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The Biggest Victim of Weekly Newspapers' Demise: Good Government

Alternative weekly newspapers are going out of business all over the country, leaving a huge void in local government coverage. Who will scrutinize city halls now?

Newspaper Circulation
The Village Voice in New York City let go of most of its best-known writers in 2013.
(AP/Mark Lennihan)
The front page of the Philadelphia City Paper’s final issue, which came out in early October, showed a typewriter sitting on a desk and a simple message: “Goodbye, Philadelphia.” The old-school image carried both sentimental and symbolic value. The black Royal typewriter in the picture originally belonged to the alternative newsweekly’s first publisher when he helped found the paper in 1981. Somehow it stayed with the staff, even through four office moves, as new technologies rendered it completely obsolete, and as the weekly’s circulation climbed to 300,000 in the mid 1990s and then dwindled to 56,000 by the time it ceased publishing.

City Paper joins a number of high-profile alternative weeklies that have succumbed to changing media trends in recent years. The Boston Phoenix and San Francisco Bay Guardian, both venerable publications, closed. The Village Voice in New York City let go of most of its best-known writers in 2013. Indeed, layoffs have been common throughout the industry, thanks to declining circulation among the biggest alt-weeklies. The country’s top 20 alternative weeklies lost an aggregated 6 percent of their audience just within one year, 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Only three of the 20 papers increased their circulation.

Everybody knows times have been tough for local journalism, and there’s been plenty of attention anytime a mainstream daily newspaper has shut down (the Rocky Mountain News, The Cincinnati Post), ceased daily printing (New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) or scaled back staff (basically everyone). These events have tremendous implications for how government is covered. Often it means readers get less information about far-off places, whether they be foreign cities or state capitals.

But there’s a particular void that’s left when alt-weeklies go away. One of their staple coverage areas, along with art and music coverage, is an intense focus on city government and local leaders. It’s rare to find another home for 5,000-word stories on how business owners impact neighborhood zoning decisions, how bureaucrats dole out favors using tax increment finance districts or why city council members are squabbling with one another. “When you have less competition, it becomes easier for people in city hall,” says Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a former media critic for the now defunct Boston Phoenix. “Anytime you don’t have to worry about a reporter from one news organization trying to beat the competition at your expense, that [means] less scrutiny.”

But the news isn’t all bad. Alternative weeklies are actually faring better financially than other media outlets. “We have not been immune to the trials of the media business,” says Tiffany Shackelford, executive director at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. “But because our papers tend to be a little scrappier and operate leaner, generally, it affected us in a slower way and a little differently.” Many alt-publishers, for example, put on major events that help their bottom lines, like South by Southwest in Austin, which is run in part by The Austin Chronicle.

Meanwhile, alternative weeklies in mid-level and small markets have fared better than their big-city counterparts. Papers in cities such as Charleston, S.C.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Reno, Nev.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Syracuse, N.Y., have actually increased their print circulations. As daily newspapers cut back their coverage, smaller weeklies have become increasingly important in shaping issues, whether it’s gay rights in Salt Lake City, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, or the rise of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vermont. The Arkansas Times has doubled down on covering state government, and demand for those stories is big enough that the paper has a paywall for its digital content. In Oregon, reporting from the Willamette Week in Portland helped lead to the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber in February.

Meanwhile, other news organizations are filling in some of the gaps left by shuttered alternative weeklies. The New Haven Independent, founded by a reporter from a now-closed alternative weekly there, is a nonprofit online news site and low-power FM station with the feel of an alternative weekly. Other players including public radio, neighborhood bloggers and sites like Gothamist are also claiming territory that once seemed reserved for alt-weeklies.

Shackelford says alternative weeklies welcome the company. “While once we might have felt fierce competition with dailies,” she says. “I think at this point most of our papers think that more coverage is good coverage.” 

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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