When the Independent Weekly launched in 1983 as a monthly, paid-subscription, statewide political publication, it entered a very small media universe. There were a handful of local daily newspapers and radio stations. CNN had just started broadcasting, and the notion of 24-hour cable news was a revelation made possible by the major technological innovation of the day: satellites.
It would have been impossible to imagine then how much the media universe would expand. The Internet has exponentially increased the number and the reach of media outlets—from local blogs debating teardowns in Raleigh and county commissioner elections in Chapel Hill to the hundreds of international newspapers Triangle residents can now read with their morning coffee (as long as they don't spill on their keyboards).
Meanwhile, alternative weeklies, once the renegade upstarts of the newspaper world, have become institutions in their own right. The professional Association of Alternative Newsweeklies counts 129 member papers (including the Indy). All are struggling to adapt their economic models to the declining print circulation and rising online readership newspapers in general are experiencing.
Further complicating that picture is the fact that the consolidation of media ownership has affected alt weeklies, as well. Chains like Village Voice Media and Creative Loafing now own many once-independent outlets.
With so many more sources of information now available to readers, with blogs providing a democratic platform to all comers, alt weekly journalists are asking themselves, What do we provide the alternative to?
We caught up with four editorial alumni from the Independent's first 25 years to get their perspectives on the past, present and future of alternative journalism.
Founding editor of the Independent, Katherine Fulton led the paper from 1983 to 1992. She lives in San Francisco and works for the Monitor Institute as an organizational consultant in the field of philanthropy and nonprofits. She was at the helm when the Indy collaborated with Bob Hall and the Institute for Southern Studies in reporting on campaign finance, including contributors to Jesse Helms' campaign.
What were some of the highlights of your work at the Independent?
One of my favorite stories we ever published during my tenure was about Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who'd been elected in 1985. There was this debate going on in the state legislature about what should be the state vegetable of North Carolina—should it be the yam? So we wrote a story that asked the question, "Is Jim Martin the real state vegetable?" It was a serious story told with a funny headline and subheads, but we got a lot of people on the record, including Republicans, talking about how little he was getting done and about a lot of frustration with his administration.
He called a press conference to deny being the state vegetable. There's a front-page story, I think I still have in a file someplace, by the Greensboro News & Record's political reporter that literally said, "Governor Denies Being State Vegetable." It was just hilarious.
But in many ways, the biggest thing that happened in the first five or 10 years of the Independent was trying to figure out a business model. We were learning that the business of journalism is not about journalism, it's the business of selling advertising.
That seems to still be what the business of journalism is, it's just getting harder because the method of distribution is changing.
When I left the Independent, I went to Harvard for the Niemann fellowship. I heard the word "Internet" for the first time in the fall of 1992 at Harvard. That was pre-World Wide Web, and there was no graphical user interface for the Internet. It was just at the beginning of what would very rapidly take off in the 1990s.
In late 1995, I came to California to work for Global Business Network, a small, alternative strategy consulting firm. When I came to GBN, a very brilliant guy there said to me, "I know that news has a future; I'm not sure about journalism." In the context of 1995, I could barely wrap my head around what that meant. Because up to that point, news and journalism were the same thing.
But of course, he's exactly right: News has a great life. Anybody can write news. Any organization can spread it. A lot of it isn't true! It's news on comedy shows and on blogs. But journalism, what we think of as vetted reporting, is a smaller and smaller subset of a larger and larger information and communications system, which has in fact enveloped our culture.
There are a lot of experiments under way with nonprofit models of journalism. NPR has pioneered listener-supported media. Another is ProPublica—a major philanthropist out here put up a large sum of money and hired the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a bunch of investigative reporters to start a whole new model of investigative journalism.
I also think that really good journalism will be done by other people who don't consider themselves journalists.
The Center for Public Integrity in Washington is pioneering investigative reporting in a non-profit setting. Human Rights Watch is another good example, a whole organization full of people who are monitoring human rights abuses around the world. They're essentially doing reporting.
Some of the current industry research suggests that alt weeklies will need to be hyper-local to provide something that isn't already being provided.
Right, as I said, there are parts of it that have shrunk. But I also think that there's a question about points of view, perspectives on what's happening in the local community, and that might also be what's missing and harder to get. Certainly the Independent has always represented a particular point of view, and that was part of how it was alternative.
I don't want to be depressing. I think there is a cloud of uncertainty over the professional journalism industry and business, but I believe that we will move through that uncertainty and come out on the other side with journalism institutions serving the public good. It just may look very different than the ones we have now.
A staff reporter at the Independent from 1995 to 1999. Eric Bates is now an executive editor at Rolling Stone, where he edits national affairs coverage and non-music feature stories.
As an Indy reporter, Bates wrote extensively about criminal justice, including the death penalty, private prisons and alternative schools for "bad kids."
When alternative journalism started, it was a new form of journalism, but now alt weeklies—and Rolling Stone, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary—are institutions. What are we the alternative to now?
The world has changed more for alt weeklies probably than for any other form of journalism. To some extent that's due to forces outside journalism's control. Alt weeklies started out as a business model delivering personal ads and connectivity that are far easier on the Web these days. So the whole advertising model got replaced. That's true for daily newspapers too, but it's even more true for weeklies.
In terms of content, the alt weeklies were part of a trend that came out of the '50s and '60s that did introduce voice and attitude and literary form to journalism. In some ways, we've been so successful at that that it's become mainstream.
There are plenty of places that will be competing for the kinds of stories the Independent's going to do. There aren't as many taboo subject areas that the alternative press has cornered the market on. In some ways, we're victims of our own success, that we modeled that for the rest of journalism and it became a much more accepted form.
I recently read an interview with your national politics reporter Matt Taibbi where he talks about the point of view in his reporting. Rolling Stone has certainly always had a distinct point of view. Do you think there's more or less point of view now in mainstream reporting?
I think there's the same amount. It's more overt than it used to be, because the Internet in particular has made it possible for everyone to express their point of view. And that's a great thing. It's made it harder particularly for the mainstream media to pretend that it doesn't have a point of view. For one thing, people are looking for attitude and voice, but they're also looking for honesty about it. So the mainstream media is constantly getting critiqued now from all sides all the time online, and that's made for a lot more transparency.
There's a lot of debate about how to incorporate the Web and blogging and citizen journalism into what we do. How do you see the role of journalists as gatekeepers?
I don't think there's a lot of gatekeeping to be done. Journalism's role is to do the hard work of reporting and documenting what's going on. The Web and the proliferation of television news channels isn't a substitute for that. There's a lot more opinion; that doesn't mean there's more informed opinion. The Web encourages people to post things quickly and not think very much about what they're doing. What newspapers and magazines and newsweeklies ought to do is ask questions and talk to people and actually go out and look at things firsthand and explore issues from all sides and come up with a thoughtful, informed, accurate picture of what's going on.
Is there a niche we could be filling that we're not?
I'm not sure what it is on the business side. If I knew that, I'd be a lot richer. But in terms of the journalism side, we just have to do it even better. In the old days, you could get away with a lot of weakass shit, because there was nobody else doing what we were doing. That's not as true anymore. A more competitive marketplace of ideas means that our ideas have to be sharper, that we just have to bring excellence to everything we do in order to stand out. That's a good problem to have because we should demand that of what we do.
Do you consider what you do alternative journalism?
I'm not sure the word "alternative" really has as much bearing now, and even if it does, I'm not sure it's the most useful lens to consider it through. There are a lot of different ways you could look at it. One of the bigger differences is in terms of ownership.
The biggest change over the past 25 years has been the rise of corporate chains, even in alt weeklies. The Independent is one of the last family-owned alt weeklies out there. You could get into the extent to which the Independent has succeeded by driving all of its competitors out of business, taking them over and shutting them down. But it's still true.
Independent journalism is more the lens than alternative journalism—that's what alternative used to mean, was freedom from those sort of revenue-over-all calculations that go on. People like to talk about the demise of daily newspapers and how they're dying as a business model, but what they don't look at are the profit margins of daily newspapers. Dailies are fantastically profitable. Their numbers are going down, but their profit margins aren't.
I don't see that mentioned a lot when I read about newspapers' demise.
