11:31 a.m. April 16, 2013

Yesterday's News

I take no pleasure in mocking the hopes of publishers and editors of weekly newspapers — or, if you prefer, “alt-weeklies.” They’re scrambling to survive, let alone thrive, in an upside-down media environment. Still, the reaction from some after the onetime cash machine Boston Phoenix folded earlier this year strikes me as borderline delusional.

It could be I’m missing something. Yes, I was a founder and proprietor of three free weeklies, but having sold the last of these, New York Press, in 2002, I’m no longer on the inside of this industry. But consider the following statement from SouthComm CEO Chris Ferrell, whose company owns eight weeklies (including The Nashville Scene and Washington City Paper).

“These papers, in my mind, have the opportunity to be even more influential going forward than they were in the past. Alternative doesn’t mean the same thing today that it did 20 or 30 years ago.”

That sort of rah-rah happy horseshit may buck up Ferrell’s employees, but he’s off the mark when predicting that the country’s remaining weeklies might be more “influential” — certainly when thinking about actual journalism — than former leaders such as The Village Voice, Chicago Reader, Phoenix’s New Times or the San Diego Reader. Rachel Daigle’s hopelessly naïve article for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, is peppered with enthusiastic comments from publishers about “branding” (unique!), setting up digital platforms that are useful to advertisers (SouthComm), the promotion of sponsored eating/entertainment/crafts events to shore up the bottom line, and in one case, the development of “happy hour” and “ticketing” apps (Seattle’s Stranger) to further enhance the lifestyle of readers. Yes, there’s the view that papers in smaller markets have the ability to connect to residents better than their large city counterparts, but in most instances those who spoke to Daigle barely mentioned the quality of the journalism.

(They also don’t mention that The Voice Media Group, owner of 11 papers, is so desperate for revenue that it has resorted to turning its website into softcore porn. Bombshell blondes? Big tits? It’s there for the viewer in slideshows that go forever to collect more hits.

The boom in “alternative” weeklies that came after the “underground press” burned out in the early 1970s, was significant for three reasons. First, these papers, which at the outset didn’t pay well, offered a forum, and stepping stone, for talented writers who didn’t have the proper pedigree to land a job at a daily newspaper. By compiling a track record at a weekly, they were often scouted and lured away by dailies or city magazines to earn the big bucks. This was usually fine with the weekly editors and publishers, as they wanted a constant stream of new (and younger) writers to keep their content fresh.

Second, as the free papers matured, the founders, who often started their enterprises in a living room, discovered that as readers and prestige grew, so did profits, affording them unimagined riches. The best of these papers invested in their companies by paying higher salaries and bankrolling long investigative articles. That the owners now dressed in Armani suits and drove BMWs was an excellent perk. Meanwhile, middling weeklies also rode the wave, with go-through-the-motions editorial, such as toothless sops to liberal politics and commercial bonanza “Best Of” issues. When Pulp Fiction came out in ’94, I made a bet with a colleague that within a month at least 30 weeklies would feature the film on the cover. I collected.)

Finally, the papers exerted their influence on the dailies in their markets, forcing ostrich-like editors to completely alter their arts coverage and previously sniffy notions about “personal” journalism.

Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman pointed to the fact that, ahem, the torch has been passed to a new generation of alt-weekly entrepreneurs, who “offer perhaps the best hope of providing good local journalism in a sustainable business model.” Now, Zusman is no slouch. I consider him a fine journalist and, though he’s nearing 60, he isn’t one of those heading into retirement or another vocation, being an owner of WW, and two other weeklies. However, a notable omission is the names of these mysterious new, and young (under 30), entrepreneurs. His declaration to those who doubt that these papers can still flourish — among them media critics Jack Shafer and David Carr, who both spent years working for weeklies — is little more than a vaguely prophetic “Watch. And Wait.”

Okay, I’ll wait, with a modicum of interest, but I’m not buying Zusman’s goods. Here’s an example of the troubles facing weeklies, no matter how many events they sponsor, or coupons they provide to readers. I live in Baltimore and almost never pick up the local City Paper (which I started in ’77 and sold in ’87) or look at its website. If I want the info on, say, films, I go directly to the theater’s site. At 57, I’m not a night owl and rarely see live music at clubs; but my sons, 18 and 20, do, and they don’t consult CP at all, gleaning their information from Facebook or texts from friends. If an alt-weekly can’t convert the under-25 crowd, well, Zusman will still be waiting decades from now.

The Boise Weekly’s Sally Freeman, editor and publisher, offered what amounted to a time-capsule summation of this situation. Yes, she too speaks about branding and multi-platforms, but the following, and undoubtedly sincere, comment is a doozy: “[E]veryone here that works at the Boise Weekly, we’re all in. It’s beyond a job and it’s a very, very personal endeavor. It’s like we’re fighting the good fight together.” I haven’t a clue as to what “good fight” Freeman’s referring (and probably don’t want to know), but I remember similar sentiments regularly bandied about at weekly newspaper conventions that I attended in the 1980s.

It could be that some of these weeklies (and mini-chains) will be ongoing profitable entities, which is swell, but let’s not pretend that all the (mostly) digital “innovations” have much to do with exciting, quirky and ground-breaking journalism.