Web Turns Some Alt-Weeklies into Dailies

Bush’s National Guard Record, Gay Marriage Debate and Other Breaking News Stories Debut Online

It’s happened to every alt-news journalist at least once.

Deadline has passed; the issue is nestled safely in the box; and you begin working on next week’s paper. Suddenly the phone rings and that scoop you’ve been waiting weeks for finally comes through. You’re forced to sit on it for seven days hoping the dailies with their seemingly unlimited resources don’t hear about it before you can get it on the streets—seven days later.

What’s a weekly to do?

Take it to the Web.

“We’ve had situations where we had a story and just knew the dailies were working on it too,” says Seattle Weekly editor-in-chief Knute Berger. “It became clear that we had to start going to the Web with those types of things or risk losing a great scoop.”

Scandals and emergencies send editors to the Web

While several papers have chosen to occasionally break news off-cycle, some are starting to realize the potential of cyberspace with regular updates and Web exclusives. A high level of commitment is evident at The Village Voice, which integrated the words “Updated Daily” into its Web-site nameplate and just hired a new managing editor to oversee Village Voice Online. The movement toward Internet reporting is more gradual elsewhere; most papers haven’t jumped on the train with both feet.

In Seattle, for example, Berger says his paper has used the Web many times, but still hasn’t made the complete commitment to regular updating of content. But when major stories have unfolded, Seattle Weekly was ready to go online.

When an election scandal started unfolding last summer, Seattle Weekly was the first to offer detailed accounts of suspicious, if not illegal, campaign contributions finding their way to several city council candidates. Strippergate involved, as Berger describes him, a “notorious local nightlife figure with business before council” funneling money to the candidates.

The package came together in the two days following the paper’s Wednesday deadline. Knowing The Seattle Times was putting together a similar piece for Sunday, Berger decided to post the story on Friday, not only beating the Times, but forcing the daily to move its package to Saturday. The New York Times described Seattle Weekly’s coverage as aggressive because of the tabloid’s willingness to break parts of the story online.

And there have been other instances of Web-first publication, from 9/11 to the now-infamous World Trade Organization riots of 1999. WTO was a story the Seattle Weekly owned because of the Internet.

“We became the go-to Web site for news on this story. We wrote dispatches from WTO and posted them before blogging ever became a word,” Berger says. “Covering WTO opened our eyes to the fact that we can attract readers from all over the world and become a true media player.”

That’s exactly what The Boston Phoenix became when the genesis of the ongoing gay marriage controversy broke in its backyard. An issue made for alt-weeklies was unfolding, and the Phoenix wasn’t going to miss the boat.

“We’ve always tried to pick our shots when it came to the Web site, and the gay marriage issue was definitely one of those times,” says Peter Kadzis, Phoenix editor-in-chief. “During the Democratic National Convention, we’ll have everyone but the arts writers posting all day long.”

When the Phoenix has used the Web, Kadzis says it has been to provide additional coverage and not necessarily to supplement the print edition. In fact, most times, not everything is reprinted in the paper.

Besides breaking major stories, the Phoenix also offers Web exclusives, including a media log and various columns. Kadzis says the amount of Web coverage is nowhere near where it should be, but there is a conscious, continuous effort to keep working at it.

Promoting scoops draws visitors to sites

In Memphis, using the Web has become a daily ritual and a public relations bonanza. Breaking news and/or Web-only columns are featured every day.

On the days when the Memphis Flyer has a scoop, everyone knows it, says associate publisher and editor Bruce VanWyngarden. Editors e-mail the headlines to all local television stations, which cite the paper on news broadcasts.

A recent story featuring interviews from four pilots of George W. Bush’s alleged National Guard Unit, who insisted the President never showed for duty, was picked up nationally by Time, CNN, CBS, ABC, PBS and Pacifica Radio. That, in VanWyngarden’s mind, makes the Web a true asset.

“I think any alternative newspaper not using the Web to put up stories is missing a great opportunity to broaden its readership and promote itself,” he says.

Promotion is important, especially when an alternative paper’s readers may not be expecting more coverage than their once-weekly dose provides. Retraining readers to follow the publication throughout the week goes hand in hand with producing Web content.

Bruce Dobie, editor of the Nashville Scene, says his staff has had several discussions about how to proceed with Web-site coverage. They devised a plan that involved a Friday “Late Edition” and promotion of the new content through in-house ads.

The section houses the paper’s popular Crush of The Week column (featuring Nashville’s tastiest eye candy), updated listings and a couple of news items that may warrant an early appearance. Occasionally, some of the content is reprinted in the weekly edition.

Dobie says Web coverage hasn’t affected the print version in terms of lack of content or staff members being spread too thin.

“Based on our experience, my existing editorial staff seems up to the task of writing additional material,” he explains. “However, I do see a future need for having a more technical person who can post all of this stuff on the Web in a timely, and design-sensitive manner.”

For some, less online is better

There are still some papers that use the Web in a very limited capacity—as more of a promotional tool. The Santa Fe Reporter, for example, publishes just a few paragraphs of its cover story before instructing readers to pick up the paper for further coverage.

Editor Julia Goldberg says going to the Web could be tricky for a smaller-circulation paper with a very city-centric circulation and a return rate of less than 2 percent.

How does an alt-weekly use the Web without damaging its success on the street when its circulation is just over 20,000? Very carefully.

Goldberg says the Reporter has used the site for expanded election coverage on the Wednesday after an election and publication day. She said Web extras are also used to present full interviews or features when the version running in the print edition is cut due to the strict adherence to page count.

However, some expanded Web coverage could be initiated, Goldberg says.

“Because we are circulated mainly in the city, we do get calls from people outside the city wanting to know about events happening in Santa Fe,” she says. “I think people would like to see the listings online. I know that because I spent 20 minutes last week reading them to a woman who wanted to know what was going on in the city.

“We’ve only been online about three or four years, so the Web site is a relatively new thing for us. We’re still trying to determine what we can put online without damaging our high street traffic.”

Finding a balance between the Web and print editions is something all publications will struggle with as they move toward expanded Internet content. Berger says the Internet allows papers to rethink the types of stories they cover.

In the past, an event might get skipped because it would have appeared too long after the fact. The Web changes that a bit. However, Berger stresses that it’s essential to remember the bread-and-butter of alternative weeklies.

“Most importantly, we don’t want to dilute the kind of thoughtfulness and research that goes into our weekly reporting just to get it out on the Web,” Berger says. “If you try to adopt the mission of a daily newspaper, you can run the risk of letting your appetite for the Web drive the content.

“If you do that too much, you could risk damaging the paper’s personality and the niche that you’ve created for your readers.”

Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer living near Pittsburgh, Pa. He’s a former staff writer for the now-defunct In Pittsburgh Newsweekly.

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