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Media Mainstream? There's Still an Alternative

Simon Warner

All the news that's fit to print -- at least fit to print outside the publishing mainstream -- the alternative newspaper is alive and well on both sides of the pond.

It is hardly surprising, with the disparities in scale, that the UK and the US have developed quite contrasting media models. Around the size of Wyoming and with a population barely a quarter that of the States, Britain enjoys a newspaper demography quite different to that evident on the other side of the Atlantic. For a start, we have nine identifiable national daily titles which, essentially, cover the kingdom from north to south, east to west. To that, we can add a similar number of Sunday titles,which tend to emerge from the same production stables as their daily sisters.

While all those titles come in different shapes and sizes, with different voices, agendas, and political positions, their intention is to capture the daily news, sport, arts and entertainment issues of the whole country, with a greater or lesser nod to action overseas. While the press still divides into categories dubbed "quality" and "popular", (with some publications falling a little uneasily in-between) the old notion of broadsheet and tabloid has been shattered in the last two years.

The Independent was the first to break ranks. The Independent is a quality paper that decided to abandon its large format and reduce its scale to that of tabloid proportions. However, to avoid the negative associations with the prevailing culture of the tabloids — where a far larger diet of celebrity and television-sourced stories dominates — the "Indy" cleverly dubbed its fresh format "compact".

So quickly did the Independent turn its ailing fortunes around under the new arrangement that, last autumn, the Times (perhaps the most famous UK newspaper of all and the British paper of record) also jettisoned its broadsheet version and now only produces its daily edition in a compact form. The switch challenged centuries of tradition and brought howls of outrage from its established, albeit aging, readership, but Rupert Murdoch is nothing if not decisive in his business dealings.

Murdoch — who also publishes the Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World through his UK operation News International — and his lieutenants could see the writing the wall. Change was necessary for a number of reasons. Challenges from the web and a more serious and immediate rival in the form of a giveaway commuter daily, the Metro, prompted the Times' bosses to re-cast and re-launch their newspaper which was starting to resemble a lumbering dinosaur in the harsh publishing environment of the early 21st Century.

National newspapers are not the only players on the UK stage, of course. Beneath those flagship titles there are hundreds, no thousands, of newspapers covering the cities and counties, regions and districts of the nation. Mornings and evenings, weeklies and bi-weeklies, still roll from the presses servicing the more parochial concerns of readers, from local business to local soccer, court stories to crime reports, council committees to amateur dramatics.

Such structures are, of course, evident in the US, too. If America has few "national" titles as such — the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today — it does nonetheless, patently share that recognisable tier of regional and local newspapers we have described in Britain. Yet there is one distinctive sector in the US that has much more weight and much more presence, than it enjoys in the UK.

The alternative newsweekly is a phenomenon we can barely replicate in the UK. While the closest relative over here, listings magazines, can be found in most British cities — Time Out in London, City Life in Manchester, the Leeds Guide, and so on — their principal role is to pinpoint appealing arts and leisure possibilities for their customers. Thus cinema releases and band tours, new restaurants and gallery openings are at the heart of what they do; style, you might say, over substance.

From time-to-time I buy and read these paid-for UK publications, even though the plethora of competing websites continues to erode the value and significance of these titles. They offer a level of well-researched, finely-honed, consumer guidance that more general newspapers — national or regional — simply cannot provide. But, ultimately, they seem to be driven by commercial considerations; the slickly penned reviews and critiques are mere window dressing to the advertisements that ultimately fund these glossy and neatly designed magazines.

That said, whenever I visit cities in the US, I am not only taken by the number of free weekly publications available from those ubiquitous street-vending units, but also by their look and content. Whether you are in Seattle or Chicago, Cleveland or San Francisco, newsweeklies proliferate, produced on cheap newsprint, looking like heirs to the original Village Voice tradition, and covering a range of political and community matters with a straight-talking, polemical vigour I miss back in Britain.

Though national and international US political issues often seem to be cloaked in a bland political smog — a tendency to patriotism over principle, a lack of clear distinction between the pro-capitalism of the two major parties — the newsweeklies hint that the hand-to-hand, street campaigning of the old counterculture may still survive.

Additionally, these publications strive to cover that edgy waterfront the mainstream editions still have great difficulty embracing. Pieces on sex and the environment, alternative arts and lifestyles, drugs and spirituality, jostle for space with articles on regional politics and local issues, all presented in a manner more akin to New Journalism than the stylistic conventions of Columbia.

I have become particularly interested in this surviving thread in American journalism over the last year or two because the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the member body of all those titles spread across the States, has invited me in both 2004 and 2005 to be a judge of its annual Music Criticism Award. Last time I was joined by one-time X stalwart John Doe and Addicted to Noise founder Michael Goldberg; this time, my colleagues were Lorraine Ali of Newsweek and Walter Kolosky, author of Girls Don't Like Real Jazz.

The exercise involved selecting a winner in two categories: 1) Writers with larger publications circulating over 50,000 copies and 2) Those with smaller titles selling under that figure. Entries had been reduced to a short-list of half a dozen candidates in each sector by the time Lorraine, Walter and I got our teeth into a selection of pieces by each critic.

The outcome was a splendid surprise…not only did the three of us broadly sing from the same song-sheet when it came to identifying the outstanding writers, we also happened to pick women for both of the awards. This was great news because the line of important rock journalists has been so dominated by male practitioners that the prevailing assumption is that only men can really grapple with the trajectory of the popular cultural juggernaut. Obviously, such an assumption is plainly untrue.

In the small paper category René Spencer Saller of the Illinois Times proved a worthy champion. I described her writing as "incisive, acerbic, opinionated, densely packed and well-informed" While Melissa Maerz of the Twin Cities' City Pages, the prize-winner in the large paper section, delivered "pen portraits of mayhem on the Minneapolitan pop scene…quirky snapshots taken with a throwaway camera [which] fizz with life even if the writer's cameos are mostly seen through a fish-eye lens or, just as likely, the bottom of a cocktail glass".

On June 17th, the AAN presented its awards at a ceremony in San Diego to a whole host of columnists and cartoonists, critics and commentators, from the hundred and more titles under its wing. Though I had to make my own apologies, it was still terrific to think that this progressive strand in US journalism was again taking the opportunity to congratulate its main participants. And those prizes for René Spencer Saller and Melissa Maerz were a sign that change, for the better, for the fairer, is being played out in the editorial offices of this admirable grassroots movement.

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