Fifteen years ago, the alternative newspaper Willamette Week dug up dirt on local officials in Portland, Ore., in the most literal way imaginable, going through their garbage and recycling containers at home. A prosecutor had argued in court that garbage left curbside is “open to public view” and not subject to privacy protections. Reporters at Willamette Week were both shocked and inspired by that argument. They decided to go through trash left outside the homes of the district attorney, police chief and mayor, printing detailed summaries of what they found.
There were no great revelations as a result, but the exercise showed how alternative weeklies have long viewed their mission -- one of obsessive attention to local detail, while pursuing stories with a spirit of irreverence bordering on disdain for authorities. “We did the stories that daily papers won’t do for fear of offending the powers that be and their readership,” says Gustavo Arellano, a former editor of the alternative OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif.
There are fewer reporters pursuing such stories now. Over the past decade, some two-dozen alternative weeklies have shut down nationwide. Just in the past couple of years, alt-weeklies have closed in Baltimore and Philadelphia, while others in Houston, Knoxville, Tenn., and New York have moved to online only. Last month, the Nashville Scene was put up for sale, joining several others on the auction block.
Many of the alt-weeklies that are still around, including publications in Los Angeles and Seattle, have slashed salaries or now rely entirely on unpaid contributors. Last October, Arellano quit the OC Weekly rather than agree to cut its staff in half. “Without those people on the ground, a lot of stories are going to be lost,” he says.
In contrast to daily newspapers, alt-weeklies are relentlessly city-focused. The mainstream dailies, with their largely suburban readership, may have someone covering city hall, but they’re less likely to be found sniffing around zoning meetings or keeping tabs on neighborhood commissions. Alt-weeklies love making enemies, shining their spotlights on issues such as police overreach or paying attention to trends like gay rights ahead of the mainstream press. “They often would give reporters quite a bit of space to go in-depth,” says Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.
Not all news is bad on the alt-weekly front. Washington City Paper threatened to cut salaries by 40 percent, but a local businessman bought it just before Christmas and should provide a decent financial cushion. Weeklies from Burlington, Vt., to St. Louis continue to publish important stories. Willamette Week is best known not for dumpster diving, but for uncovering real scandals involving everyone up to and including governors.
That’s what really will be missed if alt-weeklies and their digital successors can’t make a go of it. Too often, politicians in small towns get away with corrupt acts because no one is keeping an eye on them. The decline of alt-journalism doesn’t mean more politicians will become corrupt, but those who are inclined to cheat might get away with malfeasance more often, or for a longer period of time. “Alt-weeklies are the canaries in the mine when it comes to local journalism,” says Arellano, now a columnist with the Los Angeles Times. “Small stories about corruption end up growing into much bigger scandals than originally imagined.”