Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Building A Better Alternative

I have a hard time even beginning to think about how important so-called alternative weekly (or alt-weekly) newspapers have been to culture in North America. The Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, Boston Real Paper, Washington, D.C.'s, City Paper, Toronto's NOW and dozens of others have been essential links between arts-hungry readers and artists and arts venues that could not afford to advertise in mainstream media. Needless to say, many of these papers have also played an essential role in providing a broader view of local politics, business and sports than large dailies could provide.

I have no trouble expressing how important they were to my own life: I got my first paying journalism job at one, met my wife, gained exposure to countless artists, and learned much of what I know about running a business.

What's more, over the past 35 years, I've seen many of the best music journalists I know get their start at various alt-weeklies.

Rachael Daigle—a veteran of the alt-weekly trenches herself—has written a detailed piece on the decline of the format, and how she and others believe it can be reborn.

Perhaps the most-insightful comment in the article is by Jeff Lawrence, publisher of Dig Boston, who says that the competing Boston Phoenix didn't die because alternative media is dying, but because it could not find a way to adapt to the new landscape.

Indeed, if any form of journalistic endeavour should be able to change with the times, it is the alts. They have typically attracted management that relishes finding new ways to survive, and they have a young audience willing to use alternative means to get the information they want.

Here in Ottawa, since 1978, I think I've contributed to at least four alt-weeklies that didn't make it, but I am more encouraged than ever that this type of journalism will continue to find a way to survive. What inspires my confidence are the efforts of several very smart, well-financed people I've met recently who are building new models to connect citizens to culture. When I look back on what killed most of the alt-weeklies I knew intimately, it was usually hard costs and hard realities—realities like printers who refused to run the next week's issue without cash up front. I think emerging technologies are finally where they need to be to provide a foundation for new formats. Now, publishers need to put the components together to make successful business models—ensuring that advertisers see value in the product and that contributors are fairly compensated.

We are not there yet, but it's getting closer.

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