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LOS ANGELES — There was something else there, but you couldn't see it. There were notes coming from somewhere — maybe adding up to a melody — but you couldn't quite hear them. Growing up in and around this sprawling, elusive city in the 1970s and '80s, Lynell George would see things, hear things, that never showed up in the daily press.
"I didn't always find my city in the newspapers," says George, who grew up black in racially mixed neighborhoods and was so inspired by the city and its contradictions that she decided to become a writer who'd decode L.A.'s sense of place. She was tired of reading about the wealthy Westside, Hollywood deal-making and society ladies in Beverly Hills. "Sometimes there were just little glimpses," she says, of something else.
Documenting the city — its racial and ethnic fault lines, the brilliant corners of its music scene, its overlooked literary life — was something, George realized, she could tackle more effectively as a journalist for alternative newsweeklies rather than a novelist. She'd spent years driving to Book Soup, a store on Sunset Boulevard, to pick up the Village Voice and read Greg Tate on black culture or Guy Trebay on the Bronx's crack epidemic or to Venice's Rose Cafe or Tower Records to pick up LA Weekly. "I wanted it on Thursday; I couldn't wait," she says. "If you didn't get it, it was gone. I wanted to be part of that conversation."
Talk to readers and writers about the heyday of the alternative press and you hear stories like this. For all the good memories, though, 2013 has been a rough year for alt-weeklies. The Boston Phoenix, among the oldest and most storied, collapsed in March, putting about 50 employees out of work, just six months after an optimistic move to glossy stock; the paper was losing roughly $1 million a year. Susan Orlean, a New Yorker writer who, like Joe Klein, Janet Maslin and David Denby, worked for the Phoenix early on, compares it to the disappearance of her alma mater. "I am a child of the alt-weekly world," she says, "and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today." The New Haven Advocate was folded, along with two other weeklies, into The Hartford Courant this month after a year that saw heavy layoffs. In May, the two top editors of The Village Voice resigned rather than cut a quarter of the staff.
The troubles are not confined to the northeast: The LA Weekly, whose issues typically offer less than half the pages they did a decade ago, recently announced substantial cuts in its theater coverage, to which the paper had a three-decade commitment. Most places, page counts and staff sizes are way down.
Some of the causes of the alt-press meltdown are more complex than those of daily newspapers, which have been felled primarily by the Internet and corporate overreach. But the results are at least as tumultuous.
None of this sad trajectory was clear to Lynell George back when she became — in a chaotic office in Silverlake, a gritty gay neighborhood not yet declared cool — an LA Weekly intern in the late '80s and a staff writer in the early '90s. A tattooed performance artist manned the front desk, and pompadoured staffers in pegged jeans would arrive with guitars in preparation for after-work gigs. "You didn't know what you'd come into in the morning — I loved that. It reflected the music scene, the art scene." And "alternative," she realized, meant asking, "'What's really going on?' And to come at it in a different way."
The Reagan years were in some ways the alternative press's glory years. We knew we were a playing an adversary role.
former Village Voice and LA Weekly writer
Despite its association with the counterculture, the alternative press had its origins in the Eisenhower era — in the Red Scare, in fact. Though mainstream culture circa 1955 was sleepy and reactionary, Norman Mailer, who helped found The Village Voice that year out of a Greenwich Avenue apartment, wrote that the paper would "give a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us." Dan Wolf, another founder, described the era as one in which "the vulgarities of McCarthyism had withered the possibilities of a true dialogue between people."
Mailer's column for the Voice, the novelist wrote a few years later, gave him the kind of opportunity that would have made Jack Kerouac swoon: "Drawing upon hash, lush, Harlem, Spanish wife, Marxist culture, three novels, victory, disaster, and draw, the General looked over his terrain and found it a fair one, the Village a seed-ground for the opinions of America, a crossroads between the small town and the mass media." Avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas became the paper's film critic, urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote important pieces on the destruction of lower Manhattan neighborhoods, Nat Hentoff chronicled jazz and politics, Robert Christgau helped invent rock criticism.
The Voice surged from its initial print run of 2,500 copies (sold, originally, at 5 cents apiece) to 150,000 readers by 1970. By that point, the paper had company: What began as a music-heavy publication in 1966, Boston After Dark would become the more comprehensive Boston Phoenix, and in 1970, anti-war students at Arizona State founded the first New Times paper to protest the Kent State killings. The year after, the Chicago Reader was inaugurated by a group of college friends, and the following year, the first of the Creative Loafing papers, which would spread across the South, began in Atlanta.
These papers inherited varying degrees of the Voice's political edge, emphasis on hipness and personal style, and pugnacity toward the mainstream. When LA Weekly rolled out its first issue in 1978, Jay Levin, one of its founders, wrote, "the smog in L.A. was so bad that much of the year you could barely see the hookers on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue."
