June 22, 2022

Reports of the death of alt-weeklies have been greatly exaggerated.

Well, maybe just somewhat exaggerated. There are a lot fewer of them now than a decade or so ago.

The Association of Alternative Newsmedia had 135 members in 2009, according to Pew Research Center.

This year, it has 88 alts listed on its site.

Like with newspapers, the pandemic sped up an approaching crisis of business and audience for some of the free weekly publications rooted in covering and reflecting countercultures, entertainment, local government and media.

But, like with the robust launch of online local newsrooms in the last two years, some alts are finding new ground in old traditions.

Here are three doing similar things in very different ways.

Little Village Des Moines’ April cover (Art by Jamie Malone. Courtesy: Little Village Des Moines)

Power-wary

The story of a newsroom launch is often preceded by another story; usually one that involves a layoff, a closure or a resurrection. In two of these three, that’s the case.

In 2021, the website Racket launched to fill the void in the Twin Cities left by City Pages, which closed in 2020. Racket is owned by four former City Pages staffers. This July, Baltimore Beat relaunches as a Black-led nonprofit with some former staff from the now-closed Baltimore City Paper. And in the spring of 2022, the owner of a scrappy-turned-successful T-shirt company launched Little Village Des Moines, a free monthly print publication.

Each operates in communities with existing newsrooms, including nonprofits, newspapers, TV stations, public radio and city magazines. Instead of news deserts, they are information patchwork quilts. The squares the alts aim to fill are specific.

“The thing that I love the most about alts is how wary they are of power,” said Lisa Snowden, Baltimore Beat’s editor-in-chief and a Baltimore City Paper alum.

“You don’t have very much access and you don’t hold anyone in high esteem or sacred regard,” agreed Jay Boller, a co-owner and co-editor of Racket. “I don’t want to talk to the chamber of commerce for a story. Our point of view is not tied to the bothsidesing that you get from a lot of formulaic newspaper reporting.”

“I do think there is this need, as the internet has tractor-beamed all of us out of our communities,” said Mike Draper, founder and owner of the Raygun T-shirt company in Des Moines. “In a weird way, you’re closer to some people in your same political sphere on the internet than you are to some people in your own neighborhood.”

Five years ago, I wondered if locally owned, online-only publications were taking up the mantle of alt-weeklies. Certainly, many have. Look at the members of the Institute for Nonprofit News and LION, Local Independent Online News Publishers, and you’ll see newsrooms built for deeply reported stories and accountability. But two of the three publications in this story are also free weekly print publications, serving audiences who may not have access to news on the internet.

(Screenshot, Baltimore Beat)

The business

By 2017, City Paper’s owner, The Baltimore Sun, closed the publication. Baltimore Beat launched that year as a for-profit weekly. A few months later, it closed, too. The ad-supported business model wasn’t working.

But next month, Baltimore Beat returns, this time as a nonprofit with the support of the Baltimore-based Lillian Holofcener Charitable Foundation. That support, in the form of $1 million, gives the Beat the runway it needs to start covering Baltimore as a Black-led publication.

The Beat currently has a staff of four.

The Beat’s mission, according to its site, “is to honor the tradition of the Black press and the spirit of alt-weekly journalism with reporting that focuses on community, questions power structures, and prioritizes thoughtful engagement with our readers.”

At City Paper, Snowden and some of her colleagues worked to decenter white voices, which are still dominant in most mainstream media.

“I hope that older white guys do read the Beat,” she said, “but I think it’s important to include a lot of other cultures and races in the Beat.”

The publication’s focus will be on how a story affects the community, said Brandon Soderberg, director of operations and the former editor of City Paper. It will be militantly local with strong long-form storytelling. That’s squarely in the alt tradition.

One way it will be different: “We’re thinking much more broadly about the definition of alternative news.”

When City Pages closed in Minneapolis, Boller and three colleagues felt bad for themselves for about a month. Then, they decided to go it on their own. Racket, which is online and has a paywall, launched in 2021. One year later, it has more than 2,000 paying subscribers.

The site, according to its about page, trades “in the same fun and fearless journalism CP specialized in since 1979: Twin Cities news, politics, music, arts, culture, civic oddities, food and drink, and theater, plus local angles galore. And we do it in a way that doesn’t suck to read. Why? Because it’s a super bleak time for media. Because there’s nothing else like us out there. Because you can never have too many outlets representing workers, artists, and independents. Because the Star Tribune is owned by a billionaire and the Pioneer Press is owned by a vampiric hedge fund.”

Currently, Boller’s getting a micro view of the monumental work newsrooms are putting in across the country to get people to pay for news. Racket currently has a staff of four, plus paid freelancers.

“I encourage anyone to try what we’re trying, but there is no real long-view model for this,” he said. “It’s all very risky. We’re making it right now. We’re hopefully going to make it for a very long time.”

In Des Moines, running a retail business during the pandemic was a harrowing experience, Draper said.

“And so you would think that that would lead me to be more conservative.”

Instead, it made him look harder at his own community.

Little Village started with a model, name and existing team when it joined Little Village in Iowa City, which has published since 2001. The goal was to presell 15 pages worth of ads for the year.

“And we got to 17 pages,” Draper said.

Little Village has two full-time reporters based in Des Moines. The overall company has a total of 14 full-time employees.

Draper is not trying to shovel money into a black hole. But he does see that the internet hasn’t replaced many things alts do well, from community calendars to arts and restaurant coverage to connecting communities with each other.

“It’s cool that it actually came together, especially when you realize those 17 pages of ads, average four ads per page, a lot of people in Des Moines had to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you several thousand dollars,’” Draper said. “It’s heartening to see there are people who recognize value. And there are enough of them to get this off the ground.”

Draper, whose company makes “America Needs Journalists” merch, wrote music and movie reviews for the alt in Des Moines in high school. It’s something he feels nostalgia for, but also necessity.

“You can’t just think to yourself, ah, maybe it will come back.”

Snowden, with Baltimore Beat, agrees.

“The world really changed irreversibly when COVID-19 hit,” she said. “We’re basically in a situation right now where we’re not ever going back to that world, so what is the world that we create now? The risks are higher, the inequities are greater, it’s easier for people to fall victim to misinformation. We hate each other more. The stakes are so high, it behooves us if we want to have a better world, we have to make that happen.”

 

(Screenshot, Racket)

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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