Good alt weeklies: ‘The indescribable savoriness of salty, sweet, sour, bitter’

Last year I started working increasingly with alternative newsweeklies, including the Chicago Reader, and I wanted to learn who among my friends was reading them, if anyone, and why. I did a scientific survey to get to the bottom of this. (OK, it was just my Facebook friends, but hey, this includes some of the industry’s brightest journos as well as some of Chicago’s most avid culture-hounds.) I regularly read alt weeklies, but found few of my friends who did, either in print or online. Luckily, alt weekly mega-fan Hank Stuever, my friend and TV critic for The Washington Post, chimed in. After his response below, stay tuned as he tackles my follow-up question: What would be his focus if he were editing an alt weekly today? (Ha!)

“Do you read alt weeklies? And if so, why?”

Hank StueverSTUEVER: ALWAYS. Because it’s how I was raised, and I raised myself. I bought a copy of the Village Voice at a B. Dalton’s in Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City when I was 15, in 1983, and pored over it like it was the Cuneiform tablet. It took me forever to figure it out and learn the language: What is this “village”? It has gay porn theaters? Oh my garsh, it’s in _New York._ It’s a village and it’s in New York. How about that. What is CBGB’s? Why is a WMC advertising for a BiF. What’s that? etc. etc. My mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I asked for (and got) a subscription to Village Voice, which I renewed for years.

My first internship was at an alt-weekly – the Oklahoma Gazette.

Everywhere I have lived, the alt weekly was a habit: LA Weekly; the Alibi (Albuquerque, NM) and Santa Fe Reporter; the Austin Chronicle; DC City Paper *. And my favorite (which up until recently came in the mail), the Stranger in Seattle. (See coincidental love letter to Stranger.)

There was a time when you couldn’t NOT read a city’s alt weekly, and I still believe in that time, that feeling. Where are bands playing? Who’s placed personal ads? Where can I get the best burrito? I still think it’s the easiest way to find out what to do or what’s going on – I can glean more in 5 minutes of flipping through City Paper than I can in 25 or 30 minutes of purposeful web surfing of local sites. The web can’t replicate it, though I’m sure anyone under 35 will be happy to prove otherwise. Now alt weeklies exist to perpetuate my fantasy that I belong. They’re still GOOD, too. A lot of them. They aren’t what they were, though. Name one thing that is.

OK, fine. Question No. 2: “What would be your focus if you were editing an alt weekly today?”

I asked Hank to set aside for a moment the assertion (from himself and others) that the print medium can be more enjoyable or easier or convenient to read than digital; how would he approach the competition from the web, from apps? From commercial upstarts like Yelp and Groupon and (yeah) Craigslist or sites and email blasts like Daily Candy or Urban Daddy – the competition for niche-y readers is fierce, and everyone thinks they have a hip and “alternative” voice these days, including readers, snarking away like never before with their instant mini-reviews and photos on Yelp, Twitter, etc.

BACK TO STUEVER: This reminds me of a Time magazine cover from 1994 (attached) that basically posited (17 years ago!) that “Everybody’s Hip … And That’s Not Cool.” It also wondered what happens in a culture when everyone and everything is hip, outsmarting one another, two steps ahead.

I don’t have any experience editing alt weeklies, though I always dreamed of it. It turned out dailies were the life for me. I think some of Ron’s examples – Yelp, Groupon, Craigslist – are focused on the individual, serving a world of consumers determined to outsmart (and outbuy or outsave) everyone else in the most convenient way possible, with next to no interest in slowing down, absorbing information, thinking, deliberating, enjoying the hunt (for awareness, for hipness, for understanding of the human condition). Alt weeklies can go for that Groupon crowd all they want (and nab some of it), but none of those offer the voice and editorial feel of what a good alt weekly (still) has. Take a look, on Groupon’s web site, of what it’s looking for in writers. It’s very, very precise and leaves little room for weirdo stories written by weirdos, even though it pretends to want that.

A good alt-weekly. It’s like the journalistic equivalent of umami – the indescribable savoriness that goes with salty, sweet, sour, bitter. It’s just a texture more than anything else and it celebrates being intangible. Maybe the trick to editing an alt weekly is to treat it like the slow-food locavore dish: well made, homegrown, hand crafted. (PUT A BIRD ON IT! Haha.)

Look at what people will do for vinyl records. Look at all those indie bands that have discovered the washboard and ukelele and all sorts of early 20th century poses. Look at all the guys with Miner ’49er facial hair. Look at all the people who farm on rooftops, listen to “This American Life.” THOSE are alt-weekly readers. Of course, they aren’t the biggest spenders you could chase, so maybe this idea – edit the alt weekly the way you always have, or instictively – is a surefire way to run the business into the ground. But what a ride!

* * *

BACK TO RON: Hank, you always get me thinking. (And thanks for being a good correspondent and including “visuals” and “hyper-links” with your submission. You’ve really got the eye, mister!) Without getting too much into what we’ve got cooking at the Reader, we definitely want to maintain the serendipity and that “insider” feel that is so important. We want not just the Miner ’49er and rooftop farmers, but people who want to know, what are those oddballs up to? Really? And those who wonder what would it be like to hang out with them. The big picture here is trickier than ever, and we are chewing over questions of revenue, and appeal to advertisers, in new ways. (Funny how that stuff never once came up in J-school.) Of course I’ll blog about our solutions if/when the time is right. (Detour: yesterday’s post looking back at a few fave Reader cover stories from 2010.)

Your comments remind me of an unusual chat I had with Dan Savage a few weeks back, after kidnapping him from Berlin (the nightclub, not the city) to drive him to his hotel at O’Hare from a speaking event here in Chicago. The lengths one will go to for free face time to talk alt weeklies. He stressed – rightly so – that a dynamic print publication (and oddball, like his Stranger) is important, but only so much as it serves as a platform springing readers off into a strong array of digital products, events, social media, etc. He also shared brownie recipes and travel tips for superstars of the lecture circuit, but that’s a blog post for another day.

Comments on Stuever’s statements, or anything else about the existence or relevance of alt weeklies, are welcome. Submit below.

[* Disclaimer: City Paper is owned by Creative Loafing Inc., which also owns the Chicago Reader and Creative Loafing Atlanta, my current and former redesign clients. Neither Stuever nor anyone else was paid to say any kind words about City Paper or any others, and we both hereby exclude ourselves from any lawsuits filed against anybody.]

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2 Comments

  1. Jaimie Lannan

     /  February 9, 2011

    Please don’t make the Reader look like that train wreck in Atlanta.

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