An Open Letter to the Guy Who Owns Snapchat and Other Hip Wealthy People,
There’s no reason to let less-hip wealthy people like Jeff Bezos have all the fun. You, too, can get in on the waves of ink they continue to ride, just for spending the lint in their pockets on big metropolitan dailies.
I’m talking about the John Henrys of the world, who can just decide to buy the Boston Globe for $70 million, spittle compared to the $1.1 billion the Ochs-Sulzbergers (of the New York Times) paid 20 years earlier. And Bezos paid cash – cash! – for the WaPo, a mere $250 mils.
So I ask you, hip wealthy people, if you’ve considered joining this club with a media investment that actually gets your ironic T: the alternative newsweekly? No, really!
Because if the John Henrys and the Jeff Bezoses can pick up papers for a song, it’s a song popular when they had more hair and it was on the “radio.” Alt-weeklies, however, can be yours for the cost of a download by a band you’ve never heard of, but one you will totes YouTube after reading that review by an alt’s music writer who wears a knit cap, always, even in summer. Because she knows what she’s talking about, and she’s talking about it in a medium that continues to be relevant â€” and even sometimes makes money.
What I’m saying is that alt-weeklies are still a darn good value in today’s media market. And here’s why:
No. 1: They’re cheap! So cheap, even broke-ish dailies are plunking down for them! Baltimore City Paper just got eaten by the Baltimore Sun Media Group. The price? Undisclosed, but it couldnâ€™t be much. The underpaid City Paper staff had concocted a scheme before the sale to pool money and buy the thing outright. And let’s visit Chicago, shall we? The Sun-Times bought the Chicago Reader in 2012 for about $3 million, according to sources “close to the deal.” Consider that’s half a million less than a group of eight people paid on eBay that year to have lunch at a steakhouse with Warren Buffet. So instead of a side of creamed spinach (and a few stilted selfies) you could own an institution that’s been kicking tail since 1972. That’s when no-less-venerable a tail-kicker as Tom Wolfe wrote that the year-old Reader, unlike “newspapers” dealing with the past, was the future, a “sheet willing to deal with the way we live now.”
No. 2: They’re still dealing with the way we live now. It’s an inside joke in the alt-weekly world that every reader of alt-weeklies will complain his/her rag isn’t as good as [insert year when reader discovered said rag]. As an industry, we’ve taken some hits. Smaller staffs, fewer and shrinking pages, cuts in distribution as printing prices edge ever upward. But alts aren’t sitting there with voodoo Barbies of the guy who gashed revenue when he started Craigslist (that jerk). While the non-editorial folks figure new and cooler ways to finance a free paper (and some of them are fairly genius about it), the edit folks continue to cover their cities on paper and online like no one else. Consider…
…No. 3: Alts are still killing it on fat, important features. With the web, the death of “longform” journalism came and went. Dailies stopped putting a crap ton of resources into 6,000-word stories. Meanwhile, alts continued to revisit and advance what we still call the cover story. It’s the bread and butter of a good weekly, the story that makes you work the hinges on the corner box and social-media the bejeezus out of the thing. And guess what’s cool again because of tablets, and Instapaper, and sites like Longform.org (co-founded, ahem, by an alt-weekly guy)? Yep, the kinds of features alts defined. Some seem to have noticed, since an alt writer, Eli Sanders of The Stranger in Seattle, won the 2012 Pulitzer for feature writing for a brutal, moving story about a gay woman losing her partner. So take that, New York Times.
No. 4: It’s not all longform all the time. You like the Internet? Alts invented it. Oh, not like Al Gore did. But where do you think the tone of Gawker and parts of HuffPo and, you know, the entire idea behind the BuzzFeed listicle was born? The language of what appeals on the web was always a part of who we are, and we didn’t wait to see if this new means to deliver it would go away. We used our tone and all that we knew about our cities to move from a weekly provider of “hyperlocal” content to a daily one. And last:
No. 5: As an owner/investor, you’re a VIP at multiple, cleverly named events. While dailies deal in tired treasure hunts and boring book fests as a means to connect with actual readers, alts throw bashes for Crafty Bastards. Alts have the Hump! festival for homemade erotica. Alts sponsor the Boise Gay Men’s Chorus and the Pittsburgh DIY Bar Challenge. Alts, in short, have fun. And that’s what money is for, in the end. At least your money, am I right?
Jule Banville, assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, former alt editor, forever a lover of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia