THE OREGON-BASED ALT-WEEKLY Willamette Week recently published a piece explaining why its 2002 article, “RUBBISH! Portland’s Top Brass Said it Was OK to Swipe Your Garbage–So We Grabbed Theirs,” went viral more than a decade after its publication.
In the post, web editor Elise Herron explained that the piece first gained traction in a Reddit forum called “Today I Learned,” before being shared on Twitter by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, who wrote, “This is awesome. Portland’s city officials—police, judges, mayor—insisted they have the right to search people’s trash with no warrants. So local alt-weekly (@wweek) went through their trash and published the contents.” Greenwald’s tweet now has more than 15,000 retweets, including one from CNN’s Jake Tapper.
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But maybe there’s a simpler explanation: People really miss alt-weeklies. And while Willamette Week still exists (thankfully), many communities aren’t so lucky. I worked as a staff writer and news editor at the Providence Phoenix; when the paper closed in 2014, after 36 years, the state of Rhode Island lost its second most widely-distributed newspaper. Consider similar stories in Honolulu, Boston, Baltimore, Knoxville, Philadelphia, New Haven, San Francisco, Tulsa, Columbus, and Houston, and you get a sense of the scope of the recent loss. In the past 12 months, alone, the Village Voice shuttered its print operations, LA Weekly was sold and “almost the entire editorial staff” was fired, and Atlanta’s Creative Loafing laid off three editorial staffers. One Texas Monthly contributor tweeted during the post-sale chaos at LA Weekly, “Since 2015, the alt weeklies serving four of the six largest cities in the country have folded or essentially been stripped of all resources to adequately do real journalism.”
Of course, none of this is breaking news. You could publish a not-so-thin anthology of all the thinkpieces, tributes, and testimonials that have been written about the death of alt-weeklies. But I’ve yet to see a piece focus solely on the voice of these newspapers—which was so clearly on display in Willamette Week’s dumpster-diving tour de force. It was smart, gutsy, colorful, conversational, self-aware, funny, buttressed by context and background, and fueled by righteous anger against Orwellian privacy invasions and the hypocrisy of public officials. It was, in other words, the quintessential alt-weekly piece.
Little wonder, then, that so many shared the story with a mournful tweet like “We can’t let alt weeklies die, comrades” or “a nice reminder of the kind of clever, impassioned journalism we’re losing as alt weeklies disappear.”
They’re an extra set of eyes on legislators, local officials, and law enforcement. They’re often the ombudsman for the local media. And, in many cases, they’re an all-too-rare source of original investigative reporting on a range of topics.
ALT-WEEKLIES SIGNIFY MUCH MORE than the ability to say “fuck” in print. They’re an extra set of eyes on legislators, local officials, and law enforcement. They’re often the ombudsman for the local media, monitoring daily newspapers and airwaves the same way government environmental agencies track water and air quality. And, in many cases, they’re an all-too-rare source of original investigative—or, at least, in-depth—reporting on a range of topics. On the culture side, each week brings a new barrage of listings, reviews, interviews, and profiles that sustain a lively community conversation about art and ideas. (The film director Ava Duvernay recently recalled how LA Weekly published “the only cover story about myself that’s ever brought me to tears.”)
And then there’s the not-insignificant fact that, as one BuzzFeed editor recently noted, alt-weeklies offer a rare point of entry for aspiring journalists.
It’s worth noting, given the @LAWeekly news, that alt-weeklies are (were?) one of the very best places for POC, people with nontraditional backgrounds, and people who can’t afford NYC magazine internships to get on-the-ground journalism experience. Killing them kills a pipeline.
But as this country seems to spiral further into dystopia, it’s the voice that I keep coming back to. When Richard Nixon died, Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism—which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place….You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.” Alt-weeklies provide this kind of subjective clarity on the local level.
Human beings don’t speak according to the rules of the AP Stylebook. We curse. We cry. We make up words. We go on sarcastic tangents. When we’re comfortable with one another, we talk less like a major-network evening news anchor, and more like this Miami New Times description of Marco Rubio from 2016:
Marco Rubio is intellectual Flubber, a gelatinous, amoebic mass with no clear beginning or endpoint, capable of being both nothing and all things at once. Rubio was quitting the Senate, then definitely quitting the Senate, then magically running for Senate again, and then won a Senate race. He was anti-gay, then pro-gay to capitalize on the biggest anti-LGBT hate crime in U.S. history, and then anti-gay again less than a month later. He was a virulently anti-Castro figure who had no qualms about Donald Trump doing business with Castro. Rubio insulted the size of Trump’s actual penis on the campaign trail, then endorsed Trump, then backed off that endorsement, and now floats in some sort of lightless miasma from which he occasionally shoots angry tweets at the president-elect while simultaneously hoping Trump plucks him from the crowd of GOP hopefuls, “Dancing in the Dark”-style, and gives him a job in Trump’s new world order. To Marco Rubio “full of shit” is to give him too much credit — he is an intellectually empty vessel, full of absolutely nothing at all.