No, it's one of the best kept secrets about newspapers. Maybe 25, 30, 40 years ago, people expected a rate of return on their investment of 3 to 5 percent, which is what General Motors got in those days. Now newspaper publishers expect 25 or 40 percent rate of return. And the only way to get that, particularly when your circulation is falling off, is to slash staff to the bone. But that means what's driving newspapers down isn't lack of readership, it's corporate greed.
A staff writer at the Independent from 1999 to 2005, Barbara Solow is now a public policy writer at the Center for New York City affairs at The New School. Highlights of her tenure at the Indy include a profile of Floyd McKissick, who was running for mayor of Durham, and "Mexican paradox," a story about a health trend in which immigrant women tend to have healthy babies and fewer prenatal problems, even though they're poor.
You were the editor of the Indy for a short while. What was that like?
We went through this roller coaster of different editors after Bob Moser left. I filled in as the editor for about six months in 2001, and I was editor on Sept. 11. We put a little tiny alert in the paper that came out on Wednesday saying, "This has happened, the world has changed, we call on everybody to be calm and to try to keep thinking and try not to lose what's best about us." Then for the next Wednesday, we pulled together a special issue [at right].
Taylor Sisk was there, too, and played a big role in this. We reached out to the community, and we asked different kinds of people with different perspectives to write short pieces on thoughts about the attacks, what it meant to the community, to the country. Duncan Murrell wrote about being a Marine. It was a wonderful, deep, thoughtful, sensitive and also outraged, sad issue. It really captured all the things people were feeling but kind of tied them together with some analysis and some clear-headed calls for thinking, keeping our minds on the important issues and not losing sight of what we all cared about. Information at that point was really minimal, nobody knew what was going on, and we didn't want people to jump to conclusions about what the attacks were about and use it as an excuse to go after Muslim residents. I was really proud of that effort because we pulled it together really quickly, but we managed to stay true to our alt weekly mission. We were trying to give people a forum but at the same time, keep thinking, keep our minds clear. It represented the best of the Indy's relationship with the community: We called on them, and they called on us.
With the changes brought about by the Internet and consolidation of ownership over the past 25 years, how do alt weeklies fit into the future of journalism?
In my head I've been struggling to separate the struggles to preserve good journalism from the struggles of the newspaper industry in particular. But to me, that difficulty and change is somewhat different from talking about what's happening with really good journalism. We still need a watchdog. We still need somebody going out and covering those little school budget meetings and looking at the police reports and keeping an eye on government. That still does happen. The New York Times just brought down the governor of New York. Really, newspapers are about critical thinking.
We're all struggling to figure out how to use technology, how to work differently, how to get young people interested in the work that we're doing. This idea that the big papers are trying to own the blogs and own all that new technology stuff, I don't know, it think that might be a mistake. I think there are ways to have different levels of reporting that might be useful for people looking for sources for news. All this competition doesn't seem to be creating the best of that.
Having said that, I think that alt weeklies sort of have a leg up there. We've always done things differently. We've always tried to be a place people go because they can't get what we're presenting anywhere else—the news or information we have just isn't available anywhere else. And as long as that remains true, alt weeklies are going to be vibrant and exciting in whatever format they come out in.
Yes, but how does that remain true? When the alternative media started decades ago, it was clear what it was an alternative to. Now that's less clear.
That struggle with the Indy has been going on for a while as the paper became this institution in the community instead of being this upstart which it was in the beginning, and also as the dailies changed. The N&O started doing stories that the Indy had done. I think that is the question, to look at the media world out there in the Triangle and ask, What are we providing that people can't get anywhere else?
The Indy has some really cool things about it that remain unique even among alt weeklies. One is the local ownership—don't lose that. That makes a difference. I think it's really important that it's not a chain, that the owners are part of the community and have to be accountable in a way that you just aren't if you're in a big chain. That makes it harder, of course, because then it becomes a resource question.
Some research says the niche weeklies can fill is intensely local reporting. Do you agree with that?
Yes, although I think the Indy has a good track record of doing regional reporting, I'm thinking of the Hal Crowther-type voices that have come out of the Indy. Those aren't just local voices; those are Southern cranky voices. And I was also thinking about the Indy's groundbreaking coverage of state government. Local reporting is very important, but there are other things the Indy has done well and could do well in the future, to keep it on the map.
A staff writer at the Independent from 1986 to 2000, Barry Yeoman is now a freelance reporter and writer on a variety of topics for magazines such as Mother Jones, Audubon, AARP the Magazine and O the Oprah Magazine.
As the Indy's state political reporter, Yeoman wrote his magnum opus, the "Highway Robbery" series, a five-part exploration of the way that campaign contributions determined North Carolina's road-building priorities at the expense of communities, the environment and democracy.
He also wrote a moving, two-part narrative, "Walking Home," about a Hispanic Baptist church in Siler City. For 10 months he practically lived at the church, attending services, baptisms, birthday parties, weddings and evangelism meetings.
How do you think journalism has changed in the past 25 years?
When I started at the Indy, in-depth exploration of issues was curiously off the radar screen of the daily papers around here. The News & Observer was truly stenographic. It reported what happened at meetings or on the floor of the state legislature or the governor's press conference.
Over the late 1980s and early 1990s, newspapers in North Carolina and throughout the country began to do more in-depth exploration of issues. So then it was incumbent on alternative newspapers to find the next big thing. And over time, that was a different type of investigative reporting than the gotcha reporting that was representative of old-line daily journalism. Then it was personal narrative and narrative non-fiction.
Yet each time there was a new leap forward in journalism, it would be the province of alt newspapers until big dailies and then finally smaller dailies would catch on. This process at its best was a mindful one at the Independent. We would have very focused conversations on, Where do we want to push the craft? And whenever we saw daily papers catching up to what we were doing, we knew—some of us earlier than others—that it was time to figure out what the next leap forward was going to be.
What's the next frontier that alt weeklies need to jump into?
I don't think we're done with narrative journalism. But the truth is that some of the best narrative work is happening at dailies, not at alternative weeklies.
I think the corporatization of alternative weeklies means that business folks are looking at the bottom line more. Narrative journalism is expensive and dailies have more resources.
When alternative papers were local and less profit driven, publishers, I think, were more willing to bust the bottom line in the service of the political and journalistic mission of the organization and greater service to the community. When you have large multi-state corporations owning alternative weeklies, it creates a more traditional business model that I fear filters down to locally owned alternative weeklies. It's a terrible dilemma, because on the one hand you want the business model to be sustainable. On the other hand, if limiting editorial resources means limiting quality, you're compromising the original purpose of alternative weeklies.
Do you think intensely local coverage is a niche alt weeklies can fill?
I think that's right. To me, the formula is localism plus quality. What you have on the Web is a vast, undifferentiated resource. When you look at Durham, for example, you have some very high quality blogs, and you have a lot of static. Neither the high quality blogs or the static are journalism in the traditional sense. What we need to do is exercise that professionalism and ask ourselves, How do we produce a product that is so good and so credible that it rises from the rest of the media environment? I would like to think that as Americans become more sophisticated about the Web, that they will recognize there is a difference between professional journalism and what's being called citizen journalism. There's a useful role for the latter, but that role is neither about good accurate reporting nor about high quality storytelling. In a sense, the alternative press needs to be thinking again about the very nuts and bolts of journalism.
In what sense?
As a way of distinguishing itself from what's online. One of the waves that alternative journalism went through was the rant. And that was useful, because it infused journalism with a type of passion that was missing from all those gray dailies. Now anybody can rant, and they do.
The alternative press needs to ask itself what's beyond democracy, and I think what's beyond democracy is that professionalism. We know how to ferret out information that bloggers don't, because we're trained. We know how to make people comfortable telling their stories, because we're trained. We know how to craft our research into beautiful and damning and compelling and angering and life-affirming stories, because we're trained. For all of the exhilarating results of citizen publishing, it often occurs with limited tools.
I have friends in New Orleans who say that nobody who lives there would ever eat at a bad restaurant, because why should you? There's so much good stuff out there. In a way, the media environment is similar. There's so much good stuff out there that I don't ever want to read a bad paragraph for the rest of my life. And if a newspaper is going to keep my loyalty, it's got to publish a lot of good paragraphs.