Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Gannett is launching alternative weekly newspapers in Lansing, Michigan, and Boise, Idaho, possibly as a test for the rollout of a national alt.weekly -- or a host of alternatives to the alternatives. Ann Hinch, writing for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, says that local alt.weekly publishers are concerned. Concerned about the increase in ad competition, concerned about the quality of the papers, and concerned about copycat journalism.

They probably have every right to be concerned. The relative success of cookie-cutter city guides online such as Ticketmaster's Citysearch, the existence of regional visitors' guides stashed in hotel rooms, and the seemingly successful test of a similar alt.weekly -- the Nashville Rage, a Gannnett-Tennessean joint -- indicate that such experiments have merit. In addition, we've already seen some alt.weekly consolidation in Newcity, New Times, and the Alternative Weekly Network, a nonprofit that coordinates national advertising buys for its affiliate alt.weeklies.

We've also seen alt.weekly publishers branching out into multiple publications -- to reach readers in other parts of the country, and to reach local readers in multiple demographics. Cases in point: the Seattle Stranger's sister paper in Portland, the Portland Phoenix; and the Boston Phoenix's foray into the yuppie echelon with Stuff@night (which, while termed a "section" is really a competitor rubbing elbows with the Improper Bostonian.

What does this all mean? I have no idea. But I think that if we -- the "we" in "alt.weekly" -- are going to compete with large media companies such as Gannett moving into our media neighborhoods, we need to increasingly focus on what "alternative" really means. What are alt.weeklies alternatives to? Are they merely weekly ugly cousins to the workaday dailies? Are they actually asking questions, meeting needs, and sharing stories untouched by other local print media? Or are they merely homes for the call-girl and 900-number ads other media outlets refuse?

Here in Boston, I read the Boston Phoenix every week. But I really read it for only three reasons: the editorials and letters of comment, the listings, and the media analysis (kudos to Dan Kennedy). The syndicated columns (News of the Weird, the Straight Dope) don't float my boat any more. The movie, music, and book reviews fall flat far more often than they inspire or inform. And the lengthy feature stories -- and perhaps I'm biased having read the utterly amazing Chicago Reader for five years -- rarely move me beyond a passing glance. Meanwhile, I refuse to peruse Stuff@night or the Improper Bostonian. They're just not aimed at me.

For my news, I turn to the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. And for my "alternative" news, I turn elsewhere. Where will we turn if this mainstream-style consolidation continues?

Thanks to the Utne Web Watch.

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