‘More Alt Than Ever’: Alt-Weeklies 2014 Year in Review

An annual tradition dating way back to 2013, we asked AAN editors and reporters to share the stories they are most proud of from the past year. Here are their responses.

Baynard Woods, Baltimore City Paper
We faced one of the biggest challenges in our history when we were bought by the Baltimore Sun Media Group—the daily paper against which we had always defined ourselves. But instead of allowing that to water down our alt perspective, it motivated us to push harder against our own corporate control. The first issue after the sale featured a mock Baltimore Sun cover (which you can see here), full of Joe MacLeod’s hilarious details. A month later, we had our first-ever “Weed Issue.” Then our John Waters cover story featured our first (illustrated) ejaculating penis on the cover and our “Fall Arts Guide” subverted the entire format by calling for the art scene to be less segregated. In a year when we weren’t even sure we’d survive, we ended up more alt than ever.

Joel Dyer, Boulder Weekly

On the very day that the signatures of 263,000 Colorado voters were to be turned over to the Secretary of State’s office in order to put two state-wide anti-fracking initiatives onto the November ballot, they were pulled at the last minute by the very organization that had paid to gather them with the help of countless anti-fracking activists. The signature-gathering process had been funded by Jared Polis, a wealthy Democratic Congressman from Boulder. The last minute refusal to turn in the signatures was said to be the result of a compromise reached with Colorado’s pro-fracking governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper. Several national environmental groups praised the compromise that did little more than create a panel to study the issue. Colorado citizens who had worked for months for the right to vote on the issue were outraged. And as it turns out, they should have been.

Boulder Weekly promised our readers that we would get to the bottom of this betrayal of the democratic process and we did. It took three journalists, Joel Dyer, Matt Cortina and Elizabeth Miller, working for a couple of months to unravel the true story.

What we found is both shocking and an important political lesson for citizens in every state where the oil and gas industry is active. Boulder Weekly’s investigation, “Who killed the vote on fracking?” was able to trace the pulling of the anti-fracking ballot measures to backroom deals cut between the oil and gas industry and the Democratic Party along with several of the “Big Green” environmental groups that had been working to replace coal with natural gas for energy generation. This arrangement of strange bedfellows had been orchestrated by a handful of Colorado’s wealthiest Democrats in order to flip this long time red state to blue.

In other words, Democrats traded global warming and fracking to the oil industry in exchange for the industry keeping its money largely on the sidelines, which allowed approximately four wealthy Democrats to buy control of the state’s political process. It was a trade that the Democratic voters knew nothing about and never would have approved. By the time BW finished the investigation, we had discovered that this same anti-democratic process had been replicated all the way to the White House and the EPA.

Vince Grzegorek, Cleveland Scene
Good Kids, Bad City: After 39 Years of Wrongful Incarceration, Ricky Jackson and the Bridgeman Brothers Walk Free

Jimmy Boegle, Coachella Valley Independent

The redevelopment of downtown Palm Springs—and specifically, the spot of the defunct Desert Fashion Plaza mall—has been one of the area’s biggest issues.

The city of Palm Springs eventually decided to team up with a developer to build a hotel and shopping center on the spot—and from the start, these plans have been fought by Frank Tysen, the owner of a small hotel several blocks away. Long story short, Tysen’s efforts to stop the project resulted in delays and lots of legal bills, but construction is now under way.

Needless to say, many city officials loathe Tysen—and at one point, the mayor even compared his actions to those of racists and anti-Semites.

The local media have covered these matters ad nauseum—but nobody ever really bothered to do any coverage of Frank Tysen himself.

So we did. The resulting profile changed the way many in town think of this constant figurative fly in the ointment. Turns out Tysen is passionate and scary-smart guy who knows what he’s talking about (he’s a former Guggenheim Fellow in planning and architecture!), even if his views are a bit antiquated, and his methods can at times be overly combative.

It’s a great piece–exactly the kind of coverage we founded the Independent to do.

Kirk Woundy, Colorado Springs Independent

In February, we reaped the benefits of one reporter’s wanderlust when we published Trading Places, an on-the-ground look at a local organization’s poverty-fighting work in India. Matthew Schniper, our food and eco editor, suggested the trip, worked with the paper to fund it, did the reporting and photography in urban and rural venues, then returned to spearhead a package that included our first use of Parallax-style software. Long after his Giardia disappeared, we received the kind of letter to the editor that you hope for when doing a story like this.

