The Loss Of Alt-Weeklies

Reflecting on the demise of three alternative weekly papers in Connecticut – the New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly – Brian LaRue laments “the loss of opportunity for journalists, particularly young journalists” it reflects:

Oh, sure — it’s 2013, and there’s no shortage of outlets for a young, loud, opinionated dish_altweekly2 writer to be loud and opinionated in media. But oftentimes — and I’ve written about this before, talking about the shift in media from the all-hands-on-deck newsroom to these networks of isolated bloggers — you lose the wisdom of the tribe that comes from being part of an editorial staff at a decades-old publication. And beyond that, working at an alt-weekly teaches a journalist so many important lessons. For reasons I’ve already laid out, when you report for an alt-weekly, you have to go deep. You have to figure out the not-obvious story. You have to become an engaging storyteller, not just a sharp transcriber. The editorial staff is small. (When I worked at the New Haven Advocate, the most full-time editorial staffers we ever had was seven, and that didn’t last long.) Your beat is broad. You need to learn your history, fast, so you know what to ask about and who to talk to. In general, you need to get really good. Really. Goddamned. Good.

He goes on to argue that alt-weeklies aren’t just important, “they’re also fun“:

They kind of have to be. The salaries are typically atrocious, the hours are long and the benefits are slim. … In his excellent appreciation of Boston Phoenix upon that esteemed alt-weekly’s shuttering, former Phoenix editor S.I. Rosenbaum pointed out how “the job itself had to be the reward.” You work for an alt-weekly because, every week, it feels like some combination of a public service and a tremendous prank you can’t believe you’re getting away with. You spend countless days in which you work from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed again because you know you’re helping to create an ongoing community institution, something thousands of people rely on for an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and you have to bring your A-game for them.

But there’s at least one state where the alt-weekly still thrives: Vermont.  In September, Jim Fallows spotlighted Burlington’s Seven Days, a print newspaper that:

  • Has a three-times-larger print distribution now than it did at its inception in the mid-1990s;
  • Has a healthy print-and-digital classified-ad section, including a robust set of recruitment ads and “help wanted” listings (400+ when I checked this afternoon, in a city of 40,000+ and a surrounding metro area several times that large);
  • Employs more people now than it ever has before; and
  • Is on pace for its best year ever in total revenue, up by more than 20% from its high before the crash of 2008.

Fallows offered “two comments from its publisher, co-founder, and co-editor Paula Routly”:

1) On the print business overall: “My biggest problem is the ‘death of print’ doom and gloom talk, which scares advertisers into thinking no one will see their ads. But as long as people keep picking up our paper, which they do, the ads get seen.”

2) On a reason why this paper is working, when many others aren’t (apart from the un-wired status of much of Vermont, which impedes online growth): “People look at our paper and it makes them happy and interested to be here. That motivates them to do something, and participate — which makes it more a community, and gives us something to cover. It’s a cycle that works.”

(Image of New Haven Advocate from March, 2008, via Aaron Gustafson)