Dart to Matt Welch and CJR

As the executive director of an organization of newspapers that employ editors and reporters who are accustomed to dishing it out, I shouldn’t be quick to take offense when others write negatively about us. But the first section of Matt Welch’s article in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review (“Blogworld and Its Gravity: The New Amateur Journalists Weigh In”) sketches such a simpleminded caricature of alternative newspapers, and his “reporting” is so suspect, I can’t resist.

Alternative newspapers are far from perfect and face many difficult issues that a good reporter could address, but that’s not where Welch’s head is at. He’d rather whack us with dumb generalizations to provide a convenient foil to his heroic bloggers.

According to Welch’s account, he attended a conference of our west coast newspapers in February and was horrified to learn that alternative newsweekly journalists are the most “conformist” he’s ever seen, the papers are politically correct and all “the same,” and dammit, we don’t deserve to call ourselves “alternative” anymore.

He apparently discovers that we’re “conformist” when he stumbles upon some strange Stepford Wives-type behavior in the hallways. According to Welch, “several” people at the conference “asked me the exact same question with the same suspicious looks on their faces: ‘So . . . what’s your alternative experience?'”

Then he makes his way to the coffee station, where we put the stacks of papers that members send to the conference. There he finds that, “All the newspapers looked the same — same format, same fonts, same columns complaining about the local daily, same sex advice, same five-thousand-word hole for the cover story.”

Too bad he didn’t read the papers instead of just looking at them. Because the notion that alternative newspapers are all “the same” is an absurdity that could only be uttered by someone who hasn’t read any of them. Does anyone who has spent fifteen minutes with, for instance, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Chicago Reader, have any doubt that one is from Mars and other is from Venus? Is there a New Yorker aware of The Village Voice and New York Press who doesn’t know they are vastly different in both substance and style? Are there residents of Seattle who can’t tell the difference between Seattle Weekly and the Stranger? Or Cleveland Free Times and Cleveland Scene? Or, or,or ….

Having looked at all of our papers and become thoroughly disheartened, Welch begins to ponder a question that has stumped our critics since time immemorial: “What specific attributes qualified these papers … to continue meriting the adjective ‘alternative.’ Alternative to what?”

To learn the answer he heads to the bar, where he “start(s) a discussion” about the issue.

As a qualifying attribute “someone at the table lamely offered up ‘a sense of community.'” What a lame-o! Next thing you know she’ll be giving Welch that suspicious look and asking him about his alternative experience.

No, Welch says to himself, that just won’t do, “it must have something to do with … political correctness.” Then, just in time to confirm all of his worst suspicions, I sidle up to the table:

Richard Karpel, the AAN executive director, joined the conversation, so I put him on the spot: Of all the weeklies his organization had rejected for membership on political grounds, which one was the best editorially? The Independent Florida Sun, he replied. Good-looking paper, some sharp writing but, well, it was just too friendly toward the church. “And if there’s anything we all agree on,” Karpel said with a smile, “it’s that we’re antichurch.”

I assumed he was joking — that couldn’t be all we have left from the legacy of Norman Mailer, Art Kunkin, Paul Krassner, and my other childhood heroes, could it? Then later I looked up the AAN’s Web site to read the admission committee’s rejection notes for the Florida Sun (which was excluded by a vote of 9-2). “The right-wing church columnist has no place in AAN,” explained one judge. “All the God- and-flag shit disturbs me,” wrote another. “Weirdly right-wing,” chimed a third.

My mind races back seven months. Yes, now I remember. I sat down to a casual conversation in a hotel bar in San Francisco, and Matt Welch — whom I don’t believe I had ever met before — was at the table along with two or three others. Although the incident didn’t leave a strong impression, I can recall certain facts from what Welch has written:

1. Welch writes as if he crouched forward and put pencil to notepad when he asked the question that “put me on the spot.” That’s not what happened. He never identified himself as a reporter, and if he asked me a question, which I presume he did — he never informed me that it was in the context of an interview.

2. Whatever he asked me, it wasn’t the question he paraphrases above. There are dozens of factors that bear upon a newspaper’s qualification to join AAN, and it’s far too reductive to say that the organization rejects certain papers for membership “on political grounds.” If he had asked this question I would first have corrected his false assumption. The tipoff that Welch, like me, can’t remember exactly what he asked is that he paraphrases himself.

3. Then he paraphrases me delivering fulsome praise for the rejected Independent Florida Sun. Only problem is … I’ve never even seen a copy of the Independent Florida Sun, so I couldn’t have said it. Maybe I was referring to comments by the two people on the admissions committee who voted to admit the paper? Who knows?

4. Then there’s the quote itself. Since he put it in quotes, I’ll give Welch the benefit of the doubt and assume that I really said it. Of course, if I did say it, it was a joke, which Welch appears to admit until he’s reduced to wide-eyed, slackjawed horror when he peers at our Web site and finds that three of the eleven judges said they were disturbed by IFS’s right-wing tilt.

Based on that slim evidence he convicts us of “political correctness” and being “politically monochromatic,” sweeping more than 100 AAN papers and thousands of writers he’s never read into a simplistic left-right axis that doesn’t fit the local politics that are the bread and better of most alternative weeklies.

There’s a kernel of truth in the “antichurch” joke that Welch stuffs back in my mouth and tries to smother me with. Despite their many differences, one of the ideals that bonds alternative newspapers together is a tolerance for a wide range of non-violent, consensual behavior that generally runs counter to the precepts of organized religion.

But it was a joke so its relation to the truth was less than precise.

Now, regarding that word — “alternative” — that Welch doesn’t think we measure up to anymore. A little history:

We dubbed ourselves “alternative newsweeklies” in 1978. At the time, there were three television networks, a couple of daily newspapers in each city, about two dozen city mags, a few political reviews and local business journals, and NPR. And there was us. That’s it. No zines, no cable news, no talk radio, no Internet. Nobody else using free circulation, running personal ads, writing seriously about the Clash and Funkadelic, telling kids about local bands, covering the independent film scene, writing frankly about sex, printing cuss words. Nobody else constitutionally dedicated to placing turds in the local punchbowl. So back then we were “the alternative.”

Since then technology has made it much easier to cater to niche interests, and we have become just one of the many alternatives to mainstream journalism. So we don’t claim to have exclusive ownership of the word. But having invested 25 years in its brand equity, “alternative newsweeklies” is the term we use to describe the papers that belong to our organization. We need a name so we can tell advertisers who we are and so people will have something to call us.

If Welch did a little more reading and talked to a few more people, he probably wouldn’t be so quick to make such broad generalizations about alternative newspapers. Indeed, last year in his blog, when he excoriated New Times for closing one of his hometown alt-weeklies, he lamented the loss of “six years of interesting journalism.” So how come six months later he couldn’t fathom the possibility that a few others may also be producing “interesting journalism”?