The Village Voice’s decision to end print publication is just the latest in an epidemic of free alternative newspaper closures in the U.S.
In the basement dressing room at G*A*Y Lounge in Baltimore, Scott Murdock – who works by day in a health clinic – is about halfway into becoming his drag alter ego, Shaunda Leer. With Billie Jean playing on an iPhone, Shaunda applies exaggerated fake eyelashes as co-host Abbi Kadabra, wearing a white knit gown, adjusts a Jane Fonda-style wig in the mirror.
“It’s really disappointing,” Shaunda says, perfecting a cheek contour. “Not just for us, but for the other fringe artists out there who don’t have mainstream exposure in the city.”
She is referring to the impending closure of the Baltimore City Paper, the local alt-weekly. Shaunda Leer and Abbi Kadabra are fixtures in a renaissance of LGBT bars in Baltimore, many of which are popping up after years of closures. Every step of the way, they say, the City Paper has covered their scene, while the mainstream media largely ignored it. “We’d invite them,” says Abbi with a shrug. “But they never came.”
So when the paper’s parent company announced in July that the title, which has hit Baltimore’s streets in yellow boxes every Wednesday for 40 years, was being forced by declining ad revenue to print its last issue by year’s end, the impact was clear.
“They were the only ones telling our story,” Abbi says. She credits the freesheet with expanding their reach as performers beyond the gay media and into the rest of the city where, she says, “people don’t know what we do”. From the opening of G*A*Y to drag brunches, awards and fundraisers, “they were always here – always.”
The Baltimore City Paper is one of about 100 alternative weekly publications across US cities. Each has its own distinct look, tone and editorial position, but they are united by several things: sprawling narrative reporting, in-depth stories exploring the fringes of city life and, as one editor puts it, “calling bullshit” on the city’s institutions in a way they feel mainstream media won’t. Crucially, of course, they are free.
The City Paper makes queer culture a particular focus, including a dedicated issue each year, but also devoted a recent issue to an intricate play-by-play of the Baltimore ceasefire, a weekend-long peace effort in a city that averages a murder a day. Another 9,000 words recently investigated the death in custody of a black man – not Freddie Gray, but Tyree Woodson, who is virtually unknown in the international press.
Alt-weeklies’ brash brand of reporting was a defining cultural voice for cities like New York, whose Village Voice has won three Pulitzer prizes; but with mass newspaper consolidation and the decline of print advertising, “people in all cities noticed that the quality of their alt-weekly declined,” said one longtime reader.
The publications have long counted themselves as incubators of national journalism talent. New York Times media critic David Carr cut his teeth at the Washington City Paper; one of his proteges was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who described himself as essentially a “knucklehead” before alt-weeklies took a chance on him and other writers of colour, such as Jelani Cobb and Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead. “I can’t imagine myself here right now without City Paper,” he told the New Republic following Carr’s death. “I just can’t.”
The comedian John Oliver dedicated several minutes of his late-night talk show to mocking Tribune Media’s subsequent decision to rebrand its publishing arm as Tronc – “the sound of a stack of print newspapers being thrown into a dumpster”. The company splintered: Tronc went one way with the company’s newspapers, and Tribune Media’s 42 television channels struck a controversial buyout deal with a global media behemoth, Sinclair Broadcast Group. The $3bn (£2.3bn) deal would bring Sinclair’s TV news, which has been criticised as uncritically pro-Donald Trump, into 72% of US households. (Such a proportion had long been illegal until Trump loosened regulations designed to prevent monopolies.) Even though the publishing wing is a separate company, Tribune Media still owns a stake in Tribune Publishing, and has a say in its operations.
Baltimore is not alone. Round after round of mergers and sell-offs have killed countless local papers across the US. Days before the Baltimore City Paper announcement, Tennessee’s Knoxville Mercury announced that it, too, would close. Not even a billionaire benefactor was enough to save the Village Voice, which had enjoyed a brief revival, in its current incarnation: on Tuesday, the paper said it would silence its print edition after 62 years.
The past decade has been the deadliest, with hundreds of newspapers thinned out, shut down or merged, resulting in an American urban media landscape pockmarked with “news deserts” that have left many cities with just one local newspaper – and in some cases, none at all.
Denver, Colorado was left with just one large-circulation newspaper when the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain Times shuttered in 2009. Since 2004, the folding of century-old papers like the Daily Southerner in Tarboro, North Carolina and the Journal-Register in upstate New York, have left those smaller communities without a single daily newspaper.
