There's an anecdote around the Gambit Weekly offices that seasoned staffers tell to illustrate the paper's less-than-auspicious beginnings. When Gambit first joined the national trade organization the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) in the 1980s, "we were too broke to afford it," laughs co-owner and Editor Clancy DuBos. "They voted us in, and for two years we didn't pay our dues."
Over the years, Gambit's affiliation with AAN has helped the paper evolve into its reputation today as one of the organization's most noteworthy publications. As the trend points to larger media corporations merging with each other or buying locally owned alt-weeklies across the country, Gambit has made it to its 25-year mark with its independent ownership intact. While credit for this feat generally goes to a lot of work, tenacity and luck, Gambit has had another ace in its corner: backing from a national network of like-minded publications. "AAN is a great resource," DuBos says. "Look at what happened after Katrina."
During those days after the storm, Gambit co-owners Margo and Clancy DuBos tried to find out about their Lake Vista home and Mid-City offices. "We didn't know a thing," says Publisher Margo DuBos, who had evacuated to New Roads, La. "We didn't know if our offices were gone, if our house was gone.
"Sitting and waiting in New Roads, one of the first people I could get through to was (AAN Executive Director) Richard Karpel. He was such a great, soothing voice, saying 'Margo, New Orleans will be back and you'll be back.'"
AAN's network swung into place, establishing an online forum on its Web site so that far-flung employees could post their whereabouts. Member papers flooded the site with job offers for employees. AAN also started an emergency relief fund in which alt-weekly employees across the country emptied their pockets for the 49 displaced Gambit workers.
AAN support helped buoy Gambit while its owners decided how to get the paper back. "We were knocked down," Clancy DuBos says. "We were on a roll (before the storm), no doubt about it, and all of a sudden we lost everything. I can say it now -- at the time I didn't want to say it out loud: We were out of business. Our offices had 2 feet of water; our staff had scattered. We were broke. So we figured, why not come back? You can't get much broker than broke."
Gambit's re-emergence after Katrina mirrored the paper's early days, with a skeleton crew working long hours in a tiny office space. "It comes full circle back to the beginning of Gambit when we didn't know if we were going to get a paycheck but didn't care," says Margo DuBos, who started as a sales rep with the paper in 1982. "A lot of what's going on now is very familiar to me in such a wonderful way. Everyone here is doing the work of three people and doing it with such strong feelings and emotional ties to their jobs."
AAN Executive Director Richard Karpel says the paper has made itself distinctive within the organization for several reasons. "From an editorial perspective, Gambit has always been considered among the best medium-size papers in the association," he says. "Going by the awards that we do -- the year we did the conference in New Orleans, especially, and the year after -- Gambit swamped the competition. They did better than anyone else."
Karpel is referring to the 2001 AAN convention hosted by Gambit Weekly, which had hosted the convention a decade earlier as well. In 2001 the paper set a national industry record, winning nine of AAN's Alternative Newsweekly Awards. The showing included four first-place honors: Column, Cover Design, Media Reporting and Sports Reporting. Another coup: keynote speaker Oliver Stone, who directed 1991's JFK in the Crescent City.
"It was our breakout year," says Clancy DuBos. He mostly gives credit to then-Editor Michael Tisserand, who joined the paper in 1998, and left the position last year when he moved to Illinois after Katrina. "[Tisserand] was just awesome. I think he was one of the best editors in the country, bar none."
Other elements that make Gambit stand out in the AAN, Karpel says, is its award-winning design team (led by Dora Sison) and its uniquely controlled circulation philosophy. "Gambit has been known for a disciplined, tight circulation policy," he says. "One philosophy says to make sure there's always a paper available ... another says to make sure they're gone by Friday. That's the strategy Gambit follows. That whole idea of a certain place where I go, to get my Gambit. It's an extremely rare thing. There's a waiting list for distribution points because those places are in an incredibly good position."
After its record-breaking 2001 showing, the paper continued its winning streak and its focus on issues that matter to New Orleanians. In 2004, AAN papers in hurricane-prone states collaborated with lead writer Jon Elliston to produce "Disaster in the Making," one of the nation's first in-depth reports on the weakening of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the current Bush administration. Gambit contributed to the report, revealing that the "new" FEMA was consistently overlooking Louisiana for disaster-preparedness funding, even though the Bayou State was technically the neediest in the U.S.
A follow-up commentary was prescient: "The federal government must restore FEMA's ability to respond to natural disasters and mitigate the effects of future catastrophes," it said. "As vulnerable as we are to hurricanes and floods, Louisiana cannot afford to be tossed about on political seas when real storms loom on the horizon."
After post-Katrina levee breaches leveled New Orleans, Gambit's pared-down staff worked double and triple shifts to get the paper back into circulation on Nov. 1. "The day our first paper came out after the storm," Clancy DuBos recalls, "I'm sitting outside at Martin Wine Cellar and this guy comes up to me and says, 'Mr. DuBos, would you autograph my copy of Gambit?' He was very serious. Everywhere I went, people said, 'Thank you for bringing back Gambit.'
"Kandace Power Graves (the special sections editor) and her husband were in the Bluebird Caf the following week, and when the delivery guy came in with Gambit, everyone in there applauded. When she told that story at the staff meeting we all cried. We always felt like we were the fabric of the community, but never more so than now."
- Greg Schaler/FEMA News Photo
- In a unique partnership, Gambit Weekly collaborated with other alt-weeklies in 2004 on a news package detailing FEMA's troubles under the current Bush Administration and its first department-head choice, Joe Allbaugh.