Wednesday, November 14

"Hey, That's Not an Alt-Weekly!"

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, has a pretty straightforward column on what is and isn't an alt-weekly newspaper, partly in response to a New Mexico senatorial candidate keeps labeling his politics journal as an alternative press.

From Karpel:
But "alternative newspaper" is more than the sum of its parts. It is a term of art that describes newspapers that share a certain set of characteristics, which are roughly as follows:

# Free-circulation tabloid
# General interest coverage primarily focused on local news, culture and the arts
# Extensive entertainment listings
# Informal and sometimes profane writing style
# Emphasis on point-of-view reporting and narrative journalism
# Reporting that often concerns issues and communities that don't receive much attention from other media
# Political philosophy and organizational culture based on tolerance for individual freedoms and social differences

The Chronicle generally follows these tenets (we're still too young to be considered for membership in AAN), and Karpel's perspective is a reminder of why alt presses are often integral media outlets in communities. No, we're not another voice reporting on city or university press releases; we're out here telling the missed or ignored stories of the disenfranchised or overlooked and then providing analysis (and sometimes ridicule) and a point of view that mainstream papers, which Northern Colorado has a glut of, and faux-alts stray away from.


Daniel Brogan said...

Hmm. So let's see if I understand this correctly. In order to be considered "alternative," you must strictly conform to an extensive set of detailed criteria? I guess that explains why so many of the most successful alt-weeklies are owned by the same corporate overlord.

vanessa said...

Dan raises a concern that hasn't been discussed formally at AAN conventions that I have attended (and over the past four years they've been many), perhaps barring board meetings, in which I have never participated, so I cannot say.

However, there are numerous independent alts that do expressly discuss their anxiety over the conglomerating effect. We are seeing this play out very bitterly and publicly in San Francisco, where the Bay Guardian is suing the SF Weekly (held by Village Voice Media) for alleged predatory sales practices.

Moreover, I think that Richard felt the need to write this at all comes from the fact that these criteria haven't led to strict conformity. Just the opposite has happened, causing more and more people to question just what an alternative newsweekly is. I'm not sure the longstanding established papers feel this pressure as much as the younger ones (my experience tells me they don't), especially those just starting out in a saturated market, where everyone from the college paper to the daily-owned faux alts are borrowing from the alt traditions, usually with embarrassing results.

Because of my position as the editor of now two very small, independent weekly startups, and a former albeit brief position at a very successful mid-size independent AAN paper, I am generally most aligned with the independent AAN publishers (who have a caucus within the association). That said, I also have friends and acquaintances who work for the "corporate overlord," making much fairer wages and with much more creative freedom than most of the folks I know at the smaller alts.

And in my brief time as a member of the association's editorial and diversity committees, I saw corporate and independents alike firmly commit to not just hiring, but training, journalists of color and GLBT journalists. We're talking about some of the consistently best and most promising writers in the industry, including Westword's Jared Jacang Maher and Gustavo Arellano, the OC Weekly investigative reporter of Ask A Mexican fame. At the smaller papers, Matt Saldana's courts coverage for the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi was some of the best beat reporting I've read. There are numerous others who've either graduated from AAN's Academy of Alternative Journalism (at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism) or received intern monies through the diversity program. There are not barriers between corporate and independent when it comes to the association's treatment of its members at this level nor in its editorial programming, or at least the programming that I've attended. In fact, the large majority of the editorial committee members represent small and mid-size papers that are not owned by VVM. However, many are held by media organizations that hold other publications, from city/lifestyle magazines like Dan's (5280) to bilingual and community papers and even egregious shoppers.

Richard's decision to write this, I think, is a good one. A discussion of any organization as discerning and established as AAN needs to throw a line out every once in a while to maintain its relevance. I wouldn't argue for anything rash or drastic, as I have a deep appreciation for the education and guidance I have received from various AAN members, independent and corporate, but shake ups should be mandatory every so often.

Daniel Brogan said...

Honestly, I was just being a smart-ass, but since Vanessa decided to be so damn thoughtful, I guess I should respond.

More than anything else I find it amusing that Richard feels a need for such a rigid (and often picayune) set of criterium for joining the club. It reminds me of high school -- if you don't wear exactly the right uniform, you can't hang out with the cool kids. (And how, in practice, does one define "sometimes" profane? is there a quota of f-bombs you've got to drop each week/month/quarter? Does Dave McSwane get a lifetime pass?)

There was a time, no doubt, when alt-weeklies were an important, well, alternative to a closed, monopolistic media. But in an era where citizens can choose from an overwhelming number and variety of voices, I've got to ask "alternative to what?"

Daniel Brogan said...

Oops. Looks like the end of my comment was truncated.

I'm all for the kind of work done by alt-weeklies, I'm just saying that the "alternative" pose has worn thin.