In 2009, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia had 135 alt-weeklies in its membership, according to Pew Research Center.
In 2015, that group had 117 members.
This year, it has 108.
Unlike many of former members, The Village Voice isn’t closing. But the alt-weekly made news Tuesday when it announced plans to discontinue its print edition after more than a half-century.
Storied alt-weeklies like Philadelphia City Paper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Boston Phoenix, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Metro Pulse and its replacement may have shut down. But last week, Local Independent Online News Publishers reported that it added 19 new members in 15 states. LION now has 160 local news publishers as members in 39 states.
So are alt-weeklies dying? Or are they finding a kind of new life online?
“I would say mainly they’re dying,” said Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst.
But, he added, “there’s a difference between declining and dead, though one does lead to the other.”
“I think it’s complicated,” said Jack Neely, a former Metro Pulse editor and contributing editor of Knoxville Mercury, which stopped publishing in print last month.
There are more print publications in Knoxville now than there were 20 years ago, Neely said. And both Ashevile and Chattanooga, smaller cities than Knoxville, still have alt-weeklies. The Mercury is still online and people are volunteering stories, including Neely, but they’re not getting paid for it anymore.
“It has been frankly alarming to see what is happening to our peers in much bigger cities,” said Sarah Fenske, editor of St. Louis’ Riverfront Times. “Seeing the Village Voice decide to go digital-only, it’s like you feel the grim reaper’s hand on your neck.”
But in many places, the spirit of alt-weeklies has moved online – at least in pieces.
“Some local independent online news sites take a similar approach and share the DNA of alt-weeklies — free to do deep, investigative pieces, providing counterpoint to the missteps of legacy media, and serving as a guidebook to the arts, entertainment and culture of their communities,” said Matt DeRienzo, LION’s executive director, in an email.
Some independent site founders, he said, come from the alt-weekly world, including the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass and Coachella Valley Independent’s Jimmy Boegle. The Tyler Loop’s Tasneem Raja had an “alt weekly but online” mission when she launched earlier this year, DeRienzo said.
Traditional alt-weeklies offer several things in one place: community, events, the arts, music, investigative journalism and a counter to the often-dominant daily newspaper. While some online publications offer all that, most have taken on pieces of it.
“I think there are definitely spiritual similarities between what we are doing and what the City Paper and The Weekly used to do in Philly,” said Chris Krewson, vice president of Spirited Media and founding editor of Billy Penn. “We do not do the investigations. We do not dig through politicians’ trash cans to expose and beat the dailies at the stories on corruption the way the City Paper and The Weekly were doing at their time.”
Sites like Billy Penn and Charlotte Agenda share the voice and sensibilities of alt-weeklies, while other sites have taken on the meat of what they do/did, including Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. And The Texas Tribune owns politics and legislative coverage, Edmonds said, “if you’re looking for an alternative to your daily paper.”
“Now more than ever, we need journalism that speaks truth to power,” said Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, in an email, “and AAN believes that any business model which sustains that journalism is a good one.”
In St. Louis, that business model is still print, which is the RFT’s biggest driver of income, Fenske said. Many online only news organizations work off grant funding with two to three people. RFT, which is small for an alt-weekly, has seven or eight just on the editorial side.
St. Louis has an unusually glutted media landscape, Fenske said, including a daily newspaper, a weekly African-American newspaper, several local TV stations, local public radio and television, a city magazine and two food magazines.
People are still used to picking up print. So RFT has doubled down on it. They’re still breaking news online, Fenske said, but last week the alt-weekly went glossy. They’ve also increased page size and editorial pages.
Even without print, many online sites rise and fall as they search for something to replace those ad dollars. For many, including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, grant funding is key. Billy Penn, which is for-profit, has events and advertising. Berkeleyside has raised nearly $600,000 in a direct public offering. And membership models, while not new, are gaining in popularity.
All of that allows the spirit of the alt-weekly, or wisps of that spirit, to live on. But while local online sites might have more in common with alt-weeklies than they do local newspapers, Krewson said, they’re not the same.
“That independent voice is critical, I think,” Krewson said. “And I’m not suggesting that we are that voice. We are not at that point yet.”
For Neely, alt-weeklies offer longform in print, which he still prefers, and a place for newcomers to get information about that city. Alt-weeklies were covering topics such as gay rights before the mainstream media started, Edmonds noted. And they offer the luxury of full-time staff writers outside of New York who can devote real time to finding and telling stories that matter to that place, Fenske said.
“I think if you had told me three years ago, the Village Voice isn’t going to exist as a print product but the Riverfront Times is, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. “But yet here we are.”