Next week the Private Eye will mark its ninth anniversary, but it has been only a year or two since the hip "alternative newsweekly" began to make a real splash in our community. Today, as the Private Eye Weekly, it grabs you by the collar, gets up in your face and shouts in your ear.

Private Eye Weekly is one of a new genre of alternative newsweeklies sprouting up across the country. It has some of the earmarks of the counterculture press of a generation ago. But its investigative journalism would be the envy of many mainline dailies. A lot of the difference is in format, because it is a tabloid with the big cover headlines and brash graphics that the term implies, and a lot is in the heavy emphasis on nightlife in the back pages.Its bright and penetrating cover stories have given it a cachet and made it talked about. Not the least of these was Lynn Packer's series early this year that pulled no punches on the Bonneville Pacific scandal and Mayor Deedee Corridini's links to the company.

- PRIVATE EYE'S MODEL is the Chicago Reader. The Chicago paper developed the format of a long front-page feature, criticism and arts/entertainment calendars. John Saltas found it fun to watch in a period of rapid growth. Saltas, a 39-year-old University of Utah journalism graduate, was working in Chicago as associate editor of a large country music magazine, Country Style. When it folded in 1984 he came home to test the Chicago Reader ideas. He began to learn the business by the seat of the pants and without the benefit of market surveys.

Saltas' target reader was young, active and had some discretionary income. In addition to finding a logical group of readers, any publication has to have advertisers who want to reach that group and a way to distribute the publication that won't break the bank.

So Saltas started circulating the magazine, then a monthly, free at private clubs. Although about 500 copies go into the mail and you can subscribe, the vast bulk of the circulation is, like that of most alternative weeklies, still free, now 30,000 copies a week. The paper still can be picked up in private clubs but also in restaurants and other public places, altogether about 700 outlets. A big bundle is delivered every Wednesday to the foyer of our building at the U., where I get my copy. The circulation is independently audited, and shows, Saltas says, that only 3 percent of the copies are not picked up.

Salt Lake City may have been ripe for more investigative journalism, as he contends, but it wasn't until December 1988, when private clubs were allowed to advertise, that the paper went biweekly and began to soar. Private club ads still make up a large part of the ad support. There is a regular dining-out column, movie and record reviews, and some quirky matter like an astrology column.

- LIKE MOST ALTERNATIVE weeklies, it has found that one key to success is carrying columns of "personal and private" romance ads. But it cautions readers that it will not accept material that is "sexually explicit or implicit, so don't try" and urges readers to be prudent in dating.

It now has a dining issue and spring fashion issue, and, following the lead of Utah Holiday's "Best and Worst" issue, a "Best of Utah" number.

The paper became a weekly a year ago. The term WEEKLY, in capital letters, now dwarfs the term Private Eye on the masthead, to set it aside from the barrage of free monthlies now being published here (Media Monitor, May 17) and to convey the idea of newsiness. Last year it moved from Midvale to an office at street level in the Shubrick building at 400 South and West Temple. The move gave the paper "street presence and downtown presence," Saltas says, and allows, for one thing, people to stroll in to buy ads.

When the paper switched to weekly publication Saltas hired his only full-time editorial staffer, managing editor Tom Walsh. Walsh is a former KSL reporter with many contacts. He has brought in several other high-profile writers no longer employed full time in the media. They include Packer, who was a stablemate of Walsh's at KSL; John Harrington, once of Channel 4 (and recently a talk show host on K-Talk radio), who has done some outstanding media reviews from his extensive contacts in the profession here; Mary Dickson, once of the Deseret News and now advertising/promotions manager at Channel 7, does the movie reviews and some cover pieces, as does another former News staffer, Ellen Fagg, who now free-lances; and Christopher Smart, who left the Tribune in a brouhaha over his aggressive coverage of the Department of Corrections, has come on board recently.

Ron Yengich, the defense attorney, has written a column for Private Eye almost since the beginning. He and Saltas have been friends since they grew up in Bingham Canyon and worked on the track gang at Kennecott. His column is simply the wisest and most literate commentary published regularly in Utah. Last week's column supported the proposal to name 600 South for Martin Luther King. That stand is not terribly popular in our town, but even if you don't agree with Yengich you have to admire his literate argument, which is couched in a parable of two friends named Alex, one black and one white.

- "IF ALL OUR WRITERS were hired full time under one umbrella it would cost a fortune. They do what they do for us out of a love for journalism," Saltas enthuses.

Where is Private Eye heading? "I see a much greater presence for our paper," says Saltas, though he admits that since the paper went into a "growth phase" when it went weekly it has been struggling financially. He wants to add another 15,000 copies to his press run. Saltas says the paper isn't going after national ads (which are sparse anyway in alternative weeklies and magazines), so doesn't need to be "slicked up" with coated paper and four colors. He sees its greatest asset as the commitment of its staff.

Keeping the paper on an even editorial keel is a task in itself. When any paper sets out to deliver a major "grabber" every week it runs the risk of smoking up a story. Private Eye will have to continue to be topical and relevant and exciting without destroying its credibility with sensationalism. The page-one display in the current issue hypes up a levelheaded story by Fagg, shouting `FIGHTING FEAR, WOMEN in UTAH are fighting back against a crime EPIDEMIC." The inside headline, "Fighting Fear, Utah Women are becoming more aware of how to protect themselves in a climate of violence," is more subdued and more emblematic of the story.

Comment on this story

Judging from the way alternative newsweeklies are catching on, Private Eye Weekly's prospects look good. As a species, the alternative newspaper is indeed growing, and some now have more than 100 pages an issue. Quill magazine says that alternatives have become "shining stars in otherwise glum markets." The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that for the 68 papers that belonged to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (yes, they have their own trade organization), combined revenue hit $100 million and circulation about 3.5 million, largely to the 18- to 35-year-old prime readership most advertisers woo. In the three years since that Journal report and at a time of considerable retrenchment in the newspaper industry, the number of alternatives has risen to 86.

Milton Hollstein is a professor of communication at the University of Utah.