Last August when the new owner of The Village Voice, New York City’s legendary alt-weekly newspaper, announced the paper was quitting print and going digital it rang like a death knell and ramped up the debate over the future of print alt-weeklies, like Salem’s own, Salem Weekly.
The question is, what’s at stake when local ownership and community-driven news uploads into the digital world? If we can’t pick up, leaf through and mull over local issues in our free community-based newspaper, what will we lose?
To reassure New York City’s Village Voice readers that the change from print to digital was for the good, the new owner, Paul Barbey stated that the digital edition would continue its mission to give a voice “to thousands of people whose identities, opinions and ideas might otherwise have been unheard.”
But some are not so sure. No one really knows if this feisty alternative newspaper and others like it will still be watchdogs speaking truth to power in local news stories that make a difference or report watered down regional news that leaves communities and neighborhoods behind.
Mourning the loss of the legendary print edition of The Village Voice, the Grandfather of free, alternative print weeklies, The Nation’s, John Nichols says the mission of these newspapers has always been vital.
“By treating local electoral fights as epic conflicts between good and evil, and by writing about them with an enthusiasm that made those fights as interesting and significant as statewide and national contests, the Voice refocused the politics of New York City. It is fair to say that this remarkable weekly newspaper was ready to pick fights rather than merely cover them.”
The concern over the switch from print to digital news begs the question; can digital “newspapers” continue to be the local voice of the people and stay close to the ground on issues that affect the lives of its readers? Or will online news, where geography doesn’t matter, lose their local focus?
The New Republic’s, Paul Star, sees the role of traditional print news as a mainstay. “More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.”
What do we lose when our free, local paper goes out of print and we can only reach for our computer to catch up on the news that matters to us? David Dudley, Atlantic City Lab, says less local and more global news severs our common links with each other.
“The thing the Voice and its descendants gave readers was something more important than the occasional scoop: They served as critical conveyors of regional lore and scuttlebutt and intel. Dailies may have told you what was going on; alt-weeklies helped make people locals, a cranky cohort united by common enthusiasms and grievances.”
Our own local alt-weekly, The Salem Weekly, like all print alt-weeklies these days, faces its own challenges to stay alive and well in the rapidly changing world of print journalism. As it continues its mission to reflect the full spectrum and diversity of Salem’s voices in stories offering critical analysis and diverse opinions–especially of those who are under-represented–will our paper need to change with the times in order to keep its mission intact?
Salem Weekly’s Publisher, A.P. Walther, says that “one of the primary jobs of alt-weeklies is to print the news that mainstream media won’t print, and that has been an on-going challenge in Salem from the beginning.”
To cover the stories not being told, to include more local coverage and a wider diversity of voices, Salem Weekly came into existence in 2004 as Salem Monthly, expanded into Salem Weekly in 2009, survived the recession, and is currently keeping true to its local mission despite the realities of major shifts in newsrooms everywhere.
However, the pressure is mounting for all local newsprint papers to address the realities the news industry in general is facing on all fronts. As revenue and readership declines and advertisers’ dollars head online, newsrooms everywhere are forced to reduce staff, cover fewer stories and wonder if going online is the answer. The brave new world of digital technology casts a long shadow over newsprint.
All across the country the voices, issues and concerns of diverse communities are being shut down as alt-weeklies from Seattle to L.A. to New York disappear in a selling spree and new corporate owners move away from local news and issues that directly affect the lives of people in rural communities, small towns, and big city neighborhoods.
In the Harvard Review, Tess Saperstein noted that according to the Pew Research Center, “from 2006 to 2012, the number of working journalists in the United States decreased by 17,000. This trend seems to be continuing; USA Today’s parent company, Gannett, laid off more than 200 staffers [but] despite these efforts, print revenues have continued to decline.”
Reduction in staff limits news coverage and fosters “news deserts” with under-reported stories, stories, says Kevin McNeir, Editor of Washington D.C.’s Washington Informer, “that will never be told”. Such a trend threatens our ability to remain a country of informed citizens, as well as citizens with a voice.
Can alt-weeklies survive in our new age of technological Twitter and Instagram, Facebook and Craig’s List and a fast-paced culture with shorter attention spans and multiple choices? Or will the news boxes on the street, the stack of free newspapers on coffee house counters and our access to what’s actually going on in town disappear?
Can print news survive?
Harvard Review’s Sapperstein thinks it’s possible. “Times are changing and newspapers must quickly realize that the methods they employed in the past may be obsolete today. In the upcoming decade, flexibility and a willingness to experiment with new methods, will likely be the factors that determine whether a newspaper survives or falters.”
Although the future of our local newsprint alternative papers may be uncertain, many in the business are dedicated to this form and are not daunted. Jason Zaragoza, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia sums up the value of these newspapers and explains why he thinks they will persevere.
“Alt-weeklies serve not just as a source for information on local politics and culture, but also as a community bulletin board and a civic forum that connects people to their public officials, local businesses, and one another. As far as I’m concerned, nothing reflects a community better than a copy of the local alt-weekly…That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of alt-weeklies.”