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Dear New York Times, Alt-Weeklies Are Decidedly Not "Over"

How are those mortgage payments going, NYT?
How are those mortgage payments going, NYT?
Flickr cc/ Joe Shlabotnik

Another day, another poorly thought-out article: Are Alt-Weeklies Over?

That the New York Times published this drivel yesterday is proof the Gray Lady is just as "over" as any news outlet.

Let's get a few things straight.

For anyone who's not a media insider, an "alt-weekly" is the industry name for what you might know in your city as "the cool paper" or "the edgy paper" or "the free paper"... or the fish wrapper with ads in the back where you can find a "good penis enlarger" (as said by a city official not happy with our outing of her misdeeds).

This type of publication can largely be traced to the Village Voice in New York, which popped up in the 1950s as an alternative to mainstream, conservative papers in the city. Its formula -- deep investigative stories; great coverage of arts, music, nightlife, and subcultures; a youthful spirit -- was replicated in cities throughout the United States. Because they rose up as alternatives to mainstream outlets and because they are typically published once a week, these publications got the (awkward) name "alt-weeklies." New Times is considered an alt-weekly, even though the term is now outdated (just as the term "newspaper" is outdated).

In the past decade, there was some industry consolidation (the Village Voice bought up a string of papers while Phoenix-based New Times likewise bought up a string. Then New Times bought the Village Voice's string and ultimately morphed into Voice Media Group) then lots of attrition: Ad sales dipped, page counts shrunk, and both readers and revenue moved from print to web -- a pattern that applies to almost every media property in the country.

At New Times Broward - Palm Beach and each of the 11 papers currently in the VMG chain, we still publish a print edition each week, plus stories that go online only -- totaling about 100 articles per week on three blogs.

That is, I would argue, far from "over."

But yesterday, the NYT published an article suggesting that alt-weeklies are dead, written by an editor at alt-weekly Baltimore City Paper. (Why this guy wants to come out and castrate himself is a mystery to me.) Not only is the article a rehashing of the 2012 NYT piece "Are Alternative Weeklies Toast?", which was itself a rehashing of a Buzzfeed article (Did ya catch that? The NYT follows Buzzfeed and then dares to condescend to alt-weeklies?), but its logic was really dumb: Alt-weeklies are important, and another company just came and saw value in my paper and paid money for it, so now all alt-weeklies are dying and everyone is "glum"!

The author's premise is that his paper is going to start sucking because a corporation bought it. Whether your paper starts to suck or not will depend on a lot of variables, from the writing ability of your staff to the commitment of your owners. I can tell you that a big company owns my paper, and guess where my fellow Managing Editor Tim Elfrink was yesterday, when the NYT published its story? In Boston, headed to Harvard University to pick up his check for $10,000 for being a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for his work on major-league baseball. (He's up against the Wall Street Journal and ABC News). Or was it to pick up his George Polk award? (As a finalist for this, he's in the company of reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post.) I can't remember; he's won so many this year. He's up for a Pulitzer.

For some reason, media writers in the past couple of years have been throwing shade at alt-weeklies specifically -- unfairly, I say! Are alt-weeklies struggling financially? Yes -- but so is almost every media property in this country that's not funded by a billionaire. (And Amazon still isn't profitable, so let's see how Jeff Bezos does with the Washington Post.) Sure, the Boston Phoenix went out of business; but so did the Rocky Mountain News, a daily. The Tulsa Weekly folded; so did Life magazine, dude. Vice gets along with a little help from Rupert Murdoch at Fox. Tribune went through bankruptcy, the New York Times has done layoffs; the Tampa Bay Times was in the news for layoffs this week. I guess when you use alt-weeklies as a punching bag, it takes the spotlight away from your own struggling media company.

I have no idea how long our writers will have jobs, but those who are here are very much alive and kicking ass, I assure you. I feel like I need to stand up for every keyboard rat and ad rep who's plugging away at the Cleveland Scene or the New Orleans Gambit or the Isthmus in Madison or right here in South Florida. At my company specifically, we do a mix of coverage, including the kind of long-form stories that you'll find in magazines like GQ and Esquire. But while magazines typically publish once a month, we pump out a long-form story once a week -- on what I can assure you is a tiny fraction of any national magazine's budget. A typical magazine writer is given several months to conceptualize, report, write, and edit a cover story. Each of our writers completes this cycle every five weeks. In addition, each writer must write a blog every single day and, some weeks, a 1,200-word news story on top of that. Yes, it's brutal. Still, we just had 100 applicants for an open staff writer job.

Do we write dumb lists or breezy blogs? Sometimes, yeah. The Tribune Co. does boob slideshows. New York mag makes up shit like "normcore." (OK, that was awesome.) Even the esteemed New Yorker gets most of its mileage out of Onion-style fake news from Andy Borowitz. Alt-weeklies are no different from any modern media outlet in mixing serious reporting with fluffier, popular stuff and trying to find a combo that works. Don't even try at act like you're above the list format, NYT! Our cover stories will slay you and dumb lists eat your dumb lists for breakfast.

 

Last week, when we ran a story about how teenagers are routinely getting tied down in four-point restraints and shot up with mysterious sedatives they call "booty juice" at a taxpayer-funded facility a reader commented: "New Times may do the occasional story about Bieber farting in a jacuzzi, but when they do an investigative story, watch the fuck out. They play no kind of games." I beamed.

I could go on about yesterday's article... "For many people, the alt weekly as a genre is already passé, rendered irrelevant by the rise of the Internet." This argument is sophomoric at best. While it's true that sites like Craigslist drew revenue away from alt-weeklies (and ALL newspapers!), we publish the majority of our stories -- and sell ads -- on said internet. "The internet" is a tool as much as an enemy.

All of this -- "an alt weekly is connected to a city in the way that a website can never be... Alt weeklies also report on the cultural life of a city in a way that neither big daily papers nor websites can... An alt weekly has a staff of paid reporters and editors whose jobs are not only to know the city, but to love it, to hate it, and to be an integral part of it" -- is blather. Any writer can and should do all this; whether they scribble the resulting thoughts on tree bark or a wordpress site or Gene Weingarten's underpants is irrelevant.

All of us in media are up against a wall, because we're all dependent upon advertising. And when companies can get something for free instead of paying for it, they will. So if they can get their message out for free on social media or Craigslist or YouTube, then they have less incentive to pay us to spread their messages for them.

The only way to fight that is produce content that's soooo good or essential that people will pay money for it. All of us in journalism soldier on because we're sadists we're narcissists we never learned how to codewe know that information has value -- the pen is mightier than the sword, knowledge is power, and all that. Added bonuses at an alt-weekly: You can write about whatever your curiosity leads you to, rather than being stuck on a beat; you can tell your editor to his face if you think his idea is dumb, and he will respect the honesty; you have staff meetings over beers.

How information can be monetized, and how exactly the business models will play out, is something that keeps publishers up at night. At the Sacramento News & Review they have a copywriting arm; in places like Burlington, the alt-weekly is so entrenched that longtime clients still rely on it. To suggest that alt-weeklies as a class are weaker than any other type of media outlet is lazy and it's wrong. We are pumping out some of the best journalism in the country.

For a more engaging, well-reported, and fascinating read than yesterday's New York Times piece, please check out Terry McCoy's story about kids who gang-raped their friend and left a trail of misogyny and drug abuse on Facebook. Although I am sorry to to reveal that just this week, the Washington Post snatched McCoy from us to work on the foreign desk. (Terry, say hi to Gene!)

Sorry, we have to get back to speaking truth to Keith Olbermann and exposing people on Palm Beach who are holding parties for candles that cost $595. Maybe the New York Times can manufacture some kind of trend story around that. Seems like your kind of thing.

Send story tips to Deirdra.Funcheon@BrowardPalmBeach.com




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