Politics

The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer

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On September 21, The Village Voice printed its final paper edition, its cover a Dont Look Back–era Bob Dylan offering a defiant adiós. Though the publication continues online, pundits mourned the end of an era, not just for the legendary rag but for the industry it spawned. For decades, the alternative weekly was a staple of any city where there were young people who felt the mainstream media sucked and who wanted to read as many underground cartoons, scandalous exposés, concert reviews, and wacky columnists as could fit between the ads for massages and head shops.

The Voice's last issue sparked a dark autumn for alt-weeklies. Seattle's irreverent The Stranger, home to the iconic sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, switched to a biweekly format, even though its owners say the paper makes money. Creative Loafing Atlanta, around since 1972, became a monthly. The Baltimore City Paper announced it would close for good on November 1.

And then there was the week that began October 13, when I announced I was resigning as editor of OC Weekly after 15 years at the paper (the last six as editor) because I refused the owner's demand that I lay off half my staff. Soon after, the Washington City Paper—once home to David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jake Tapper, among others—was put up for sale. LA Weekly got sold to mysterious owners represented by a marijuana lawyer. And the Seattle Weekly dropped out of the alt-business altogether and became just another throwaway community fishwrap.

Media watchers have spilled a lot of ink and tears this year over what The Guardian called "the death of the great alt-weeklies." But more damning was the stream of hosannas put forth by alt-week alumni about the supposed glory days—so many, that the Columbia Journalism Review ridiculed such nostalgia as "hoary remembrances."

Such cynicism was right. The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death. They had an amazing advantage to conquer the digital age, because they were historically younger, ostensibly hipper, and seemingly more open to evolve than the media dinosaurs they so gleefully mocked. Their legacy defines a modern-day media landscape dominated by Vice, Buzzfeed, podcasts, Instagrammers, and other outlets that inherited the alt-weekly emphasis on point of view, individualism, and creating a self-contained universe for consumers.

But the alts blew it. They're even more imperiled now than the dailies, which can at least count on big-ticket advertisers too afraid to buy space in papers that drop f-bombs. Alt-weeklies find themselves in a position much like the baby boomers who launched most of them: stuck in the past, oblivious to the present, and increasingly obsolete.

¡Ask a Mexican!

OC Weekly launched in the fall of 1995, when I was a junior at Anaheim High School. It was spun off from LA Weekly, a paper that served as a beacon to the West Coast left for its unabashedly progressive politics. Orange County, long defined by the libertarian Orange County Register, welcomed the outrageous weekly to the point that it broke even within a year, leading The New York Times to note it had "found an eager audience and receptive advertisers."

I didn't discover the paper until April Fool's Day of 2000, because it didn't circulate in the barrio. I found out about it only because I found a copy in the trash late one night while I volunteered for a city council race. After I wrote a fake letter to the editor (long story), Weekly founder and then-editor Will Swaim invited me to pitch him story ideas. He didn't care that I was a college kid better versed in film theory than in FOIAs; he saw a guy who knew his community.

I was freelancing within months, became food editor in 2002, and was a staff writer the following year. I joined a newsroom that counted a former labor organizer, a past spokesperson for the Federal Elections Commission, a PhD dropout, an editor who started as an intern, someone who never even attended college, and a guy who graduated from something called the University of La Verne. No professionals. I was home.

In this freeing environment, the Weekly got results. We thrashed Democratic and Republican politicians alike, hated killer cops before it was cool, and uncovered redevelopment schemes across OC. And in November 2004, I started "¡Ask a Mexican!," a column so politically incorrect that no other newspaper in the U.S. would've ever dared imagine it, let alone answer why Mexicans swim in the ocean with their clothes on.

The early 2000s were the last hurrah for alt-weeklies (though longtimers said things were better in the 1990s). The Iraq war raged on. John Ashcroft, John Yoo, and others were busy wrecking our civil liberties. The left wanted a champion, and the alt-weeklies were it. Every Thursday at the OC Weekly offices, we'd get papers from across the country sent by fellow members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). I'd marvel at how fat they were with ads and at how much calumny they threw at Dubya. The Miami New Times was as big and thick as Rolling Stone; the Chicago Reader came in four sections. Our paper was growing, too: from about 58 pages in our inaugural issue to an average of 120 around 2005. And yet we were only a pamphlet compared to the mighty LA Weekly, which had expanded into book publishing and a San Fernando Valley edition.

But even then, I saw systematic problems in the industry. The OC Weekly didn't start to publish online-only exclusives until 2004, and it didn't even start a news blog until 2006. Alt-weekly websites were laughable, with every redesign at least three years behind whatever was current to digital natives. The Weekly had a chance for a TMZ-style TV show but declined, arguing that wasn't journalism.

Such stasis wasn't because of unimaginative reporters. The hold-up came from the multi-tiered bureaucracy that emerged as bigger papers bought smaller papers to create chains and increase profits by sharing resources. The consolidation drained local idiosyncrasies out of publications. In 2006, for instance, the six-paper Village Voice Media company that owned OC Weekly was acquired by the New Times, an 11-paper empire we had long reviled for its supposedly neoconservative politics and for a boy's-club ethos exemplified by founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, whose penchant for drinking was surpassed only by their love for hard-nosed reporters and liberal-mocking columnists.

Any ideas for innovation—say, original video or concert series—usually disappeared in never-checked email inboxes. Or they were dismissed as unrealistic. I'm guilty of the second myself: Around 2004, Swaim told me I should look into how readers could leave their own reviews of restaurants on our website. I told him no one would ever be so stupid as to give away their words for free.

In other words, we could've created Yelp.

As our papers professionalized, daily newspaper exiles and J-school graduates populated newsrooms, pushing out the outsiders that gave alt-weeklies their verve. But even as new blood came in, they all looked the same. Until 2006, I was the only person of color on the OC Weekly staff—this in an Orange County that turned majority-minority in 2004. A decade later, things have turned worse: While a 2016 survey by the American Society of News Editors found minorities constituted 17 percent of American newsrooms, a 2015 AAN study found minorities made up just 12.6 percent of member papers—"and if anything, [alt-weekly newsrooms] are getting whiter."

That's why, during a 2013 AAN awards ceremony in Miami where I served as emcee, I repeated a joke I used during the exact same setting in 2010—that there were more minorities at a Ku Klux Klan rally than in a room full of alt-weeklings.

Few laughed.

Chasing Revenue

The Great Recession accelerated the decline of alt-weeklies, as did the migration of advertisers to cheaper online packages and the rise of web-only competitors. But my peers could've survived if not for two factors: clickbait, and precarious revenue streams.

Once editors realized that readers increasingly preferred their information online and advertisers demanded a certain amount of hits, alt-weeklies instituted laughably unrealistic web goals that section editors were expected to match every month, if not week. They were achievable only by gimmicky listicles and cute slideshows. Such fluff was always the domain of dailies, but now OC Weekly had a new editor who was a Fulbright scholar. (Swaim had left in 2007, along with three-quarters of the staff, to start a new alt-weekly that folded within three years.) The new boss made us write articles like "10 Signs You're an Aging Gamer" and fawning pieces on celebrities done only in the hope that they'd share our stories on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. When that wasn't enough, we'd try to game aggregators like Digg, Fark, and Reddit to artificially inflate our hits. But every time their algorithms changed, our artificial bubbles would pop, and hits—and revenue—would drop.

Even more damning was the desperate clinch to keep fleeing revenue. Craigslist had destroyed classifieds for dailies and alt-weeklies, long a newspaper's most lucrative section. Now the focus turned to sex ads. Over and over during appearances, I had to justify pages of scantily clad women (and the occasional hunky gay guy) to outraged readers, arguing they kept us writers employed, and pointing out they were really just phone-sex lines answered by transgender Latinas.

Instead of diversifying, Village Voice Media doubled down on the skeez. In 2010, after Craigslist banned "adult services" listings due to activists who claimed they abetted human trafficking, most migrated to Backpage.com, an online classified service the former New Times created in 2004. It brought in millions of dollars in much-needed revenue, but became an albatross for Village Voice Media as the same activists who shamed Craigslist now targeted us.

