Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Survival, Alternatively

As newspapers start dieting and magazines stop deploying, where is the place of the alternative weekly?

Founded as the evolutionary offspring of 1960's underground press, alternative weeklies offered a wealth of satire, opinion, and adult ads to the generally left-leaning masses. Many serve a local area, providing ample newsprint real estate for bars, clubs, and music venues. Most metropolitan areas are home to at least one alternative weekly, and most of them are independent of larger media conglomerates, operating under a different business model than their broadsheet brethren.

But since the 2006 merger of New Times Media and Village Voice Media, 17 or so weeklies (about 25 percent of those in North America) answer to the same higher power. Things just haven't been the same - the Village Voice itself has run through five editor-in-chiefs this calendar year. So what is the future of the coolest tabloids on the market?

In my opinion, less certain than dailies and magazines. But that's a good thing.

Alternative weeklies tend to straddle the line between citizen and professional journalism. They aspire to write professionally on the subjects the average local concerns himself with the most. For this, they should be the most worried - the citizen journalism movement is most threatening to their content. Just think about the competition:

  • Local coverage of events or places the average person wouldn't know
  • Opinionated writing, sometimes drawing from personal experience
  • Often updated, leaving weeklies to seem "behind."
  • Also largely free to read

As in newspapers and magazines, alternative weeklies syndicate columns to each other. Does the future of the AW hold syndicated blogs as part of their content?

Well, it could - but it has to suggest innovative ways of distributing content that monolith companies couldn't shuffle quick enough to implement. Uncertainty is freedom.

Currently, most alternative weeklies have websites that run all of their articles, minus (most of) the attention-grabbing futon ads. Neither are set up to be optmized experiences; for example, finding an archived article on the Village Voice's website is at best trying, and reading an article with an image, unfortunately reproduced online as no bigger than a thumbprint (smaller than a blog, even), is depressing. For a publication that is so image-heavy, where are they?

Some strategic tweaking is due for AWs on the web - but it could be their vaccine against plagued newspapers and viral blogs.

Of course, most urban AWs rely on the notion that most of its readers will pick the physical copy up, read it, and dispense it a little bit slower than that day's Metro, and that's a correct assumption - one similar to the expectation that few mull over a single blog post. But some of their long-players - those mostly fabulous, muckraking political, social or civil exposes that are occasionally as good as a TIME or New Yorker piece - are in danger if the physical medium is on the decline from digital competition. The down-to-the-ground expose is their trump card, and something few (if any) blogs can match.

The publicizing of web-only features is a start, since many timely print pieces probably get the axe for space issues. This could help an alternative weekly's site become more than just a dumping ground for its paper. The beginning of a super-specific blog - a Talk of the Town-focused enterprise, or at least something more substantial than rerunning OverheardNY - could be a feature worth returning to. Running its best post each week in the print edition might give readers the impression that they're missing something good online.

To my knowledge, no publication has printed a blog post in its physical copy. Maybe its timeliness, maybe it's its unedited nature, but innovation's worth a try if alternative weeklies don't want to die.

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