All Things Local: It's the Alt-Weeklies, Stupid

march 28, 2014  03:25 pm
Paul Farhi’s byline appeared in the Washington Post under the headline, “Charting the years-long decline of local news reporting” on a Thursday. That’s the day most dead-tree versions of alt-weeklies hit the metal stands in the lobbies of buildings.

That’s where I found a copy of my local alt, the Missoula Independent. The big feature this week is one that takes the long view on a story my local daily, the Missoulian, has been covering pretty steady for months – a multimillion-dollar decision against the Catholic diocese in Helena for abuse against Native American children.

The lead is a tough one. A woman describes in detail how, when she was 5, a priest raped her out in the open at a powwow, not far from where her mother and father were passed out drunk.

This one important local story reported and written by a young, fully employed staff writer at the Indy isn’t the argument against Farhi’s argument. But it is telling that in his piece, Farhi dealt exclusively with what’s happened at “legacy” outlets, mainly smallish dailies, in comparison to both hyperlocal web startups and sites finding some success by getting out of the local game and focusing on national/international. His point, pulled from the Pew Research Center’s “State of the Media” report, is that it’s harder and harder to fund local news, even though people are always claiming it’s important to them. As a result, local news is less good.

I think Paul Farhi is a guy who covers the media beat at the Post with a lot of care and, sometimes, sharp pointy fingers jabbing in the right directions. This won’t be the first jab in his direction, but I do have one: Alt-weeklies exist.

Farhi’s not alone in writing thinky pieces about the state of journalism and newspapers that skip over an entire – and entirely local – industry that’s been around since ‘Nam. He’s just the one doing it right now. And it’s got to stop.

Because the deal is what’s happening with alts is parallel to, but also distinct from, what’s happening to dailies. In a piece that’s a lot about advertising and readership and how they impact paying for local journalism, it’d be worth mentioning the “legacy” of funding local papers –- often in the same markets as dailies -- that have always been free, that don’t have subscribers, that have both thrived and not, died and survived.

In other words, Farhi, there’s something relevant between dailies and startup sites. Psst! It’s alt-weeklies. Check them out!

Andrew Beaujon over at Poynter gets this and consistently includes alts in his beat coverage of media. And you probably know why, right? Because people who are alt alums and move on to other forms of media – like blogging about media at Poynter – tend to not forget what brung ‘em.

Beaujon and I were editors together at Washington City Paper and when he wrote about Farhi’s death-of-local piece, he mentioned my recent post here at altweeklies.com. Even though we know each other, our points about including alts in journalism about journalism isn’t just inside baseball. It matters.

Local journalism is suffering, yes, and suffering at the same time it’s producing necessary stories about 5-year-olds getting raped by priests. But as we examine the data, the examples, the how and why of this morphing machine, let’s take care to not leave out a major moving part. Otherwise, the whole thing stalls.


Jule Banville is an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism and a former editor at Washington City Paper.

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