Advertiser boycotts soon followed, hurting local sales. But Larkin and Lacey doubled down yet again, forcing every paper to run the same feature stories ridiculing Backpage's critics. Readers hated them, but corporate didn't care. Nor did they care about possible solutions to the backlash. At an all-editors' retreat in San Francisco in 2012, I suggested a counteroffensive: Since we were being cast as sex-trafficking apologists, why didn't we respond with our chain's track record on sex abuse? I had been a one-man Spotlight crew in going after the Catholic Diocese of Orange's pedophile priests, while SF Weekly's Ron Russell did the same in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Phoenix New Times reporter Jon Dougherty was on convicted rapist Warren Jeffs years before anyone else. Denver's Westword had covered sexual abuse at the Air Force Academy in the early 2000s.

A lawyer dismissed my idea. A couple of weeks later, every paper had to lay off staffers, and veterans started to look elsewhere for work.

The Backpage example is unique to VMG (Voice Media Group, as Village Voice Media rebranded itself after selling off Backpage in 2012), and some alt-weeklies stayed far away from sex ads. But their lurch from new revenue stream to new revenue stream remains endemic. I remember when the Weekly suddenly started crafting Groupon-like deals until that fell out of favor, then tried to offer SEO optimization, website construction, and other digital services. The latest ad fad is pot dispensaries or providers, but even that money is bypassing print for the likes of Weedmaps.

The newest savior? Food events. Papers ask local restaurants to prep samples for thousands of people, with no pay for their food and labor beyond "exposure." Meanwhile, the papers keep the $50 or so paid by readers who might not even pick up a copy anymore but want to gorge on as much poke as possible.

Beware, the Wealthy Patron

Nowadays, the only people who seem to want alt-weeklies are wealthy individuals. Haggard reporters welcomed them as the antithesis to soulless, corporate chains. But beware the Rich Uncle Pennybags with good intentions.

Take Bruce Brugmann, the founder and owner of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Bay Guardian was most famous in the alt-weekly world for publishing an annual nude beach issue and for creating the concept of a "Best Of" issue—an annual listicle of the top everything in a particular market. In 2008, Brugmann won a $15.9 million settlement against Village Voice Media (eventually increased to $21 million) after a jury found that VVM's SF Weekly sold cheaper ads to undercut the Bay Guardian. But Brugmann sold it in 2012 instead of pumping that money into his paper, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "Publishing is hard now, advertising is not easy. Not everyone is interested in buying newspapers in this country."

The new owners killed the Bay Guardian in 2014.

The following year, VMG sold off its namesake publication to Peter Barbey, a billionaire whose fortune comes from the family clothing business. "I'd be crazy for buying it if I didn't believe in it," he told Politico after the purchase, adding that he thought then-editor Tom Finkel "has a real passion for the Voice…he impressed me."

Three months later, Barbey fired Finkel.

We at OC Weekly thought we found our savior in the beginning of 2016, when VMG sold us to Duncan McIntosh. The 79-year-old Newport Beach resident had become a millionaire with boat shows and yacht magazines, and he made national news in early 2010 when he bought the venerable Editor & Publisher. I hoped that what happened to E&P afterward—McIntosh immediately dropped the magazine's editor and star reporter, replaced the rest of the staff months later with his toadies, and turned what was once a well-designed muckraker into a collection of clip art and print-first boosterism—was an aberration. I even laughed off a personal warning from Mark Fitzgerald, who had worked as editor-at-large at E&P for 26 years before getting fired by McIntosh just 10 months into his new role as editor. He described that time to another paper as "almost like working with a cult."

By then, alt-weeklies in Boston, Knoxville, and Philly had shut down, and dailies had bought the Chicago Reader and Baltimore City Paper. But I had hope.

Things worked well for the first year. McIntosh let me hire another reporter, make a part-timer full-time, turn a freelancer into a permanent part-timer, and give raises to almost everyone. Unshackled from VMG, we went HAM on the alt-right, our corrupt district attorney, and hidden Orange County histories. McIntosh got upset with me over a story only once: when we lost tens of thousands of dollars in advertising after a cover depicted a Democratic donkey sodomizing Donald Trump. The advertisers returned, though, after the issue drew national acclaim.

