Are alt-week­lies dy­ing or just mov­ing online?

Newspapers & Technology Magazine - - Industry Insight - ▶ by Krist en Hare Poyn­ter In­sti­tute

In 2009, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Al­ter­na­tive Newsmedia had 135 alt-week­lies in its mem­ber­ship, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

In 2015, that group had 117 mem­bers.

This year, it has 108.

Un­like many of for­mer mem­bers, The Vil­lage Voice isn't clos­ing. But the alt-weekly made news re­cently when it an­nounced plans to dis­con­tinue its print edi­tion af­ter more than a half-cen­tury.

Sto­ried alt-week­lies like Philadel­phia City Pa­per, the San Fran­cisco Bay Guardian, the Bos­ton Phoenix, Knoxville, Ten­nessee's Metro Pulse and its re­place­ment may have shut down. But Lo­cal In­de­pen­dent Online News Pub­lish­ers re­cently re­ported that it added 19 new mem­bers in 15 states. LION now has 160 lo­cal news pub­lish­ers as mem­bers in 39 states.

So are alt-week­lies dy­ing? Or are they find­ing a kind of new life online?

"I would say mainly they're dy­ing," said Rick Edmonds, Poyn­ter's media busi­ness an­a­lyst.

But, he added, "there's a dif­fer­ence be­tween de­clin­ing and dead, though one does lead to the other."

"I think it's com­pli­cated," said Jack Neely, a for­mer Metro Pulse ed­i­tor and con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor of Knoxville Mer­cury, which stopped pub­lish­ing in print re­cently.

There are more print pub­li­ca­tions in Knoxville now than there were 20 years ago, Neely said. And both Ashevile and Chat­tanooga, smaller cities than Knoxville, still have alt-week­lies. The Mer­cury is still online and peo­ple are vol­un­teer­ing sto­ries, in­clud­ing Neely, but they're not get­ting paid for it any­more.

"It has been frankly alarm­ing to see what is hap­pen­ing to our peers in much big­ger cities," said Sarah Fenske, ed­i­tor of St. Louis' River­front Times. "See­ing the Vil­lage Voice de­cide to go digital-only, it's like you feel the grim reaper's hand on your neck."

But in many places, the spirit of alt-week­lies has moved online – at least in pieces.

"Some lo­cal in­de­pen­dent online news sites take a sim­i­lar ap­proach and share the DNA of alt-week­lies — free to do deep, in­ves­tiga­tive pieces, pro­vid­ing coun­ter­point to the mis­steps of legacy media, and serv­ing as a guide­book to the arts, en­ter­tain­ment and cul­ture of their com­mu­ni­ties," said Matt DeRienzo, LION's ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, in an email.

Some in­de­pen­dent site founders, he said, come from the alt-weekly world, in­clud­ing the New Haven In­de­pen­dent's Paul Bass and Coachella Val­ley In­de­pen­dent's Jimmy Boe­gle. The Tyler Loop's Tas­neem Raja had an "alt weekly but online" mis­sion when she launched ear­lier this year, DeRienzo said.

Tra­di­tional alt-week­lies of­fer sev­eral things in one place: community, events, the arts, mu­sic, in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism and a counter to the of­ten­dom­i­nant daily news­pa­per. While some online pub­li­ca­tions of­fer all that, most have taken on pieces of it.

"I think there are def­i­nitely spir­i­tual sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween what we are do­ing and what the City Pa­per and The Weekly used to do in Philly," said Chris Krew­son, vice pres­i­dent of Spir­ited Media and found­ing ed­i­tor of Billy Penn. "We do not do the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. We do not dig through politi­cians' trash cans to ex­pose and beat the dailies at the sto­ries on cor­rup­tion the way the City Pa­per and The Weekly were do­ing at their time."

Sites like Billy Penn and Charlotte Agenda share the voice and sen­si­bil­i­ties of alt-week­lies, while other sites have taken on the meat of what they do/did, in­clud­ing Char­lottesville To­mor­row and the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism. And The Texas Tribune owns pol­i­tics and leg­isla­tive cov­er­age, Edmonds said, "if you're look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive to your daily pa­per."

Mi­ami's The New Tropic and Seat­tle's The Ever­grey also of­fer a place for young voices and community.

"Now more than ever, we need jour­nal­ism that speaks truth to power," said Ja­son Zaragoza, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Al­ter­na­tive Newsmedia, in an email, "and AAN be­lieves that any busi­ness model which sus­tains that jour­nal­ism is a good one."

In St. Louis, that busi­ness model is still print, which is the RFT's big­gest driver of in­come, Fenske said. Many online only news or­ga­ni­za­tions work off grant fund­ing with two to three peo­ple. RFT, which is small for an alt-weekly, has seven or eight just on the editorial side.

St. Louis has an un­usu­ally glut­ted media land­scape, Fenske said, in­clud­ing a daily news­pa­per, a weekly African-Amer­i­can news­pa­per, sev­eral lo­cal TV sta­tions, lo­cal pub­lic ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, a city magazine and two food mag­a­zines.

Peo­ple are still used to pick­ing up print. So RFT has dou­bled down on it. They're still break­ing news online, Fenske said, but last week the al­tweekly went glossy. They've also in­creased page size and editorial pages.

Even without print, many online sites rise and fall as they search for some­thing to re­place those ad dol­lars. For many, in­clud­ing the Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism, grant fund­ing is key. Billy Penn, which is for-profit, has events and ad­ver­tis­ing. Berke­ley­side has raised nearly $600,000 in a di­rect pub­lic of­fer­ing. And mem­ber­ship mod­els, while not new, are gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity.

All of that al­lows the spirit of the alt-weekly, or wisps of that spirit, to live on. But while lo­cal online sites might have more in com­mon with alt-week­lies than they do lo­cal news­pa­pers, Krew­son said, they're not the same.

"That in­de­pen­dent voice is critical, I think," Krew­son said. "And I'm not sug­gest­ing that we are that voice. We are not at that point yet."

For Neely, alt-week­lies of­fer long­form in print, which he still prefers, and a place for new­com­ers to get in­for­ma­tion about that city. Alt-week­lies were cov­er­ing top­ics such as gay rights be­fore the main­stream media started, Edmonds noted. And they of­fer the lux­ury of full-time staff writ­ers out­side of New York who can de­vote real time to find­ing and telling sto­ries that mat­ter to that place, Fenske said.

"I think if you had told me three years ago, the Vil­lage Voice isn't go­ing to ex­ist as a print prod­uct but the River­front Times is, I wouldn't have be­lieved you," she said. "But yet here we are."

Kristen Hare cov­ers lo­cal news in­no­va­tion for the Poyn­ter In­sti­tute. Her work for Poyn­ter has earned her a Mir­ror Award nom­i­na­tion. Hare, a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Mis­souri's School of Jour­nal­ism, spent five years as the Sun­day fea­tures writer and an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor at the St. Joseph (Mis­souri) News-Press, and five years as a staff writer cov­er­ing race, im­mi­gra­tion, the cen­sus and ag­ing at the St. Louis Bea­con. She also spent two years with the Peace Corps in Guyana, South Amer­ica. Hare and her fam­ily live out­side Tampa.

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