It’s getting hard to keep up with the amount of alt-weeklies closing shop lately. It seems like a monthly occurrence to hear of another publication either ceasing operations for good, or at least in print, as the trend of shuttered alt-weeklies marches on, signaling a long slow print extinction of cherished independent voice of the American city.
Since 2013, newspaper boxes have lost The Boston Phoenix, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Baltimore City Paper, The Philadelphia City Paper and The Village Voice, just to name a few.
There has been much distress over the death of the alt-weeklies, but perhaps their eulogy could have been delivered a long time ago. As the internet gobbled up most of the revenue from classifieds and advertisements, and social media became a regular source for the consumption of news, alt-weeklies became more desperate than radical. The alt became more aligned with the mainstream, substance dwindled as advertisements for strip joints, sports bars, and high end wine bars increased.
The economics also had an impact on the quality of the content as well. Nobody likes to admit this, but one of the biggest reasons for the failure of the modern alt-weekly is that nobody reads them. People sometimes use them for certain things, like food reviews and events, but the they don’t read them. When Village Voice closed, the primary complaint was, “Now where I am going to find event listings?”
In the heyday of the alt-weekly, this was not the case. The writing was solid, as in columns by Village Voice co-founder Normal Mailer; the reporting was quality enough to earn several Pulitzer Prizes, as in the Williamette Week in Portland, which won a Pulitzer for its investigative reporting on a case of child-molestation by Governor Neil Goldschmidt. They covered things the established outlets wouldn’t, and uncovered local issues like only rebellious underground journalism could. Today, the critical content is either coming from an intern covering the same topics or events covered by the mainstream media, or, more likely, it’s a staff of amateur left-wing socialite journalists playing for a sympathetic political crowd through opinion-heavy non-depth reporting. Sounds a lot like social media, and it is. Just because a media outlet has the same political opinion that you do doesn’t mean the media outlet is good. But appetites for political alignment combined with nostalgia of what the alt-weekly once was has created the blinders necessary to wallow in despair for an already dead movement in a fairly obsolete format.
This isn’t to say good riddance to the alt-weekly, or that they are all the same, but for the most part, in our splintered society and extremely divided political landscape, the last thing we need is more alienating rhetoric, anger without ideas, and the repetition of the same opinions without much critical depth or journalistic integrity. We don’t need the alt-weeklies that we are often given; we need the spirit of journalistic radicalism that was lost a long time ago. The free press shouldn’t automatically be given a free pass.