NextGen Convention Reflection: Alissa Smith

During the Editorial Standards seminar at the 2017 Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference, an attendee said they approach their publication’s content by asserting: “This story won’t exist unless we do it.”

This was the first session of the first AAN conference I have ever attended, and it set a tone for the rest of the weekend’s revelations. It reads as a simple statement, obvious even, but it encapsulates so much of what we do. This is not only what makes us alternative, but the intrinsic responsibility of alt media.

As the child of two journalists who worked in daily newspapers throughout their careers, my concept of the news has always been rather cut-and-dry. As someone in this session pointed out, daily papers must express “what happened,” while alternative media should report “why.” And while I have spent almost two years working for the Colorado Springs Independent, I do not think I could conceptually describe what we did quite as well as that simple statement. “This story won’t exist unless we do it.”

Billionaire Phil Anschutz owns the daily in Colorado Springs, and many say he owns their content. We strive to counter that bias, and I believe we have been successful. We do tell stories The Gazette wouldn’t touch, including exposing the dubious way the Air Force Academy deals with sexual assault cases, or going in-depth into our city’s homeless crisis.

After attending the AAN conference, I find myself emboldened to seek out these stories myself. Though my beat is arts — and from an op-ed standpoint, LGBTQ issues — and not as much hard news as others on our editorial staff, I have always believed that there are stories to tell in the realm of arts that fall outside typical play reviews or exhibit previews; or stories of LGBTQ people that go beyond legislation updates. I suppose I just didn’t know where to consistently find those stories.

So more than defining the kinds of stories we set out to write, the AAN conference helped me figure out how to track them down. In the session about long-form journalism, the panelists discussed how they took a single point of curiosity and examined it from all angles, turning one piece of information into an in-depth examination of an event or a subculture. That panel also touched on the concept of point of view. In my college literary criticism classes, we always discussed de-centering the narrative, focusing on a side character or a point of view that otherwise falls under the radar. It never struck me before this panel that approaching news in that way could yield incredible results, telling stories from the perspective of voices that are seldom heard.

Of course, all of us who try to be socially conscious strive to amplify marginalized voices in our own small ways, but with a concentrated (and united) effort to do so, alternative newspapers can make a legitimate difference in the communities we care so deeply for.

Though many sessions throughout the conference yielded their own revelations — from how to assert myself as a woman in the workplace to how to cover issues of race — by far the most valuable education I received was in the culture of alt-weeklies. Attending the conference in Washington D.C., during a time of incredible political turmoil, felt symbolic, as all of us gathered were there to discuss how we could work toward change in our communities, which would ultimately inspire change in the nation. I left the conference inspired by the drive and dedication of my colleagues, and I think I will be a better journalist for it.

Smith, Culture & Calendar Editor at The Colorado Springs Independent, was a winner of the 2017 AAN Diversity / Next Generations Scholarship. She attended the Annual Convention in DC and reflects here on some impactful experiences from her time there.