But things began to change this year. We switched to a cheaper printer, turning our vibrant covers into a muddy mess. Freelancers wouldn't get paid for weeks because McIntosh would just sit on their checks with no explanation, or was away at boat shows. I got told at meetings that the paper needed to "rebrand," without being told what exactly that meant. McIntosh's #2, Jeff Fleming (who bore a striking resemblance to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones), wondered why we mocked the Huntington Beach Police Department (which still employs an officer that has cost taxpayers $2 million in settlements) and why I let my reporters come in and out of the office instead of clocking in at 9 a.m. and clocking out at 5 p.m. like the rest of McIntosh's workers.

In May, McIntosh told me that our finances weren't where they should be and that I needed to cut two people. I offered to sell ads and cut my salary in half, but McIntosh demurred and asked me to come up with a layoff plan. I wouldn't hear anything more about the matter until August, when I was told the day after I returned from vacation that I now had to slash my editorial expenses by nearly 50 percent. I turned in two proposals on September 5 and said my resignation date was October 13 if my plans to move forward didn't please them.

New Times/Village Voice Media/VMG wasn't perfect at all. Higher-ups constantly questioned our editorial decisions. (VMG's Christine Brennan once wrote me a nasty email because I dared run a burlesque photo essay with a woman in a silver thong and pasties on a cover. The pick-up rate was great!) Nowadays, they're reduced to five papers and style themselves "a diversified media and technology company that specializes in serving advertisers, business owners and readers." But I at least knew that the people running VMG respected journalism and were upfront about what they liked and didn't.

I didn't hear from, let alone see, McIntosh and Fleming until I emailed them on October 12 and asked what was next. McIntosh said we should meet the following day—the date I said I'd resign. He had the locks changed on my side of the office before I arrived. The meeting took 15 minutes.

Leave Us Alone

The tragedy of all this is that alt-weeklies are still valuable. Those that remain still do important local work that dailies long ago forsook and that new media have no interest in. Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, continues to produce investigative stories that take down governors and mayors, thanks to its Pulitzer-winning reporter Nigel Jaquiss. Reporters at the East Bay Express exposed how cops across the Oakland region had been having sex with a teenager.

Some are stronger than ever. Salt Lake City Weekly thrives in a conservative environment under Enrique Limón, who has the soul of the old industry but the smarts of his millennial generation. And Riverfront Times in St. Louis, a VMG publication until it got sold to a smaller chain in 2014, has increased page counts and even the paper's size while covering the city's recent turbulence over police shootings.

Riverfront Times editor Sarah Fenske, an old drinking pal of mine from when she helmed LA Weekly, says her paper is profitable and she's "feeling good" heading into the fourth quarter. She left the alt-weekly world for a couple of years before returning to Riverfront Times in 2015, where she had been a managing editor in 2010.

"My stint on the [mainstream media] side only solidified for me that this is what I want to do as long as I possibly can," she said. "We get to tell the stories that matter, call bullshit on society's sacred cows, and dig deeply enough to get past the pieties. What could be more important—and more thrilling—than that?"

Meanwhile, my beloved OC Weekly marches on. It still hosts a staff with four founding members, a staff that got at least five innocent people out of prison, put former OC Sheriff Mike Carona into prison, and destroyed the careers of too many politicians to list here. The last issue we worked on together was Best Of. It was the largest in years, thanks mostly to art director Dustin Ames, who came up with a brilliant idea: Team up with dog rescue organizations to use their wards as our models, to promote adoptions.

The issue hit the newsstands October 19, and the Weekly's advertising team held a celebration party at the papers conference room. But Ames didn't attend. McIntosh had already laid him off, citing budget concerns even though McIntosh had mysteriously staffed up in the production department without telling me or Ames just months earlier.

Ames and I shared Mexican beers at my wife's store the day he was cut. As we drank, I remembered a quote McIntosh gave the Register shortly after he bought our paper. "I think they've got really good people from what I can see," he said about us. "We'll just help them do their job."

And there's the rub. For those who love them, an alt-weekly gig was a calling. We never needed help doing our "job." We just needed to be left alone. Because we weren't, here the alt-weeklies lay.