The New State of Alt Media

"We're not weeklies any more. We're all-the-timies."

I spent last summer swimming in alt media.

I studied the history of local weeklies in the U.S. I flew to Miami for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) convention, picked up a backpack-full of local papers from places I’d never been and took notes in the margins. I visited the website of every single AAN member on a laptop computer and a mobile phone. I downloaded alt-weekly apps and tested them. I talked to readers.

By the end of my research, I could quote Dan Savage by heart and name every state that had legalized medical marijuana. And, once I’d washed the newsprint off my hands and closed all my browser tabs, I was left with a new dose of confidence in the alt media industry. Yes, advertising revenue has dropped as print readers have turned to the web. Yes, digital media is an unwieldy, ever-changing beast that we’re still trying to wrassle into submission (or at least collar and leash). But while lots of big-name legacy papers have stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed, scared to admit that their industry had transformed while their backs were turned, alts saw an opportunity for growth and jumped on it. The alt culture was already well-tuned to rapid adjustment in response to readers’ needs.

“When you’re in an alt-weekly, it’s always about giving more, increasing the reader experience,” says Enrique Limón, arts & culture editor of the Santa Fe Reporter. “And that really translates into giving them more also on the digital side.”

Alts are, almost by definition, small. The laws of physics tell us that the smaller the object, the less inertia it exerts. For alt-weeklies, that means it’s easier to change, to adapt to the digital landscape and expand accordingly. Where a bigger paper has a multi-level bureaucratic structure, an old-school reputation and a fear of alienating any segment of an amorphous readership, an alt-weekly has a lean, nimble staff, a flair for rebellion and a tightly defined audience that isn’t going anywhere. Readers expect alts to experiment—not only to jump on whatever newfangled thing the kids are doing these days, but to lead them there. Digital media was made for outsiders.

That outsider status works to the advantage of alternative publications when they try to meet younger audiences (tomorrow’s advertisers and lifelong readers) where they’re at. Alts haven’t had to teach their readers how to find their content online—most alt enthusiasts were already web-savvy—and they don’t look or sound like a behind-the-curve grandparent when they try out a new digital project.

“Our readers, because of their age and they’re active, they want to interact with our content digitally more than ever, particularly on mobile,” says Blair Barna, advertising director of the Charleston City Paper. “I guess we’re a newspaper, still … but you really have to think of yourself as a media company.”

In other words, the printed and stapled product you pick up every Thursday at the neighborhood indie coffee shop isn’t the main event for most alts any longer. They’re producing videos, making interactive online tools and mining their followers for user-generated content. They’re publishing daily content on blogs, updating stories as they develop and using social media for live event coverage.

“We’re not weeklies any more,” says former Dig Boston Editor J. Patrick Brown. “We’re all-the-timies.”

The ebbing stream of income from print ads and classifieds has forced alt publications to find new revenue sources, and while some have stumbled, most have seen the challenge as an opportunity to capitalize on what already sets them apart from mainstream or national outlets: a deep knowledge of the local community and a loyal readership that trusts their recommendations. Burlington, Vt.’s Seven Days hosts career fairs to connect its young audience with the companies that post job listings on its site. Seattle’s The Stranger launched a ticket sales site, a natural upshot of its event calendar. The East Bay Express has partnered with LocalOn to sell websites and social media services to the same small businesses that populate the paper’s ad slots.

And that’s what’s going to keep alts relevant, backed and read: self-aware strategies that, with digital media at the foreground, help publications do what they do best in more and better ways. The trusty paper on the corner is redefining itself with the agility and creativity that made it popular in the first place.

“Once all the dust settles, alt-weeklies are going to be the ones standing,” Limón says.

Standing, yes. But not standing still. For local alternative media, there’s never been a better time for high-speed growth.

Christina Cauterucci is a writer, editor and video producer based in Washington, D.C. She also edits Where the Girls Go, an arts and culture blog for queer women in D.C., and was a digital media fellow for AAN last year.