An alternative to the alternative weekly malaise

Credit: Grover Schrayer


A short while ago the San Francisco Bay Guardian was an esteemed member of the San Francisco media landscape, an alternative weekly misfit in a town full of alternative misfits. And then it wasn’t. After nearly 50 years, the paper was closed last October by its parent company San Francisco Media Company, owner of SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner.

Another Hindenburg down for legacy media. Oh, the humanity.

It’s a sad story that ends a generation-old legacy of reporting and mirrors the story of the Boston Phoenix, another weekly of almost identical age that shut its doors in 2013.

Following the closure of both weeklies, Jim Romenesko and The New Yorker wrote long stories about the sad state of affairs that the closures represent, the story of what’s happening on a larger scale to alternative weeklies and print publications everywhere.

We all know newspapers are dying.

In fact American papers are predicted to die first, before any other nation on the planet. An Australian firm estimates that they will become irrelevant by 2017. But that isn’t the only narrative you have to accept. It’s not the only story out there.

Yes, mourn the dead institutions, and conduct a full and thorough autopsy so we all know a diagnosed cause of death. But find time to celebrate the birth of news startups that identify a need and serve their community. by the crowd and in search of sustainability.

It may not always look like an alternative weekly but there are a lot of examples of independent journalists finding a way to operate with the help of the crowd, not a corporation.

Take what happened in Knoxville, Tenn. a few days ago.

Editors and freelancers at the weekly magazine Metro Pulse were let go by their parent company. So they found community partners and made a new publication.

A 30-day crowdfunding campaign brought in $61,000 (original goal $50,000) from about 650 backers and the Knoxville Mercury website and newspaper were born.

Or take a look at Triad City Beat in North Carolina, who raised $11,000 (original goal $10,000) just six months after launch.

At the same time, a niche website to tell stories about entrepreneurship and collaboration called Built Oregon raised $32,000 (original goal $20,000), hitting their fundraising goal in less than a week.

(BTW check out the Built Oregon pitch video by Fourpoint Media. It’s pretty good.)

I watched newsrooms go through rounds of layoffs during the sharpest decline in newsroom staff in American history. I’ve seen editors cry and institutions stripped down and sold for parts. But I’ve also seen what it looks like to build a news startup and the raw enthusiasm and lightning bolt to civic affairs that can create.

On its own will a crowdfunding campaign transform journalism? Nope. Could a crowdfunding campaign save these brands? Maybe not.

But crowdfunding does give media entrepreneurs and communities that choose to organize the empowering opportunity to identify a need, come up with a plan and bring a publication to life.

When you take a closer look at the Romenesko and New Yorker articles, the New Yorker piece comes to the conclusion that no clear leaders have emerged to replace the decidedly local and independent role typically occupied by in the nation’s major cities by alternative weeklies.

“On the face of it, it might seem that alt-weeklies are simply being replaced by online sites with better business models. But, at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

She continues: “….it’s hard to think of many Web-based outfits that replicate the deep focus on local news and politics that has been central to the mission of alt-weeklies.”

Romenesko’s reporting, which followed up with former staff a few months after the paper’s closure, drew no conclusion but took a different turn.

After the Boston Phoenix closed, former staffer Michael Marotta said it took less than two days for him to get the writer’s itch, so he restarted Vanyaland, a blog he started writing for himself in 2008.

He has no intention to work for anyone ever again.

“I’m past the point where I ever want to work for someone else, and in 2013 there’s really no need to. Independent online media, at least concerning music, has more credibility in this city right now than the traditional dinosaurs,” Marotta told Romenesko.

Living in a world where this is possible there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. More so than when these alt-weeklies launched, many people probably think of themselves as alternative or misfits. So maybe more than alternative it’s important to be local and fiercely independent.

The 1,000-fan theory is being proven right by some journalists on Beacon, Patreon and the websites of some independent journalists but crowdfunded or not, it’s easier than ever to build a niche or hyperlocal news website. When strategically deployed as part of a larger plan, some news ventures have used crowdfunding as a bridge to a sustainable future built on other sources of revenue.

If that doesn’t get you juiced about the future of news in America and worldwide, I can’t help you. And if you can’t find good reason to be optimistic, then maybe you aren’t looking hard enough.

If you like with what you read here, sign up for the Through the Cracks email newsletter to learn about innovative, successful or otherwise compelling examples of crowdfunding that makes storytelling possible.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.


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