'll miss 2000 entirely. A scaled-down Internet variation of his baby can be found at thehooligan.com, with Reidy contributing a column's worth of ruminations every month or so (a new one went up October 30), and he helms Pop Autopsy, an hour-long talk show on alpharadio.com, each Thursday at 2 p.m. But for him, the Web offers less feedback than good old paper and ink.

"Every actual issue I'd have two or three pages of letters, but with it just up on the Internet, I don't get that many -- and since we tape the show, I never know if there's anybody listening," he says. "But people will always want to sit in a coffee shop and read a hard copy of a local mag. Anyone who sits in a coffee shop with a laptop is a douche bag."

In Reidy's view, the lousy publications from Denver's past are helping to prevent the rise of new, more interesting ones. "They have absolutely no content and have absolutely nothing to say, and when they go away, someone who's advertised in them has been conned out of their money. So when a magazine that actually does have something to say asks them to advertise, they won't, because they're afraid of getting conned again.

"A lot of these magazines look pretty good, which is why they sell so many ads -- for a while, anyway," he continues. "But they've got nothing to offer, which is why they all die. The Hooligan has been around for seven years, and if Go-Go is around for seven years, I'll eat a turd."

Push for the Bush: At press time, results from the presidential election were not yet in. But no matter which candidate emerged victorious (did Pat Buchanan make a late run?), the Boulder Daily Camera's endorsement of George W. Bush, which was dictated by its owner, Scripps-Howard, likely had little effect -- other than on the digestive systems of numerous Camera staffers aghast that a newspaper located in one of America's last bastions of liberalism had thrown its weight behind the conservative movement's Great Really White Hope.

Neither Camera editor Barrie Hartman nor publisher Colleen Conant returned calls for comment on this topic, but the manner in which they presented the October 29 endorsement, penned by former Rocky Mountain News editor Jay Ambrose (remembered as one of the most unfailingly boosterish types to ever hold that post), showed just how nervous they were about their readership's reaction. The nod itself was preceded by a paragraph noting that it reflected "the majority opinion of the editors and officers of Scripps-Howard Newspapers" -- not the Daily Camera -- and pointed out that "the corporate endorsement is a Scripps tradition that dates back to 1912." Also present was a second column by Ambrose headlined "Democratic Process Led to Endorsement" (you can bet Ambrose wasn't the one who used the word "Democratic") and a separate piece by Conant revealing that although Scripps "never attempts to dictate editorial opinions from the corporate office," there "is one exception to that rule" -- the presidential endorsement. She later listed Scripps's presidential choices over the years: Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second term, the only non-Republican the company touted was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

That means Scripps endorsed Richard Nixon not once, not twice, but three times. How do you like that, Boulder?

Oops! They did it again: An addendum to the recent column about the rash of errors at the Denver Post ("The Wrong Stuff," October 26): On October 19, one day after Chuck Green wrote a column about a trial that never happened and a jury that didn't exist -- really! -- a slew of concerned Posters sat down for a meeting about the corrections blizzard. Afterward, managing editor for news Larry Burrough followed up with an e-mail thanking attendees for their willingness to make improvement in the accuracy area a top priority. But there was a teensy little problem: His memo was larded with screwups of its own. Especially memorable was the following sentence: "It is notably that most of the mistakes were avoidable, that is to say that many of the mistake were about information we've written about before."

That should eliminate all those notably mistake, don't you think?

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