K Paoletter 11: Requiem for the Alt-Weekly

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I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say I started writing because of alt-weeklies. As a teenage laggabout in Albuquerque, I spent untold nights lingering at coffee shops on Central reading the Weekly Alibi cover to cover. It turned me on to midnight movies at the Guild, hardcore shows at the Attic, experimental theater at the Vortex, Tricklock, and q-Staff. After starting college in Boston, I got in the habit of walking to Davis Square from my freshman dorm to pick up the Phoenix, and devoured its arts section in hopes of finding some foothold in a scene out there in this big, old city. A year and a half later I applied for an internship, was rejected, and settled for a stint at the Weekly Dig, the upstart rival to the much longer-tenured Phoenix.

The Dig’s office (in a loft across the street from a halfway house in the South End, naturally) was sunny and quiet nearly every employee (I use the term loosely) brought their own laptops and was, like me, a college kid working at an office for the first time. I started out adding listings for shows at the Middle East, Great Scott, and TT the Bear’s Place to an online calendar, then graduated to a haphazard succession of culture writing assignments. I did capsule reviews of EPs by local acts and comic books, filed a back-of-book feature talking to concert-goers after an over-hyped performance, and interviewed a modern dancer about to make a tour stop in town. Realizing that nobody at the Dig was covering the art world, I pitched a review of a Richard Avedon exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, and bounced from that assignment to covering the opening of the MFA’s newest wing.

The fact that a 20-year-old with no experience was given the chance to hold forth on the largest expansion to the city’s premier museum in decades is, in a word, hilarious. But it’s also indicative of the entry into journalism alt-weeklies have historically represented. That I was paid in gift cards is more telling of the era of print journalism I had stumbled into. Ad revenue had crashed, classifieds had moved to Craigslist, and it was now possible to find a national audience simply by writing incisive enough comments on Gawker posts that the editors asked you to pitch them something.

In 2013, three years after my brief stint as de facto art critic at the Dig, the Phoenix shuttered. Baltimore’s City Paper, where no less an eminence than Ta-Nehisi Coates got his start, followed suit in 2017. That December, the LA Weekly was sold to a gang of Orange County kleptocrats who have subsequently alternated between eviscerating the former haunt of Jonathan Gold and suing each other. And now, most painfully of all, the Village Voice is no more. Founded in 1955, the Voice set the mold for the alt-weekly, and its archives are riddled with brilliance: Allen Ginsberg on the beats, Andrew Sarris on movies, Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau and Greg Tate and Ann Powers on music… Up into the early 2000s, the Voice served a dual role as a definitive source for criticism in the culture and the tribune of the downtown New York scene, as dedicated to covering fashion week as it was to writing up a Hermann Nitsch symphony that included photographs of cow carcasses in the liner notes.

Mind you, my affection for the Voice is borne more out of an appreciation for history than any personal experience with the weekly. When I moved to New York in 2012, the Voice was long past its prime. I remember picking up a copy for a long subway ride back to Prospect Heights from the Upper West Side and being saddened to find little inside beyond an uninspiring cover story (judging by the time period, I’m guessing it was a profile of… I dunno, Grimes?) and page after page of classifieds. Even more troubling was how generic the prose read, a symptom, perhaps, of the Voice’s then-ownership by a conglomerate that had grown out of Phoenix’ New Times and at that point owned 12 weekly newspapers in markets from San Francisco to Minneapolis.

In retrospect, the fact that the Voice limped along this long, and that so many of its peers around the country are still somehow stuffing fresh print into plastic sidewalk boxes every seven days, is nothing short of a marvel. Indeed, in some towns the alt-weekly is still a crucial part of the civic conversation. Take the Miami New Times, which was the only paper that managed to interview the woman allegedly abused by the late Florida rapper XXXTentacion (and that’s thanks entirely to the gumption of an intern by the name of Tarpley Hitt, no less). Or Seattle’s Stranger, which won a Pulitzer in feature writing a few years back. And even though it’s never been known for its scoops or award-winning reporting, longtime editor Devin D. O’Leary has managed to keep the Alibi afloat in Albuquerque, a town that forever punches well above its weight in terms of weirdness.

The alt-weekly, in short, is far from dead, though it is surely diminished. That’s reflective of the broader shifts in print journalism toward the nation’s media centers: a subscription to the Times or the Post or the Journal is de rigueur for the intellectual set these days, even as local newspapers continue to shed circulation. Blogging, once heralded for its decentralizing promise, is now concentrated heavily in New York and Los Angeles with the rest of the media ecosystem. The fact that it’s those two cities that have seen their local outlets wilt most in recent years can probably be attributed to the same phenomenonthe more proximate the national conversation is, I suppose, the less interested the readership will be in what’s happening under their noses. Many alt-weeklies survive because they serve a community on the periphery. Cities like Albuquerque have no business in the national conversation, and no interest in joining it, either.

Ah, well. Times changes, and so do the papers. Since their invention in the 17th Century, newspapers have undergone countless iterations to keep up with the shifting mores of society. The alt-weekly, in all likelihood, will be remembered as a manifestation of the counterculture; the form’s waxing and waning will be said to mirror that of the broad idea of American society as segmented into a mainstream and an alternative. These days, the counterculture is fragmented and ephemeral, its cultural signifiers long since absorbed by the brands. The audience that alt-weeklies once served simply no longer exists at the same scale. So, I wonder, what is teenage KP reading in 2018? LAist? The Times? Reddit?

Last month, I had the great pleasure of dropping by Providence to interview the translator Emma Ramadan for BOMB Magazine. Emma has translated a number of books from under-the-radar Francophone authors, including Anne Garréta and Fouad Laroui, and I was glad to get the chance to talk with her about her craft. One of my favorite moments in our conversation was when she talked about the value of working messy: “I don’t get the idea of doing a polished first draft. By the time you get to the end of the book, you know what words are repeated throughout, you know if the author’s doing something specific with a certain theme, if the character develops a little bit, if there are certain character traits. You don’t get that at the beginning.” The lesson: don’t be afraid of the mess, friends.

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Your pal,