Before long, the Weekly had dug into the cozy relationship between government regulators and polluters and turned out 40 stories on smog and the people responsible for it. This was the paper’s mission: "We would challenge all the official stories." (Today, now that L.A.'s smog problem has improved, you can see the hookers clearly.)
Alt-weeklies thrived in conservative and conventional times. "The Reagan years were in some ways the alternative press's glory years," says Tom Carson, who wrote for the Voice and LA Weekly from 1977 to 1999. "We knew we were a playing an adversary role. Peggy Noonan was right: It was a revolution, destroying what was left of the New Deal, making this into a very different country. And we were the only ones calling (Reagan) on it, besides a few scattered op-ed columnists."
At a time when corporate rock thrived and the blockbuster culture was gearing up — Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were no longer mavericks, Phil Collins and hair metal raced up the charts — and the president refused to utter the name of a plague killing thousands of gay men, the lines were clearly drawn. The alternative press knew which side it was on.
Mainstream journalists started to cover that stuff. Mainstream papers started to poach, and some writers were comfortable in both worlds.
New York Times film critic and former Voice writer
Though sometimes dismissed as hippie rags, alt-weeklies exerted an influence on mainstream, straight dailies. "The alternative press should get credit for pushing the daily press to cover culture and the arts," says Doug McLennan, a former Seattle Weekly staffer who now runs ArtsJournal.com.
But the influence went the other way, too: By the '90s, with the first popular Democratic president in three decades, corporate studios starting indie-film wings and "alternative rock" albums shooting up the charts, the lines became more blurred: Alternative weeklies and mainstream papers were harder to tell apart.
Manohla Dargis was writing for The Village Voice when she saw a New York Times story on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and realized that things had changed. Cultural shifts, and an interest in youth and fringe culture by the mainstream press, meant that alt papers were losing their distinctiveness. And without a Republican White House, alt-weeklies were losing their political edge.
"When you take away the politics — if you don't have an editor with a very aggressive political agenda — all the other coverage is up for grabs,” says Dargis. "Mainstream journalists started to cover that stuff. Mainstream papers started to poach, and some writers were comfortable in both worlds. Why shouldn’t they be?
"People like Greg Tate and C. Carr were never going to work for the mainstream press." But Dargis says she realized that the terms had shifted, and by 2002, as film editor at LA Weekly, she was tired of toiling for alt-press wages. "I could stay there or make twice as much money in the mainstream. I couldn't say 'f---' anymore, but maybe I could make a living." She is now a movie critic for The New York Times.
In terms of circulation and revenues, the '90s seemed like a good time for alternative weeklies. But the seeds of demise had been planted. It wasn't just what social critic Thomas Frank has called "the conquest of cool" or the pressures that pushed the Voice, for instance, to stop charging for its publication in 1996. It was a wily company from Arizona.
New Times began opening new alt-weeklies and aggressively acquiring existing ones in the '90s, and their model emphasized investigative reporting but not progressive politics. In 2005, New Times, led by founder Michael Lacey, bought the Voice, LA Weekly and other papers and renamed itself Village Voice Media. At the original Voice, jazz critic Gary Giddins, photographer Sylvia Plachy, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and senior editor and gay-rights crusader Richard Goldstein were pushed out before New Times arrived; writers Hentoff, J. Hoberman, Christgau, Michael Musto and James Ridgeway after. From '05 to '07, the Voice cycled through five top editors. LA Weekly was cannibalized, too. For those writers left, it was a culture shock.
"I got out in the nick of time," says Carson, the former LA Weekly and Village Voice employee, who now reviews movies for GQ. "I could not have survived the New Times era. They seemed motivated by hatred of everything the alternative press stood for — the left-wing politics, the countercultural sensibility, the value placed on intellectualism. These guys were just aggressively demolishing everything that weeklies were good for."
Of course, Craigslist and the Internet consumed much of the advertising that both alternative and mainstream papers depended on and altered the whole landscape. "These retail shifts have made it harder for publishers to distribute their weeklies," wrote press critic Jack Shafer, a onetime alt-weekly editor in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. "Before Tower Records went under, a paper could drop thousands of copies a week at the store's many locations, and the stacks would disappear in a day or two. The video stores that once distributed them? Gone." Instead of opening an alt-weekly as you waited for your subway car or girlfriend, he says, young folks now pull out their cell phones.
"The alternative press comes at a very specific point in American history, and its demise does, too," says Dargis. "People are going to look at it as completely a technological issue, which is totally reductive. By the time the Internet arrives, the alternative press had already given it up. It had lost its mission."
A journalism career's start
As it happens, I am not a disinterested observer in these questions. I became a journalist largely because of the alternative press. As a left-leaning, college-radio-loving teenager in a moderately conservative Reagan-era suburb in Maryland, I found the Voice while working at a bookstore: From its political engagement to its underground music coverage to J. Hoberman's ability to make broader sense of mainstream films, this was a world I’d suspected existed but had never quite found before that.