For communities lucky enough to still have one, alt-weeklies are a place to discuss our current Era of Insanity without euphemisms, without gotta-hear-both-sides comments from climate change deniers or #AllLivesMatter trolls, and without the need to call bullshit anything other than “bullshit.” In the Age of Trump—and, more importantly, the local phenomenon of Trumpism—this approach to newsgathering is less a gimmick than a public mental health service. When you read a piece by someone tuned into your same frequency of outrage and disbelief, a journalist who lives in your reality, you feel a little more sane and a little less scared.
But that’s just the word-by-word voice of alt-weeklies. Their importance is bigger than that. In a moment when The New York Times has a special section called “Wealth” (actual headline: “I’m Rich, and That Makes Me Anxious”) alt-weeklies remain the official papers of the vulnerable, invisible, and underserved. Scroll through the AAN (Association of Alternative Newsmedia) award winners in recent years and you’ll see examples of what it means for local papers to fill in the “built-in blind spots” in traditional media that Thompson described: stories about the criminalization of HIV transmission in Washington State, tickets for homelessness in San Antonio, the death of a mentally ill inmate in Florida, “debtor’s purgatory” in Oakland, coal ash-dumping in North Carolina, violence against transgender women in Cleveland, a deportation-happy judge in Dallas, and LGTBQ rights in Mississippi.
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Years before stories about Harvey Weinstein from The New Yorker and New York Times sent tremors across the nation, the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages’ Olivia LaVecchia told a story titled, “The Perfect Victim: Exploitation and Threat of Deportation,” about an undocumented worker and sexual assault survivor named Letecia Zuniga. The article ended with a credit to the translator who helped make the story possible.
Alt-weeklies were amplifiers for their community’s concerns, achievements, tragedies, protests, and artistic statements.
SOME OBSERVERS MAY POINT OUT that the alt-weekly spirit lives on. I can attest to this: Like many alt-weekly alumni, I’ve taken the skills I honed at these papers to web outlets like Salon and Vice and regional magazines like Boston Magazine and Rhode Island Monthly. I would never be writing for CJR if I hadn’t first written about local media at the Phoenix.
But the spirit doesn’t necessarily live in the same places. Here in the Ocean State, every week brings events that scream for the alt-weekly treatment they never receive. Late in 2017, we saw a high-speed police chase that ended with a fatal police-involved shooting in the middle of Providence. In the aftermath, some of the best in-depth discussion came from the local ACLU. The following month, a local digital tabloid published a non-bylined story lobbying for the demolition of an iconic skyscraper that was never called out by another news outlet—as the Phoenix surely would have—for the sloppy, quasi-journalistic, civic-discourse-polluting garbage that it was. The number of bands, artists, actors, activists, small business owners, environmental advocates, and community organizers who don’t get well-earned print-media attention is too depressing to mention.
On the horizon, 2018 brings a governor’s race whose candidates include a Democratic incumbent whom The New York Times says “may…be open to a presidential run”; Donald Trump’s honorary 2016 Rhode Island campaign chair (who’s running as an Independent, and recently called other candidates “pansies”); the Republican mayor of the state’s third biggest city; and a bombastic former jewelry-company CEO trailed by stories of lawsuits and unpaid employee wages, whose mansion was recently sold in a foreclosure auction but who shows no shortage of self-confidence. That last candidate recently Instagrammed a shirtless photo of himself in Las Vegas with a caption that implied he was doing everyone a favor by running for the state’s highest office, and tweeted a profanity-laden video in which he says “There is no one that is more experienced than me in this fucking world.” It pains me that there isn’t an alt-weekly to cover this race with the language and attitude it deserves.
But Rhode Island is just the local symptom of a nationwide illness: the silencing of warm, passionate, gonzo and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic voices at the worst possible time. The Phoenix, the Voice, the Metro Pulse, the Bay Guardian and all the others were only ever amplifiers for their community’s concerns, achievements, tragedies, protests, and artistic statements. Rhode Island is a colder, less connected place without the Phoenix.
I don’t have the solution to this problem. But I’m reminded of it every week, at the pizza joints and sandwich shops where metal Phoenix racks have been repurposed to hold other magazines or flyers, and at the sushi and falafel restaurants that still proudly hang Phoenix “Best of” citations on the wall. I suspect other post-alt-weekly towns are similarly haunted.
ICYMI: Reporter attends school meeting longer than other journalists. That ended up being a good decision.Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.