The alt-weekly death spiral speeds onward

There have been some insightful eulogies to the Village Voice print edition over the past week. And while many have pointed out that the newspaper had become a shell of itself (most especially with the departure of Tony Ortega in 2012 and the subsequent editorial mutiny in 2013), there is cause now more than ever to review the meaning of the alt-weekly in cities. I happen to be employed by one, Cleveland Scene, and so the trajectory of this print media niche is pretty important to me.

Let’s just read this piece together, from CityLab.

David Dudley writes: “The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances. The alternative media was the informal archive of the city’s id, a catalog of fandom and contempt that limned the contours of the populace. And this part of their role, as it turns out, is a lot harder to replace in the digital era.”

There’s a dearth of local media outlets that do this sort of stuff anymore. With the loss of an alt, the only relative comparison is often a snarky blog (usually captained by an alt-weekly alum). Cities lose that archive of the id, and residents lose out on pathways to informed citizenship.

Another problem is that there’s a simultaneous death spiral occurring at most major metropolitan dailies. Even the standard news cycle for papers like The Plain Dealer has been ignored vis a vis a “pivot” to video, to listicles, to TV show recaps, to endless sports navel-gazing, to contests. (Reporters are transferred to different beats right as they get their footing, council meetings are left unattended, etc. etc.) At Scene and at places like the dying Baltimore City Paper, small staffs are left to pick up the void in major daily coverage. Readers suffer. And, soon enough, the city won’t have its alt-weekly to kick around anymore.

What then?

The death of print media and the transition of those companies to digital is an unsolvable problem, for the most part. In Baltimore (and Boston and Arkansas), alt journalists are working on a nonprofit model to fund reporting and photography — material that will appear in other existing outlets while bearing that institutional alt voice.

I meet too many people in Cleveland who don’t even know what Scene is. It may be a relic of a bygone newsprint era, or it may be bad outreach on my part and others’. I’m not sure, but I know that each day the paper’s presence fades just a little bit more (hard work and in-depth reporting notwithstanding).

All that being said, you can find my latest feature here, in which I explore the tragic silver lining of the American opiate overdose crisis. And here, you’ll find ongoing reporting on the shooting death of Luke Stewart.

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