The New York Times yesterday ran an insightful and widely circulated op-ed from a fellow alt-weekly editor, Baynard Woods of Baltimore City Paper, that emphasized the important role that a staff of full-time alt-weekly journalists play in urban life, a niche that neither big daily papers nor online-only outlets can replicate.
“An alt weekly has a staff of paid reporters and editors whose jobs are not only to know the city, but to love it, to hate it, and to be an integral part of it, cajoling, ridiculing, praising and skewering city officials, artists and entrepreneurs alike, while giving voices to the ‘city folk,’” Woods wrote after ruing the economic forces that have hobbled our profession and given rise to the article’s headline: “Are Alt Weeklies Over?”
As someone who has worked for four alt-weeklies in California after starting my career at daily newspapers, I can attest to the unique and valuable role that they played in each of those cities: San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Eschewing the tired and unattainable goal of “objective journalism,” the alt-weeklies help provide a bottom-up framing of local issues and serve as a check on the dominant economic and political forces.
When I made the transition from dailies to alt-weeklies in 1995, I felt like a whole new world had been opened up for me, a feeling that I’ve heard expressed by many others in my business. Daily newspaper writers generally hew to the orthodoxy of their local Chamber of Commerce in economic coverage, while political news tends to split the difference between the two major political parties.
But in a dynamic world with major long-term problems that aren’t being addressed in a serious way — from global warming and environmental degradation to extreme wealth disparities and lack of investment in critical public infrastructure — sometimes the Chamber, the Democrats, and the Republicans are all wrong.
Saying so often falls to the alt-weekly writers and editors who can speak with a clear and true voice, and who can back up their perspective with years of diligent reporting to support it. When the Guardian says PG&E corrupts our political system, that’s not a statement of opinion, but a conclusion backed up by dozens of well-reported articles going back decades. In this instantaneous yet forgetful society we’re creating, that kind of institutional knowledge is invaluable.
That’s especially true when it comes to city life and the struggles we cover all day, every day, something that writers who strive for clicks from readers around the world can’t provide. Locally based reporters working local beats with adequate resources is essential to civic accountability.
For example, it’s easy for us to see how the current displacement crisis will change San Francisco in unacceptable ways, and to see the echoes of previous political moments — the freeway revolts of the ‘60s, the anti-Manhattanization struggles of the ‘70s, resistance to trickle down economics in the ‘80s, warnings about the last dot-com economic cleansing in the ‘90s — in this current political moment. So we amplify the many voices crying out for reform and we’re willing to call our untrustworthy politicians and business leaders on their bullshit. We’re not afraid to call the liars “liars.”
“Alt weeklies can be harsh in their criticism, whether it’s aimed at a blowhard politician or an overrated artist. Some people say we’re too eager to charge people with selling out, with trafficking in an insular cultural elitism. But alt weeklies don’t simply delight in being mean; they are harsh because they care about the city and what goes on in it,” Woods wrote.
We at the Guardian love San Francisco, and we’re going to keep fighting for its soul — and the panopoly of inspired and inspiring people who feed that soul — with everything we’ve got, and neither the people who fund our paychecks nor those who populate our blogs are going to deter us from that mission.