Warning to Alt-Weeklies: Innovate Online or Perish

With his Macintosh PowerBook and a projection screen, media-technology expert Tony Perkins stood before AAN convention goers in San Diego to explain his solution to the biggest threat facing alternative weeklies today: the blog revolution. By the millions, young and hip trendsetters — for so long the core audience of the alt-weeklies — are getting (and creating) more and more of their news and information from blogs and wikis and other personalized Internet-based media.

Perkins’ assessment of the threat was simple: join ’em or fail. Beating them isn’t an option.

“The statement I’m going to make — to unequivocally join the open-media revolution — is a radical proposition,” Perkins told listeners, many of whom confessed that they were unfamiliar with the innovations that are reshaping the media world. He told them with a salesman’s optimism that integrating reader content and social networks into Web sites is the only way to remain viable in this new age.

Old media, as he described it, is a one-way broadcast where “totalitarian dictator editors” decide content. Readers are more or less anonymous. With open media, socially networked readers create content in real time. “I’ve learned that my readers are a lot better at choosing content than I am,” said Perkins, who, among other things, runs AlwaysOn, a media company that integrates open-source editorial content.

Most AAN-member Web sites lack the strong presence necessary to compete in yesterday’s cyberspace, much less tomorrow’s, but some editors, publishers and sales people came ready to make a step toward keeping up with the Gateses. “I want our paper to accept blog entries from our readers,” said Matt Astbury, the operations manager of the Shepherd Express in Milwaukee, Wis. He hoped to find out how his paper can make money from the implementation.

Laura Fries, Web editor for the Creative Loafing chain, said, “The Web sites suck right now,” but she likes the idea of “a social network where you can leave your mark on every part of our site.” She’s already in the middle of redesigning some of CL’s Web content.

But others were skeptical. One listener raised concerns about libel and defamation suits. Tom Walsh, the editor of Sacramento News & Review, isn’t quite ready to open editorial content to readers. The problem? “Trying to decide who runs it and monitors it,” he said. “Will there be an editor? That’s the question among all these people.”

Only time will tell how truly responsive the alternative press is to the open-source media movement. If Perkins is right (and he swears that he is), alt-weeklies better jump on the bandwagon or risk joining mainstream media in the tumble toward irrelevance.

Mosi Secret is a 2004 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism who is in San Diego writing for the AAN Convention Daily. He lives in Houston, Texas.