The obituarists issued last rites for Baltimore’s alternative weekly, City Paper, last month not long after they penned the same for the 62-year-old Village Voice. In 2015, they gave the Philadelphia City Paper its death notices, and before that the San Francisco Bay Guardian (2014) and the Boston Phoenix (2013). Today, reporters are sharpening their quills should they be assigned to bury the Washington City Paper—a paper I once edited and which is up for sale—or one of the other financially frazzled alt-weeklies.
The alt-weekly sunset has many causes, as I wrote five years ago. The record shops and bookstores, the ones that reliably advertised in alt-weekly pages, have mostly vanished, as have many local retailers and service providers. Once the lowest-cost advertising vehicle in many cities, alt-weeklies have lost that status to Web advertising, most notably in the classified ads and personals categories, where the mass migration from print to online has sapped all newspapers, alt-weeklies and dailies alike. Once the untouchable authority for what to do in the city, the alt-weeklies were long ago eclipsed by the mobile phone.
As alt-weekly revenues, circulation and influence have wound down, one thing has endured: distinctive editorial content. The slant has varied from town to town, with some papers advancing a lefty political agenda and others embracing a more independent direction, but most such papers produced a worthy combination of news, investigations, commentary, essays and critical writing. Unfortunately, great copy may be a necessary condition for publishing success, but it’s not a sufficient condition. This breaks every noble heart that ever edited or wrote for one of them.
My love for alt-weeklies doesn’t blind me to the fact that they weren’t consistently great. But the same applies to most daily newspapers. What did distinguish alt-weekly copy from what you got in your daily was a palpable sense of the city, a connection most dailies lost as their readers and many of their writers moved to the suburbs or more genteel parts of town. Cities are places of conflict, congestion, confusion, creativity, drugs, larceny, sex and licentiousness, all of which make great copy. The closer you were to the city—and at alt-weekly salaries few could afford to live anywhere else—the richer the variety of stories that would come your way. Plus, alt-weekly writers, being younger, were always more willing to take chances.
Image: By Herder3 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons