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Alt-Weeklies Face Total Annihilation. But They’re Thriving in the Chaos.

The weekly and biweekly newspapers are still brash, slightly snarky, and unafraid to speak truth to power. They’re also an endangered species. At a time that calls for more hyperlocal reporting, however, they remain vital.

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Leigh Tauss, an editor at the North Carolina alt-weekly INDY Week, was alone in the paper’s Raleigh office on the night of May 30 when the first brick crashed through a window. At first, “I pretty much hid behind a water cooler,” she says, chatting on the phone in late June. “If you scroll back through my tweets, the whole thing is there.”

INDY Week prides itself on providing “progressive news, culture, and commentary for Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill”; Tauss had spent that evening documenting local protests that mirrored other uprisings nationwide inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis five days earlier. She’d returned to the office in part to wash the tear gas out of her eyes.

“I hid in the basement for a while and ended up leaving with another reporter,” she says. She’d heard strange voices in the office while waiting for her friend to show, but at that point, only a lamp and a water cooler had been stolen. But “the next day, we found out that looters had smashed every window in the building, stolen my computer, set a couch on fire, and made the sprinkler system go off for four hours,” Tauss says. “The entire space was flooded, and it was a total loss. So I tweeted pictures of the vandalized office and all the shattered glass.”

One of those tweets went viral, and raised the ire of those enraged by both the protests and any journalists reporting on those protests empathetically. “So then, on top of the devastation of losing our office, on top of the trauma of having all of our reporters get tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets at these riots, we had the alt-right coming after us,” Tauss says. Soon she was inundated with “the most hateful, vile messages you can imagine.” Which did not, of course, keep her from covering the very next night’s protests, and the weeks of jarring and momentous events—the curfews, the often violent conflicts between protestors and law enforcement, the toppled Confederate monuments—that followed.

“There’s a certain personality type that goes for this job that kind of thrives on chaos,” she says. “Weirdly, I find it calming.” It helps, of course, to believe deeply in what you’re doing. “My business getting smashed, or me getting tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets, is just not as significant as the police violence happening against Black bodies routinely in this country. I really try to keep that my focus. That’s why we’re doing this right now.”

Alt-weeklies, historically, thrive on chaos, even as that chaos usually poses an existential threat to them specifically. By mid-March, just a few weeks into widespread national shutdowns in response to COVID-19, the phrase “total annihilation” had emerged as the best way to describe the industry’s outlook. “This has, without a doubt, been the single worst week in the history of America’s alternative press,” wrote Joshua Benton in a March 19 Nieman Journalism Lab piece already then tallying the layoffs, the suspensions of print issues, the impassioned calls for donations, the outright shutdowns. (Poynter has a comprehensive updated list surveying the carnage across all media.)

Local journalism overall has, of course, struggled mightily for years, if not decades, but this is a comically awful time to be a free, hyperlocal newspaper largely distributed in the same bars, clubs, and restaurants upon which it depends for advertising. Bonus points if the paper’s covering a region where the government response to COVID-19 has been especially inept. Like Texas. “I told everyone from the beginning,” says longtime Austin Chronicle music editor Raoul Hernandez. “I’m a journalist in a disaster area.”

But the death of George Floyd after Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, and the national outpouring of grief and anger that followed, is a story that historically progressive alt-weeklies were born to cover. The protests. The earnest activism. The reinvigorated focus on Black Lives Matter, and bail funds, and defunding the police, and any given city’s Confederate monuments—all subjects these sorts of papers have explored vigorously for years. That’s why beloved Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger could offer vibrantly thorough and unabashedly personal insight into the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), an activist occupation of a Seattle neighborhood that for weeks generated a wealth of misinformation, Media Twitter abstraction, and Trump-driven demagoguery.

It was just the sort of complex, delicate, constantly mutating story—CHOP was dismantled on July 1 after multiple reported shootings—best handled by reporters who actually worked, and lived, in town. “From what I’ve been seeing from the national news outlets, especially more conservative ones, they tend to focus on things like there’s a warlord who’s also a SoundCloud rapper, and there’s a bunch of crusty anarchists,” says Stranger staff writer Jasmyne Keimig of the early CHOP discourse. “And sometimes there is truth to it, but I think it mostly obscures the problems, and the things that people are actually talking about on the ground.”

In Ohio, the online weekly Columbus Alive—with a staff consisting of two people—goes viral with the bizarre tale of a colorful school bus full of hippie circus performers accosted by a SWAT team during a downtown protest and refashioned, via right-leaning social media, into one of those dreaded Busloads of Antifa. (Marco Rubio tweeted about it, but sometimes juggling clubs are just juggling clubs, and an ax for firewood is just an ax for firewood.) Pittsburgh City Paper can both counter police narratives about the use of force at local protests and explain the ongoing controversy at the city’s biggest daily, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which barred some of its own Black reporters from covering those protests due to “bias.” In Oregon, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Willamette Week can tap into a surge in calls for racial justice so far-reaching it triggered the Portland Stripper Strike.

And of course, in Minneapolis, the longtime alt-weekly City Pages can suddenly find itself standing at the epicenter of an international movement and poised to play a crucial role in leading it, even as prestigious out-of-town journalists parachuted into town seemingly by the thousands. “I do think it’s been very interesting to see Minneapolis portrayed in national media,” says City Pages editor-in-chief Emily Cassel. “I mean, when in history has the world paid this much attention to the Twin Cities, right?”

But the paper—and the timeless alt-weekly format and ethos—was built for this fraught moment.

“I don’t think that all print media is guilty of printing verbatim what police tell them, but I think some of them are, and we’ve been writing about defunding the police for years,” Cassel says. “We’ve been writing about Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective and these groups that are suddenly springing into consciousness here in the Twin Cities and nationally—we’ve been writing about their efforts for years now. These are things that we pay attention to. We’ve been critical of Bob Kroll [the confrontational president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis] for years now. All of these things where it’s like, ‘Yes. Welcome. Join us.’”

Alternative to what? The platonic ideal of an alt-weekly thrives on antagonism, on a defiant and communal sense of otherness. Feuding with the bloodless and monolithic daily paper. Feuding with the clueless and totally bullshit rival alt-weekly, back when most cities could support two (!!). Feuding with the hapless local-TV-news cabal. (I spent my first day in journalism at a long-gone Columbus publication literally called The Other Paper, sitting with my cackling coworkers as they watched bootleg footage of a local newscaster’s false teeth flying out of his mouth on the air.)

Those were the days. Those were the days is practically this corner of journalism’s national creed. In 2020, some of the biggest alt-weeklies, including the Boston Phoenix and my former home, the Village Voice, are gone, while some others, including L.A. Weekly, have changed owners and lost much of their prestige. For those that remain, it’s altogether possible (as with Columbus Alive and Minnesota’s City Pages) that the local daily now owns the local weekly. (Others are independently owned or part of national chains, but whatever the arrangement, most have roughly a dozen editorial staffers, if that. The Stranger itself laid off 18 employees in March; its sister paper, the Portland Mercury, laid off 10.)

But even most of the daily-owned papers have retained their autonomy. Their defiance. Their hard-fought right to use curse words in print, the importance of which can’t be understated, even post-internet. “We have pretty unlimited leeway for the most part,” Columbus Alive editor Andy Downing says, describing his paper’s relationship with the daily Columbus Dispatch. “Every once in a while you get an email, ‘Did you need to use the word fuck here?’ It’s like, ‘Well, probably not, but I did.’”

And most importantly, alt-weeklies have held fast to what is, in most cases, their progressive ardor, their hallowed privilege to say, in print, what more buttoned-up journalists aren’t even supposed to think.

Take the deified Chicago Reader, founded nearly a half-century ago and now helmed by co-editors-in-chief Karen Hawkins and Sujay Kumar. “We are allowed to acknowledge that we have a point of view,” Hawkins says, chatting in mid-June. “Every person has a point of view. Our publisher wrote a post this week about the myth of objectivity. I have always believed in that. The Reader, as an alt-weekly, is a publication that has always taken a stand on certain issues, and reported on issues in a very particular way. That, to me, has been the biggest relief: the freedom to acknowledge, yes, hi, police brutality exists, and it’s not OK. Nothing is ‘racially tinged.’ It’s just racist. Let’s just call it what it is.”

That blunt approach applies to the legacies of these papers themselves, and how they’re changing, demographically, in ways that heighten and sharpen their perspective on our current era. “It’s not lost on us, the history of the Reader, and how it’s been traditionally a white male legacy publication,” Kumar says. “So yeah, in some ways people trust it, but in other ways people are easy to dismiss things with, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s just the Reader, it’s North Side white guys.’ Even though Karen and I are black and brown editors running it. It’s a wild time.”

That dynamic, an alt-weekly’s constant reckoning with both its own history and the country’s, can manifest in myriad ways, down to an individual word choice. Tess Riski, an intimidatingly prolific Willamette Week reporter who’d previously written for major dailies from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal to the Miami Herald, recalls a recent staff conversation about whether to refer to local protests as uprisings. “I think we’re able to think in more progressive ways,” she says, “about what the right language might be.”

Which in turn gives an alt-weekly more credibility with both readers and activists than other publications, and makes it better equipped to dispel the wilder social-media rumors about who’s leading these uprisings, and why. “We’re on the ground talking to people at protests who identify as being anti-fascist protesters,” Riski says. “We’re talking to the people instead of just hearing officials’ messages about it. So it’s easy for us to hear claims about these ‘violent antifa protesters’ and know that it might be kind of bullshit, because we’re just more in the loop on that. It’s not new to us. It’s like parents have their interpretation of what kids’ slang is, right? And then they try to explain it, and a teenager is like, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ I feel like we’re the teenagers who know the slang. Does that make sense?”

Credibility of that sort can manifest in everything an alt-weekly does, and make the paper feel vital and revolutionary even in its silliest moments. In another lifetime, from my perspective, Columbus Alive, which published its last print issue a year ago and is now online only, was itself the accursed rival alt-weekly. But it long ago became a crucial and tangible part of the Columbus I live in now. Deep features on the rise of homegrown white nationalist Andrew Anglin and a prominent brewery founder accused by multiple women of sexual assault. (Last month in North Carolina, the INDY Week staff forced out then-editor Jeffrey Billman for botching a similar tip about a local restaurant owner accused of sexual misconduct.) The sex shop that turned into a semi-official protestor hub. The local activist who had his own brush with Trump-driven viral infamy that got so out of control he was mistaken for a member of indie-rock band the National.

But it’s just as gratifying to watch the Alive Facebook page troll its own trolls (“Nice job liking your own post, Kirt”) or uncork the headline “Columbus Discovers America (Doesn’t Like Him).” In April, a Dispatch photographer took an iconic, disturbingly zombie-esque, instantly viral photo of a statehouse protest against Ohio’s coronavirus-driven stay-at-home order; the Alive had the institutional backing to repost it and the authority to do so under the headline “Get a Load of These Jokers.”

The slightest hint of snark, after all, is historically a crucial part of the experience too. “There was a little bit of this feeling of ‘That’s pretty funny, so we should do it,’” Alive associate editor Joel Oliphint says. (In honor of he and Downing being the paper’s last two editorial staffers, Oliphint’s Zoom background is the sinking kayak meme.) “You know what I mean? If it’s funny enough, if it feels funny enough, you roll with it. You don’t want to be that all the time. But there are times where you want to embrace the alt-weekly aspect of this.”

Other historically crucial elements of the alt-weekly experience—the curse-word-driven media feuds, for example—are far less prevalent in July 2020. There are more important battles to fight, including the one for survival. Every publication, of any size, is struggling mightily now—that Poynter list might’ve updated since you last looked at it—and at the local and less hyperpartisan level, at least, there’s a growing sense that everyone’s in this together, this being the COVID- and protest-driven eternal moment of Maximum News under terrible economic conditions. Even in Pittsburgh, with the daily Post-Gazette wracked with internal turmoil about how to cover the protests, there’s a kinship with other media in town, bordering on outright sympathy.

“I think people are trusting us more, which feels really validating,” says City Paper news editor Ryan Deto. “On top of that, we had the Post-Gazette scoop, and everybody looking at the Post-Gazette and being like, ‘Well, can we trust them?’ Which is a shame, because their reporters are doing really good work … now they’re just being undermined by their management.”

Not that City Paper doesn’t enjoy trolling its own trolls from time to time: Recently the paper started selling T-shirts with the slogan Woke Commie Rag, in honor of an anonymous online detractor. Everyone’s in this together; everyone’s just trying to survive. Memberships. Merch. Fundraisers. Sponsored public events, if we ever get back to having public events again. Immersive local arts coverage, after all, is another alt-weekly tentpole, even if COVID-19 has made that coverage extra surreal.

“When everything first started shutting down, we kind of went into news mode,” says Minneapolis City Pages music editor Keith Harris. “It’s like, ‘What’s happening? This concert’s closing. This place is closing. Is this happening?’ For a couple weeks there, it was really busy in terms of just coverage. And then it got to the point where, OK, when there’s one show left that hasn’t canceled yet, do we really need to let people know that the Eels aren’t coming here in July?”

So what then? You survive. Livestream concert listings. Playlists. Interviews. (Which Harris describes as “the feature where you ask someone, ‘So, how’s quarantine going? What are you eating in quarantine?’ for the 15th time.”) And strangest of all, earnest pleas to stay out of bars. There is a sense, given the national push to reopen restaurants and schools and such, that alt-weeklies are leading the charge in subverting the jokers and arguing for the continued logic of self-quarantine; there is a sense that these papers are literally trying to keep their readers alive.

“One of the things I’ve done for most of my 27 years at the Chronicle is edit the live music listings page: Here are the 20 shows you need to know in the next week,” the Austin Chronicle’s Raoul Hernandez explains. At first the paper pivoted to playlists, to streaming suggestions, to downloads. “So that’s worked well. But as the state has opened up and there have been some live music events, suddenly the question is ‘So, are we recommending these?’ And it hasn’t been much of a question to me, because as the editor of the page, the answer is simple: No, I am not recommending anybody go out.”

It is impossible to overstate how bizarre those words sound, coming out of a veteran alt-weekly music editor’s mouth. “Which is a hard position to be in, because we’re the boosters of the local clubs and the artists,” Hernandez says. “We’re part of that ecosystem. So to not be able to get behind them and say, ‘Go team!’ is not a position anyone wants to be in. But what do we recommend? We recommend you stay home. That’s what we recommend.”

As for the long-overworked news desks, the street protests are ongoing, and in places like North Carolina the debate over Confederate monuments is still raging, and the aftermath of all this action, all this national attention, is still roiling cities like Minneapolis. Which gives City Pages plenty to write about, and plenty of opportunities to defend the Twin Cities from the harsh scrutiny of the outside world.

“I think one of the things that was most frustrating to me in the last couple of weeks, and we wrote about this, was the bail funds,” City Pages editor in chief Cassel says. “The Minnesota Freedom Fund coming under fire from people on Twitter, from everywhere else, saying, ‘Oh, what are you going to do with these donations? You got $30 million and you can only spend $200,000.’ Even, I think, the Star Tribune [the daily that owns the weekly] recorded that one a little wrong. They hadn’t done anything wrong in our minds. I wouldn’t know what to do with $30 million if it appeared in my lap. And so I think those kinds of stories, where it’s providing the context of ‘No, no, no, you’re not familiar with what this group does or how they work, they have one full-time staff member’—those kinds of stories I think we can tell pretty effectively.”

Because what this progressive surge offers alt-weeklies nationwide, at least in theory, is the mother of all teachable moments. “What does systemic racism, what does white supremacy, what does income inequality, what do all of these things look like, and how did they play out?” says the Chicago Reader’s Hawkins. “I think people’s realization—sudden realization—that their interactions with Officer Friendly are very different than, say, my interactions with Officer Friendly. I think it’s a way to, like, ‘Oh, hey, now let’s look at this other thing that’s super easy in your life that’s really shitty for a lot of other people.’ I feel like it opens this window for people into all these other things that they’ve overlooked.”

In Seattle, any sense that the relentless 24-hour news cycle is slowing down is only relative. Two local protestors were hit by a car on Saturday morning; one, a 24-year-old named Summer Taylor, later died from their injuries. The city officially shut down CHOP on July 1, though the debate, both local and national, over what that movement meant—what utopian promise it represented, what should happen to the public art it generated, what degree of a threat to public safety it posed—will continue, and comprise an ongoing alt-weekly beat all its own.

“I’ve got more people telling me ‘Oh, this feels like the golden age of The Stranger,’ or ‘This feels like the old times,’” Keimig told me back in mid-June. “I think because this is a situation that we really know how to cover well. So that’s new. I have not heard that before this moment, but it definitely feels gratifying to hear, because it’s like, all right, we’re doing something right. We’re hitting a mark in some way in the eyes of the people.”

Chatting again in early July, she offered an early CHOP post-mortem: “I’ve heard a lot of people say this, and I really believe it too, where CHOP is not the beginning, and CHOP isn’t the end. The goals of defunding the police, of abolishing the police, of freeing protestors, the big things that people are fighting for, we still are.” As for The Stranger as a whole, “I think we’re really tired. We’ve kind of needed to take somewhat of a step back and rethink our approach, because we were really burning the candle at both ends just trying to keep up with the glut of information that was coming in, almost by the minute.”

But the work continues, and the enthusiasm remains, total chaos and the threat of total annihilation notwithstanding. “I think we’re kind of mirroring the protestors,” she says, “in the sense that we’re seeing this as a long-haul thing, too.”

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