City Paper's new editor sees change on horizon for alternative weekly On the edge with SONO

January 23, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

So this is Sono Motoyama, you think, as she eases into the room, head down, smile hesitant and hand reluctantly extended. This woman, who in her silk shirt and leggings, looks even thinner than 95 pounds and seems almost meek as she makes small talk about crime in the city and her cat named Petunia.

This is the same woman who has written about sadomasochism in Baltimore, a biker named Killer, psychic fairs in Towson and intimate aspects of her personal life, including an abortion she had several years ago.

But perhaps Ms. Motoyama's most surprising move came weeks ago when she took over as editor of City Paper, Baltimore's largest alternative weekly newspaper, replacing editor Michael Yockel who was fired abruptly after 10 years there.

It's possible to see her ascent as a changing of the guard at the 17-year-old paper that began as an arts-oriented weekly called City Squeeze and has become a media force with a weekly circulation of 86,000.

At 41, Mr. Yockel was a veteran, having started with the irreverent tabloid two years after it began. Ms. Motoyama, 29, is still a newcomer with just a year's experience as associate editor.

"I don't want to fuel a lot of speculation about what happened," she says curtly when asked about Mr. Yockel's departure. "All I can say is Michael and I left on good terms. He gave me a hug, wished me well and I wished him well also."

City Paper publisher Donald Farley says, "It was not a matter of dislike or things blowing up [with Michael]. In my opinion, the paper needed to move on. . . . I wanted someone who knew the operation and the alternative business and someone who would shine with new ideas and new energy. I thought Sono had those characteristics."

Mr. Yockel declined to be interviewed for this story.

One of Ms. Motoyama's first moves shows her desire to break with the past. She dispensed with one of the paper's long-standing traditions, Jennifer Bishop's quirky black and white photos of Baltimore life, a staple since the paper began.

"It's the end of an era," says Ms. Bishop, whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the London Sunday Times and the Washington Post. "Sono said they wanted to open the space up to other photographers. After having editorial control, I wasn't going to submit photos to be juried by the editors."

Careful readers may have noticed other changes. Former City Paper writer Max Weiss has returned to the fold, doing free-lance movie reviews. "Show & Tell," a weekly consumer feature about local businesses, has been discontinued. ("It seemed a little too press releasy.")

But most telling is a small addition in the current issue. After 17 years without a table of contents -- an omission that epitomized its hiply indifferent attitude -- City Paper is going mainstream, finally giving readers a conventional guide to what's where each week.

Her goal, Ms. Motoyama says simply, is to create a paper that is both more serious and more fun. She's aware that the free weekly -- as well as alternative papers in general -- has moved away from its counterculture roots toward a more corporate identity.

Started in 1977 by a coterie of Johns Hopkins University students and graduates, City Paper was sold in 1987 to Times/Shamrock Communications L.P., a Pennsylvania-based company that owns 13 other papers and eight radio stations across the country. Over the years, the staff has gone from working in cluttered dormitory-like offices in Charles Village to its present home: a tony three-story Park Avenue rowhouse with faux finishes on the walls, hardwood floors and brightly painted mantles.

'Alternative to what'

"It's an alternative paper, and I think one thing we have to ask ourselves is, 'Alternative to what?' " says Ms. Motoyama. "One thing is to be alternative to other media and have a different point of view. . . . People think of us as a left-leaning, slacker, hip paper. We should live up to that more often."

Her own working definition of an alternative paper still isn't fully formed. "It's a weird combination," she says, "a hip consumer guide with news and features that push the edges of conventional journalism."

The story she's most often remembered for -- and the one she feels best represents her style and interests -- was a sprawling 10-page feature last year on the local sadomasochism scene titled "Hurts So Good: Whips, Chains, and Nipple Clamps -- and the Nice Folks Next Door Who Use Them." It featured photos of a woman gagged on a bed and a husband bound in a chair.

"People were fascinated and repulsed at the same time," she says. "At the time, it was the Zeitgeist. The Madonna book was the most obvious [example]. I thought it was something people were interested in."

After weeks of research, she says that even unconventional sexual practices can get boring. "It's hard to imagine, but it was like, 'OK, you handcuffed your boyfriend and then what? You tied her up and . . .' "

While the story was rumored to upset executives at Times/Shamrock, Ms. Motoyama has no regrets.

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