For some time, I’ve been meaning to note a recent change in the news media that went all but unnoticed. But for weeks I never got around to it; other duties got in the way, and then I began to wonder whether the change were even worth remarking. My thought processes may reflect some of the reason the change went largely unnoticed in the media at large. They may have thought it not only insignificant, but irrelevant. What was once the proud training ground for many of the country’s best magazine and book writers — the alternative weekly — had been so subsumed by the rise of the Internet as to need to change the name of its trade association. What had been the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies became the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, meaning, of course, that online-only publications were now allowed to join.
The forced joining of the words “news” and “media” into one may have kept the organization’s acronym — AAN — the same, but the new moniker is a reflection of a new world in which alternative weeklies have a real problem: What, exactly, are they an alternative to? It used to be the monopolistic daily newspapers in their towns, but both the city dailies and the city weeklies have literally been taken apart by the digital revolution, with whole classes of advertising migrating online where, by and large, dailies and weeklies have been late to the revenue and technology party.
Much of what had been staples in the bag of alt-weekly editorial tricks — event listings, music coverage, restaurant reviewing, smart-aleck attitude, general (though not universal) leftyism — was also undermined, coopted, replicated, done better or made obsolete by the rise of a host of online competitors, from the lightly staffed city observer sites (SFist, Gothamist, etc.) to Yelp to Gawker and on and on and on. In the lingo of the trade, the alt-weekly was unbundled, disaggregated, knee-capped by the kind of entrepreneurial twentysomethings the founders of many an alt-weekly had been, once upon a time, back in the historical mists of the 1970s.
But what was actually important about alt-weeklies — and what the best of their founders were most interested in — has not yet found solid competition on the internet. Over the last four decades, the alternative weekly has been the training ground where the country’s smartest and most inventive aspiring writers learned how to accomplish intelligent, long-form journalism. Even now, every year, significant narrative and investigative work at alternative weeklies wins major journalism awards and serves the public interest in many ways. The Village Voice Media group of alt-weeklies has had a long and deep commitment to quality long-form nonfiction, as have other surviving papers, including, notably, the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper.
There is a real question, however, whether alternative weeklies are going to be able to continue to fund the kind of long-term hanging around — the fly-on-the-wall waiting for guards to fall sometimes called immersion journalism — that distinguished narrative journalism requires. I was editor of SF Weekly some time back and had the resources to cut a writer loose for 13 months on a single project. The project won a Polk Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors certificate and lord knows how many other awards for the writer, Lisa Davis. Some 10 years later, Davis has had a pretty good book published by a major publisher (Scribner). (It is called The Sins of Brother Curtis, if you care to check it out.)
And this is my point: Alternative weeklies have been the place to begin and learn the basics for countless writers who have gone on to bring beautiful, engaging and important work to the public. There are the names everyone knows because they are so regularly in the news (The New York Times‘ David Carr, Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer), but there are many, many more. New Yorker staff writer, Pulitzer winner and MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient Kate Boo, who wrote for Washington City Paper early in her career. Susan Orlean, who wrote for an alt-weekly in Portland, Ore., the Boston Phoenix and the Village Voice before she became a New Yorker staff writer and major author. Nick Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer at the New Yorker, started his journalism career at a now-defunct New Orleans alt-weekly called the Vieux Carre Courier. Slate editor David Plotz came from the Washington City Paper. Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein have alt-weekly roots (at Washington City Paper and Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages, respectively). Hell, Dave Eggers — certainly one of the brightest of America’s current literary lights, by any standard — did a comic strip and wrote the occasional brilliant story for SF Weekly in the era immediately preceding mine.
I’m not saying all alt-weeklies are going to stop doing good journalism because their trade group changed its name, and I’m not pounding nails into some supposed coffin of the alternative weekly as a genre. Many weeklies no doubt make money (although one suspects it is small money in comparison to times past), and some have put some effort into expanding their online efforts. (Village Voice, in particular, has created a Craigslist-like franchise that it calls “Back Page” and that, I have read, earns the company eight figures a year.) But the alt-weekly staff cuts just keep coming and coming — I doubt the world will again see an alt-weekly fund a 13-month investigation — and one wonders how long those long, long alt-weekly stories will keep flowing, particularly as more of the business moves online, where revenues are low and the 5,000-word story is often viewed as not just uneconomical, but ludicrous. Although I’m sure there’s an exception to what I’m about to write that someone will email me about very soon, by and large the only thing a valued online journalist is expected to immerse himself in is the screen in front of his face and, perhaps, the phone next to it. Weeks of in-person, on-scene reporting to produce a fully rounded piece of evocative, interesting, important journalism is just not the Internet way, at least to date.
Which brings me to my point: Alternative weeklies are a treasure, and each of them holds a treasure-chest full of long-form journalism in its archives. With the advent of the iPad and other tablets and the Kindle, the Nook and other e-readers, those archived stories could be packaged into e-books, as The New Yorker is doing with After 9/11, a compilation of stories from the decade after the terror attack that has an introduction by editor David Remnick. Imagine compilations of work from star writers at the Village Voice (on municipal corruption, perhaps) and the Washington City Paper (on race, perhaps).
And there is no reason to vend only the past. New long-form work that is distinguished enough can be sold as “singles,” and it’s happening right now at Amazon, with “Kindle Singles.” There are a whole passel of online startups — the Atavist comes to mind — that deal in some way with selling long-form nonfiction pieces individually via the Internet.
The alternative weekly industry holds the institutional memory for one of America’s most valuable journalism training grounds. That training ground needs to be preserved and transferred into the digital world, somehow. For that to happen, the alt-weeklies’ signature work needs to be monetized online. I am not smart enough to say exactly how that ought to happen, but I do think the owners of newsweeklies ought to consider partnering with an entity that would package, market and sell their long-form work (ala hulu.com, the video site “operated independently by a dedicated management team with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Tokyo and Beijing. NBCUniversal, News Corporation, The Walt Disney Company, Providence Equity Partners and the Hulu team share in the ownership stake of the company.”)
But that is just one idea for keeping the lights on at one of the best training grounds for in-depth journalism in America. I’m open to others, and offer one in closing this blog post, which I’ve purposely written way, way too long to suit the common Web wisdom on blog posts, just because I’m an alt-weekly alum and I can go on as long as I damn well please: Next time you walk past the newsbox for your city’s alternative weekly, pick one up. Take it home. Leave it on the coffee table long enough that you eventually read the longer piece or pieces in it. You’ll be helping to keep an alt-weekly financially healthy (yes, the papers are free, but the owners track how many are picked up and use the information in setting ad rates) and you just might stumble across one of America’s next great writers.