By the latter '90s, when I was in my late 20s, I was editing a film section and writing about culture for New Times' L.A. paper, New Times Los Angeles, which the company formed after it bought two smaller weeklies and, in my boss's phrase, "machine-gunned the staff." I was told over and over again by my bosses about what a bunch of lazy, pontificating hippies sat across town at the Weekly, even as I blushed at the quality of their arts coverage. At New Times I met a very sharp bunch of journalists, but a business model clearly built on the promiscuous use of job termination. (I was fired once, then rehired.) They weren't quite right-wing — more macho libertarian, with a bullying streak — but when Sarah Palin broke out and began to run down coastal "elites," I felt like I was back in a Monday editorial meeting.
For all the emphasis on reporting — the implication being that columns, essays or reviews were somehow unmanly — it was a film critic, Peter Rainer, who earned a Pulitzer finalist spot during my time there. Jonathan Gold, who worked for LA Weekly until last year, won his Pulitzer as a food critic.
But what seemed strange about the New Times crowd is that sometimes they were right. And sometimes they were right on important things, as when the paper helped break a scandal in which the Los Angeles Times secretly shared profits with an advertiser.
It was sad, then, when the company shut New Times Los Angeles, in 2002. I had decamped to the Los Angeles Times by then, and I watched with amazement as New Times swaggered back to town, took over the Weekly and started butchering. (Two longtime New Times editors told me the alt-press troubles come from the economy and the Internet and not anything the company did and declined to speak on the record. Similarly, the Association of American Newsmedia has said the Boston Phoenix's closing and other turmoil is not a sign of a larger decline.)
New Times' owners killed my old paper’s online archive, so most of what we wrote disappeared. They later dumped almost all of the Weekly's archive of old papers, which contained what one scribe called "the secret history of L.A." They moved the paper from a gritty, almost-hip location on Sunset Boulevard to a freeway-adjacent corporate box that former staffers liken to an Ikea set down in Siberia. Joe Donnelly, a gifted editor hired by one "Weekly" regime, fired by another, is not alone in thinking the owners ruined the paper. (Disclosure: I've worked with several people in this story, including Donnelly.)
In 2012, Lacey split to take control of Backpage, an online classified service heavy on escort services that has been linked to underage prostitution. (New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof has called it "Where Pimps Peddle Their Goods.") He has compared his departure to Backpage to his youthful protest over the Kent State dead and to Grove Press’s Barney Rosset’s fight to publish D.H. Lawrence.
What factory that we'd once hear about dumping toxic chemicals are we not hearing about anymore? There are less watchdogs, which is why we hear less barking.
onetime Boston Phoenix editor
What's the significance of all this for people who read weeklies rather than write for them? Los Angeles, which had three alt-weeklies in the '80s and '90s — including an LA Weekly with fact-checkers, researchers and a large writing staff — now has just one, with a skeleton staff and fewer than 100 pages of copy. (Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comic, a precursor to "The Simpsons," ran in one of the papers New Times killed, the Los Angeles Reader.)
Over the years, alternative papers have paid attention to neglected issues and unjustly obscure rock bands. The members of the Pixies met through the classified pages in The Boston Phoenix. Giddins's jazz writing in the Voice remains as daring and clear as a Charlie Parker solo; Ridgeway's work on neo-Nazis and militias has no peer. LA Weekly helped document parts of its city that would literally explode in the '92 riots, and then documented the carnage, in words and pictures, better than any other outlet. Even the New Times papers have published an enormous number of gutsy investigative stories on crony politicians, corrupt sheriffs, kids victimized in foster care and vile religious cults. "Yes, we're under tremendous pressure in the digital age, like everyone in the media," says Sarah Fenske, editor of LA Weekly, before naming stories that make her proud to be in the business. She cites a piece about lawyer Carmen Trutanich, whom she calls "one of the biggest bullies in L.A. politics"; one on accusations of exploitation of would-be filmmakers on YouTube; and a third arguing that an epidemic of hit-and-run accidents has been ignored by the police.
"What factory that we'd once hear about dumping toxic chemicals are we not hearing about anymore?" asks Ted Drozdowski, a onetime Boston Phoenix editor. "There are less watchdogs, which is why we hear less barking."
When those papers go down, or cut pages and staff, those stories disappear and those writers find another way to pay the rent. But it's not just what we don't see; it's the way seeing itself has changed. "When the Voice was in muckraking mode," says Carson, "and we'd go after some shitty landlord or some awful politico, that story was on the cover, and it was all over the place. Today, you can see that story online and you may be the only person reading it. A physical paper is a physical presence — and you’d see it all over the city."