Alt weekly publishers wonder what’s next

Jeff vonKaenel

Last week, when the Senate Republicans could not pass their health care repeal and the Trump administration was having a meltdown on Pennsylvania Avenue, several hundred alternative newspaper publishers, editors and staff were gathered a few miles away, at the 39th annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention, discussing the state of alternative journalism in 2017.

Illinois Times publisher Bud Farrar and I were the only ones in attendance who had been at the first AAN convention in 1978. That event, nearly 40 years ago, was the first time many of us found out that there were papers similar to ours throughout the country. We sat around a large table for several days, learning how others distributed their papers, sold ads and, of course, wrote stories. Much of the discussion was about what it meant to be an alternative newspaper in the time of Jimmy Carter. Back then, the daily newspapers dominated each of our towns while making huge profits. The poor, people of color and dissenting opinions were of little interest to them.

This was a time when the deaths of 50,000-plus soldiers in the Vietnam War were still fresh and painful memories. Our generation’s music and art were controversial. This was the birth of the alternative press. Over time, there were more than one hundred such papers around the country, including the SN&R.

The 2017 convention was not focused on the past, but rather on a scary future. Like daily newspapers, many alternatives have lost revenue. The old model—if you put out a good enough newspaper, the readership will come, and if the readership comes, the advertising will follow—is no longer working.

What does it mean to have an alternative newspaper in 2017? There are now many alternative ways to distribute a message, as our president demonstrates daily with his tweets. Please note that these messages do not need to be true to gain widespread traction. And resources for the mainstream media have been dramatically reduced. Papers including The Sacramento Bee have lost almost two-thirds of their editorial staff.

Today, there is less of a dominant mainstream media for us to be an alternative to. But there is still a need for reliable, accurate information. Decisions based on bad information can lead us into war, could cause the destruction of our health care system or could encourage us to continue to warm our planet. I left this year’s AAN convention with a renewed conviction about the critical need for solid news reporting.

Solid news reporting costs money. With the old revenue model failing, newspapers will have less revenue coming from advertising. Instead, perhaps there will be support from individuals and foundations for journalism, similar to the National Public Radio model. Also, free weeklies have lower costs than the larger daily newspapers. This lower overhead may help us survive.

In 1978, at the first AAN convention, we discussed the nuts and bolts of how to create alternative newspapers in our towns that would cover the issues, people and culture that were being ignored by the mainstream media. We left that convention inspired with many ideas for moving forward.

In Washington last week, I felt a bit of deja vu, except that Donald Trump is no Jimmy Carter. And even more is at stake now.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.