Rodney Carmichael, Creative Loafing Atlanta
Every generation has its watershed moments and OutKast is so intrinsic to the postmodern identity of Atlanta that the band’s 20th anniversary seemed like a shared coming-of-age story for Atlanta, too. The city has changed so much in the last two decades. We thought it would be cool to look at our own evolution through the lens of OutKast. More than just a nostalgic look back, we wanted to use this historical account to ground abstract issues like gentrification, transportation, race, class, and economics to the lived reality of everyday people and trace the connection between policy and cultural production.

The reporting led to a number of incredible reveals, from Gavin Godfrey’s find of the full-length video of Big Boi performing PSA raps in high school, to unearthing the original Dungeon and finding untouched Dungeon Family artifacts in the legendary basement of the house from before they were signed. Ultimately, what set this story apart from every other OutKast-related story in 2014 was an attempt to make connections between their music and the socioeconomic landscape of the city.

Dustin Chambers’ atmospheric photography and the multi-media online presentation by former digital editor Ezra Morris complete with songs and videos also helped to create a rich, immersive storytelling experience. The Atlanta Press Club included the story in its list of its 10 favorite stories of the last 50 years in Atlanta.

Chris Faraone, Dig Boston

This year DigBoston took on a major investigation into the surveillance state in Eastern Massachusetts. Starting with a trove of documents that an IBM contractor had left exposed online — really, it happened, we told AAN all about it — we ultimately showed how much advantage high-tech security companies took of our state after the bombing of the Boston Marathon. This included but was not limited to using facial recognition software that parses people by skin color. After three installments of the ‘Boston Trolling’ series, which has been referenced by dozens of outlets (including the Boston Globe, which reluctantly credited us after the story got big enough they could no longer ignore it), we took one last shot for the year and added a bonus edition about the surveillance buildout we can expect if Boston gets the 2024 Olympics.

Boston Trolling (Part I): You Partied Hard at Boston Calling and There’s Facial Recognition Data To Prove It

Boston Trolling (Part II): Smarter City or City Under Surveillance?

Boston Trolling (Part III): The Future of Pre-Crime in the Commonwealth

Kevin Allman, Gambit

Our most-discussed story of the year — by far — was “The New New Orleans,” which examined the rapid gentrification of the city through a series of first-person stories. We asked each participant a single question:

How do you see New Orleans changing — for better or for worse?

The first installment had 16 takes from New Orleanians with a variety of backgrounds (natives and new immigrants, wealthy and poor, old and young, various ethnicities). We also created six infographics addressing median incomes, the price of housing, etc. to further explore how the city is changing.

The issue was so widely discussed, and we had so many people wanting to participate, that we did it again six months later. It’s a story model that I think could work in any mid-sized city that’s undergoing widespread, and fast, gentrification.

Margaret Downing, Houston Press
Neal Smith had excelled at his first day in an elite firefighter training exercise. But on Day 2, trapped in a small space and weighed down by 75 pounds of gear, he became disoriented in the fog and collapsed on the second floor of the building he was making his way through. A trainer screamed at him to get up, but he couldn’t. His internal temperature was 108 degrees; his brain was swelling. When Mayday was finally called it was too late. Rushed to a nearby hospital, the experienced firefighter died there later that day.

In “When a Lesson Took a Dangerous Turn,” Houston Press staff writer Craig Malisow took a close, investigative look at firefighter Neal Smith’s death — going far beyond just an announcement of his tragic passing to delve into all the factors that came together to allow a man to die while surrounded by other people.

Most people assume that all firefighters are trained by their own fire departments. But departments in small town Texas actually have been sending their personnel to the East Texas Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association, a nonprofit trade group for volunteer firefighters. And unlike a governmental agency, there is no oversight of that group’s methods or standards.

As a subsequent investigation by the state fire marshal’s office and by the National Institute of Safety and Health revealed the training camp was so poorly run that several other firefighters had dropped out (saying they didn’t want to risk their lives), passed out or been taken to the hospital. Had safety procedures standard in most fire departments been in place — such as a simple tub of ice — Smith could have been saved at the training camp site.

Malisow spent a month reporting on this story and crucial to its success was the willingness of Neal Smith’s widow to talk with our reporter to flesh out the story of a Navy veteran and J.C. Penney salesman who became a volunteer firefighter prompted to do more by the events of 9/11. The irony is, of course, that Smith didn’t die in the line of duty, not while saving a life or property, but because he wanted to become even better at his job and trusted the wrong people to help him do that.

Jacob Fries, The Inlander

The effort we’re most proud of this year is our State of Mind series — an exhaustive look at the mental health system; not that size matters, but we’ve published tens of thousands of words on the subject this year, which gave rise to a couple of class-action lawsuits and a contempt of court finding against the state mental hospital.

Jill Stewart, L.A. Weekly

Last year, a gay film producer told us a harrowing story of being incarcerated at Men’s Central Jail on an obscure “immigration hold” for more than two months. He mentioned that he’d been in the gay wing, where the inmates were kind, helped him get a Catholic charity involved in his case, and spent time concocting fashionable outfits from jail uniforms.

The gay wing sounded to me like a huge story, but I couldn’t find a writer interested in fighting his way into the notorious jail—not until my summer news intern, Ani Ucar, came along. She’d already been inside, videotaping a meth addict woman who discussed how lucky her children were to have been taken away, and how she had gotten clean on the inside. The jailers, of course, appreciated Ucar’s video. When she asked for access to the gay wing, they agreed.

Ani’s initial raw video was stunning, and made even more clear that we had a major cover story. Ani had never written long form, but was a quick study. I worked closely with this young journalist still attending USC, and we were able to prove that the wing is a unique jail subculture that exists in no other major U.S. city — we called them all. The video and story, published as a package, went viral and global, becoming one of the most, if not the most, viewed stories in L.A. Weekly’s history.

In the Gay Wing of LA Men’s Central Jail, It’s Not Shanks and Muggings but Hand-Sewn Gowns and Tears” set off an intense debate over whether anything good can really happen inside Men’s Central Jail, as Ucar’s story suggests. We were overwhelmed with people seeking movie deals, our unused footage, and permission to use parts of the video or story in France, the UK, Spain and so on. Beyond the impact the story had and is still having, it’s just a wonderful, fascinating, read. And the video is one you can’t stop watching until the very end.

Valerie Vande Panne, Metro Times

Here in Detroit, through an innovative partnership with the ACLU of Michigan, we spearheaded an investigation into Detroit’s bankruptcy, highlighting the role of the city’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and his former law firm, Jones Day. The story, “Anatomy of a Takeover,” continues to be a reference on the bankruptcy, using court records to provide an alternative narrative largely ignored by the mainstream media. In addition, our ACLU of Michigan partnership has also resulted in an exposé on the state’s Educational Achievement Authority and how it took advantage of the city’s most vulnerable students, using them to develop and test faulty educational software for two for-profit companies that was then marketed elsewhere. We also ran an investigation into the local garbage incinerator that resulted in a class action lawsuit.

This year we also merged with our primary competitor, Real Detroit Weekly, to create a huge alt-weekly—regularly 120-144 pages thick. We redesigned our website, our pageviews went from 450,000/month to 4.5-5 million.

Chuck Strouse, Miami New Times

With a prisoner swap and the December 17 announcement that the United States will normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama made a change that will have profound effects on South Florida. Decades after the two nations cut off relations and initiated a cold war across the Florida Straits, a new thaw has begun. Travel to the island will be easier. So will sending money and technology. Miami New Times writers have covered this change from Hialeah to Calle Ocho and from Santería to the arts. The coverage is gathered here.

Skylar Browning, Missoula Independent
In April, a Missoula resident shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old German exchange student for allegedly burglarizing his garage. The shooter claimed self defense, citing Montana’s castle doctrine (similar to stand your ground). Never mind that evidence showed the shooter baited the kid that night and told his barber earlier that day that he was just waiting to shoot some teenagers. We covered the story — and recent trial — as news, of course, but our arts editor took a completely different approach wondering how something like the castle doctrine would change some classic bedtime stories.

Margaret Williams, Mountain Xpress
We’re proud of our new website, mountainx.com, which was completely redesigned and released in April 2014. We built it from the ground-up to be fully responsive, uncluttered, fast and fun to use! Levering the very best of the site’s WordPress’ roots, our online stories are media-rich with large featured images, sidelights, embedded photo galleries and video. These tools allow our writers to paint their stories like never before. And better yet, the new site’s true to our mission: Community involvement is fostered by our news bulletin (“Blogwires”), Calendar events, Classifieds, unique commenting system and “micro-news” (our live Twitter feed, which features dispatches from a mix of our engaged readers).

Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly
In a year when the national media finally caught up to what we in the alt-weekly world have reported for years—that cops aren’t always the shining heroes they make themselves out to be—we were especially proud of this story, which gets to the heart of the problems affecting police culture. In this piece, our ace investigative reporter, R. Scott Moxley, showed how a police department pushed out whistleblowers and good cops aghast at the good-ol’-boy network in charge. And for those of ustedes who don’t want to read the piece, just know that one of the good cops got awarded over a million dollars because his fellow Newport Beach offers kept harassing him for being gay—even though he wasn’t.

Scott Wilson, The Pitch

The Pitch’s Steve Vockrodt challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections hard, putting its shady lethal-injection protocols in the spotlight all year. In a January cover story, he outed the state’s drug source. In May, his follow-up cover story called for an end to capital punishment in the Show-Me State. He has written about every execution, and helped to expose the lies still being told by the DOC.

Charlie Deitch, Pittsburgh City Paper
In 2010, three plainclothes police officers jumped out of an unmarked police unit and beat a then-18-year-old high school honor student. There have been local and federal investigations and two civil lawsuits in the case with split verdicts. But we have refused to let this story go because something just hasn’t felt right about it. While most media outlets have dropped the case since the trial earlier this year, Pittsburgh City Paper has continued to look into the matter. Reporters Rebecca Nuttall and Alex Zimmerman found issues with the controversial undercover unit that these officers were part of and we discovered that the members of the police command had questions about these officers and their tactics long before they met this young man on a dark street in 2010. Further, we found information that during preparation for the civil trial investigators hired by the city may have created fake social media accounts in an attempt to contact and gather info on the young man – a tactic with both ethical and legal implications.

Zamna Avila, Random Lengths News

The USS Iowa series (Part I; Part II; Part III) are three stories that Random Lengths News Managing Editor Terelle Jerricks wrote in October. The series focused on the local and national politics involved with bringing the battleship into the Harbor Area. The one thing the journalist does best is focus on the human aspects involved in different facets of the multi-layered story.

Jessica Lussenhop, Riverfront Times
In the first days (and then weeks) after the death of Michael Brown our whole newsroom banded together and put out some great, breaking coverage. Here are some highlights:

August 10: Family of Michael Brown, Teenager Shot to Death By Ferguson Police, Talks About His Life

August 11: Peaceful Protest for Mike Brown Before Riot Police and Looting Takes Over

Ferguson Riots: North County Business Owners (Some Armed) Survey the Damage

The Rap Music of Mike Brown, Slain Ferguson Teenager
August 12: Police in Ferguson Fire Tear Gas on Protesters Standing in Their Own Backyard

November 24: For Michael Brown Sr., Weekend Brings a Baptism Instead of a Grand Jury Decision

November 25: Tear Gas, Shootings, Arson and Looting in Ferguson After No True Bill Announcement

Rachel Leibrock and Nick Miller, Sacramento News & Review

Leibrock: It’s difficult to choose just one story but I’m particularly proud of Melinda Welsh’s piece on Gary Webb, “Return of the Messenger,” which coincided with the 10-year-annivesary of Webb’s death and a new film about his role in exposing the connection between the CIA and crack cocaine in America.

Webb worked at SN&R in the months before his death, so not only did Welsh ( SN&R’s founding editor; at the time of Webb’s death she was an editor-at-large) have personal insight into Webb as a person and a reporter, she also had considerable access to others who knew him well, including Webb’s son Eric as well as those who’ve endeavored to keep his story out there, including the actor Jeremy Renner who portrayed Webb in “Kill the Messenger.”

The result was a story that was at once deeply personal yet also clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Miller: I’m proud that SN&R saved the city of Sacramento hundreds-of-millions of dollars with this investigative cover story.

Here’s how it went down: Sacramento leaders had been dragging their feet to install water meters, going on a decade. But we all know that meters help conserve water and, if you haven’t heard, California needs to do this because of that thing called the drought.

Anyway, the city Department of Utilities came up with a costly and wasteful $450 million-plus plan to install meters and replace water mains. Well, it turns out that other California cities are doing similar installs for hundreds-of-millions less.

That’s because Sacramento never studied the water pipes and mains it is replacing; they could very well be in perfectly good working condition. And the city is spending more than $500 per home to install meters in the sidewalk instead of lawns or landscape. Five-hundred dollars times 112,000 homes–you get the picture. This is not to mention multiple broken gas lines, which lead to a few evacuations of entire street blocks.

Our story dropped in this fall. By November, the city manager had announced that the water-meter install would be put on hold and re-evaluated. The daily paper, The Sacramento Bee, even gave it up to our investigative reporter Joe Rubin in an editorial! (I spit out my coffee reading that one, that never happens!) Very proud of my team’s work on this!

Rachel Piper, Salt Lake City Weekly
About two years ago, Stephen Dark received a tip from a sex-crimes prosecutor at the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office that the rate of police screenings and DA prosecuting of sex crimes was alarmingly low—94 percent of all adult sexual assaults in Salt Lake County were not prosecuted.

Victim advocates didn’t want to alienate cops or the DA by coming out with these damning figures on their own, however, so the stats weren’t widely known, and the key researcher on this data was fearful that the publication of such dismal stats would deter rape victims form coming forward.

But we felt that this was an incredibly important story, and we wanted to tell it in a way that would launch a conversation about rape and sexual assault, a topic that is rarely addressed openly, and highlight the problems in the system, without causing damage to victims or igniting a war of nothing more than finger-pointing.

Stephen spent more than five months reporting the story, working with his sources, looking for rape victims who were willing to speak publicly, and talking to cops. Most of them would share their views only on background or anonymously, but their comments—namely that they viewed 9 out of 10 sexual-assault complaints as “morning-after regret” underscored the problem.

When “Rape in Utah” was published, it sent a shockwave throughout the community. Our racks were cleaned out, and our online numbers had more zeroes than we’re used to. About two weeks after the story came out, I received a call from the victim advocate at a local police department who told me that, as a result of reading our story, a man had found the motivation to come forward to report that he’d been sexually assaulted months earlier. She requested extra copies of the issue to keep in her office, and in the weeks following the story’s publication, so did other victim advocates and counseling services.

Utah’s legislative session began less than a month after “Rape in Utah” was published, and two bills directly related to the problem of backlogged rape kits were introduced—one to give extra funding to the state crime lab, and one that would require law enforcement to notify victims of the status of their submitted rape kits and inform them if they chose not to analyze the sample. Both passed.

Then, the Salt Lake district attorney’s office began plans to change how they screen rape cases. The Salt Lake City Council held several work sessions to discuss the rape-kit backlog at the Salt Lake City Police Department. SLCPD addressed concerns in several public meetings, where the cover of our story was displayed throughout on a projector, alongside statistics from the story.

In the months since, SLCPD has begun reviewing untested rape kits and reporting its progress on a public website, and the city council is meeting formally about the possibility of funding a city lab to test rape kits. At the August 2014 Salt Lake SlutWalk—a protest against slut-shaming, victim blaming and rape culture— the police chief announced that Salt Lake City was selected as one of four cities to be part of a nationwide study of sexual-assault investigations by the Police Executive Research Forum and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. The group will analyze and critique SLCPD’s treatment of sexual-assault investigations in an effort to establish best practices for the nation.

Though there are plenty of long bureaucratic struggles ahead, and the stakeholders won’t always agree on how to address the issues revealed in our story, we’ve seen progress. The fight to end sexual assault and rape is something that won’t be quick or easy. But the first step is letting people know that there indeed needs to be a fight—that this is a problem that’s happening to people every day of the year, in every city and county in the state, and that it’s something that affects all of us. We started this conversation with “Rape in Utah.”

Kelly Davis, San Diego CityBeat

In July, the Youth Law Center filed a complaint with the Department of Justice over excessive use of pepper spray in San Diego County juvenile halls. The complaint was prompted by Dave Maass’ extensive reporting. We reported on YLC’s findings: “Civil rights groups blast San Diego County over pepper spray in juvenile halls.

And, our ongoing reporting on deaths in San Diego County jails resulted in a county law-enforcement review board taking a closer look at one inmate’s death: “Review board identifies policy violations, shoddy investigation in San Diego jail death.” His family were unaware of the findings, but we were able to track them down and they’ve since filed a lawsuit.

Kelly Thompson, Toledo City Paper
Our cover story titled “Permit Puzzles” drew attention to the multiple issues and successes with downtown Toledo development. As our city recovers from an economic downturn, small business owners are taking big risks. The story’s focus was on how city departments’ communication with small business owners (and vice versa) can seriously impact future city planning and development. The response to the story was overwhelmingly positive, and Toledo city council has used the story to leverage changes in policy for the new year.

Patty Calhoun, Westword

In 2013, we broke the story of how the State of Colorado — via History Colorado, its new museum — had ignored the descendents of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, who lost 200 tribal members at Sand Creek, Colorado, in November 1864.

After we wrote about the concerns the tribes had with a new exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre, History Colorado finally closed that exhibit, and entered into consultations with the tribe. And Governor John Hickenlooper not only appointed a special commission to oversee the commemoration of the 150th anniversary, but ended that commemoration with an official apology on behalf of Colorado to the tribes.

By all accounts, the Westword coverage was the critical component.

Mark Zusman, Willamette Week
I’d rate our coverage of the governor’s first lady and her selling of the office to benefit her pocketbook as our journalism high point of this year. Here is how the New York Times explained it.