Those which survive have typically been scooped up by a new guard of companies that aren’t properly definable as publishers at all. Instead, they boast vast, multifaceted portfolios that can run the gamut from golf courses to newspapers, united only by the pressure to turn a short-term profit, or face closure. With their free content and a perception of being less advertiser-friendly, alt-weeklies are often the first to go.
That loss has been felt by readers. Cherie Smith, 35, explains that she picks up a copy of the City Paper every Wednesday morning at the bus stop before she gets on the number eight to the Giant supermarket, where she works as a bakery manager.
“That’s how I first started reading it,” she says. “I was waiting on the bus one day and it was some kind of crazy picture on the cover. I felt like it was more honest and less worried about pressure from different outlets if they said something. It didn’t have to be politically correct.”
Global news can be overwhelming, and Smith was more concerned with what was going on in her immediate vicinity.
“I could just tell the tone was different. I don’t want to know about everything that’s going on everywhere,” she says. “So they had a lot more stuff in there that was pertinent to a person in Baltimore, not necessarily the whole state. Everyone in the state reads the Sun, you know what I mean?”
The Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism was launched earlier this month by City Paper editors Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg, along with radio host Marc Steiner. The crowd-funded effort to replace the City Paper has raised $4,735 so far from 76 backers which, the team says, it will not use to “to buy a building or rent an office or pay a big staff”.
The project is modelled on a similar effort in Boston. After the closure of the Phoenix in 2013, a worried Chris Faraone, editor of Dig Boston, co-founded the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism to fund his alt-weekly. In its first two years it has raised $250,000.
The model is simple, he says: “If we raise $10,000 then that’s how much journalism we do. If we raise a million then we do that much more.” That means asking readers who might be used to getting their news for free to pony up. But the mainstream press’s embarrassing misreading of public opinion in the 2016 election has ramped up many readers’ motivation to fund local journalism. “Our hospitality industry reporter works in like, 10 different bars around town,” says Faraone – giving the reporter the direct experience to fuel several Dig Boston stories on alcohol licensing discrimination in Boston’s communities of colour.
A thousand miles away in Little Rock, editor Lindsey Millar looks to Faraone’s nonprofit as a model for his own, a spin-off from the Arkansas Times. The alt-weekly is “the only progressive voice” in the die-hard red state, says Millar. “A lot of people don’t read us on principle.” It makes advertising a slog: “We’ve been blackballed by the biggest companies in Little Rock. But any good alt-weekly is going to alienate some advertisers. We wrote about a Catholic hospital’s abortion policy. They were infuriated.”
Nonprofit funding doesn’t rely on corporate approval, however – and it led to one of the paper’s biggest successes. In March of 2013, Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured, spilling 200,000 gallons of oil into the 2,000-person town of Mayflower, Arkansas. Residents grew ill, bees dropped dead and the streets were coated in oil. Millar couldn’t investigate with the resources he had, so he enlisted the help of the environmental not-for-profit InsideClimate News. They raised nearly $36,000 through crowdfunding and a grant – enough to hire a Pulitzer-winning journalist and publish a dozen stories investigating the spill’s impact on the environment and residents, who complained that Exxon had ignored their persistent health concerns.
The reporting led to the Arkansas governor’s decision to offer free health screenings to residents, and Exxon eventually settled a lawsuit brought by Mayflower residents for $5m.
That led to the beginning of a fundraising windfall for special projects at the Arkansas Times and the founding the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network (ANNN), which distributes its stories for free across the state’s TV and print news outlets. Since January, ANNN has raised $50,000 to fund its journalism.
Could the model work for the Baltimore City Paper? Only if it moves even further to the fringes, says editor Brandon Soderberg. If Baltimore City Paper survives in its new incarnation as a nonprofit, Soderberg vows to address an issue that’s nagged at him from the start.
“It’s not a ‘city paper’ – it’s a paper for the middle of the city,” he says, lamenting the dearth of City Paper boxes in poorer, mostly black neighbourhoods beyond downtown. “There’s not even a box in Mondawmin, the busiest transportation hub in the city” – and the scene of unrest in Baltimore in 2015. He says he asked the paper’s new owners, Tronc, whether he could move a distribution box to be closer to an English as a second language class to reach its students. “I just wanted to move one box closer to that classroom and it was just like, ‘How much will it cost?’ I was like, ‘I’ll take it – I’ll cut the wire that attaches it to this pole and I’ll carry it there.’”
He takes a sip from a can of National Bohemian beer, a brand founded in Baltimore. “The benefit of us basically being dead in the water is that we can do whatever we want with this thing.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: Empty newspaper racks for The Village Voice in Manhattan. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP