Question of the Week: How are your local alt weeklies…


December 9, 2008 by A.C. Rhodes

hanging in there as far as the music sections go? How do you think editor, columnist and writer layoffs will effect local scenes or the final product?

15 thoughts on “Question of the Week: How are your local alt weeklies…

  1. Fred Mills says:

    A vexing, but pretty easy to answer, question: very poorly, and yes. With the announcement earlier this week of the Chicago Tribune’s bankruptcy (“but we won’t skip a beat” one exec there was quoted in NPR… RIGHT!), and earlier this year the Chapter 11 of my old stomping grounds Creative Loafing alt-weekly (which bought the Chicago and DC weeklies in an ill-advised expansion move) it’s safe to say that more heads will roll and reorganize. The McClatchy daily group’s woes are well-documented, and I’ve heard that in the weekly world, the New Times group may be on the verge of teetering.

    So more to the point, I think we’ve all seen either reactive or preemptive scaling back of coverage — fallback position is always to jettison evergreen and big-picture coverage in favor of sucking the cocks of the advertisers. And while this has always been fairly blatant for dailies, whose idea of a show preview is a rewritten press release, it pretty much business as usual for the weeklies I look at these days, too.

    The irony is that if you also look at the trends among advertising in the arts (let’s say music, theater, dance, galleries, books), those areas are among the least dependable for a weekly as sources of revenue. Clubs will usually lock in a contract for, say, a year, to guarantee placement in proximity to the music listings, so that’s semi-stable of course. Not much else can be taken for granted. Even more ironically, readers are most likely to squawk when they perceive their favorite section is shrinking — say, theater coverage goes from two pages down to a single page — but when the theater companies and productions can’t afford as much advertising as previous, the paper typically adjusts how much space it will devote. If you think about what’s been going on in the music biz, from labels slashing their marketing budgets to concert revenue being consolidated in the hands of a very few mega-players, it’s easy to see the eventual trickle down effect at regional publications; you’re certainly not going to see local bands and clubs ramping up their advertising in this climate, either.

    This is all the very definition of a vicious cycle.

    So the papers also react in a very traditional and, let’s face it, logical mode: positions get cut, staffers are forced to wear multiple hats. For example, that local music editor at the weekly? He’s either outta there, or has to apply for the position of the paper’s A&E editor. I suspect as time goes along even the larger markets’ weeklies will undergo similar staffing transformations, and they probably are already.

    Now, here in Asheville where I live, we have a curious situation where the daily paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, has been kicking the ass of the weekly, the Mountain X-press, for music coverage for years. I’m not sure why, either. The daily has consistently provided more extensive national AND local exposure, whereas the weekly seemed to treat music as an afterthought, to be worked into the layout at the end of the week after all the restaurant coverage had been inserted. I mean, it was ridiculous — sometimes you had to start reading a piece to determine if it was in fact about music because it had no proximity whatsoever to the clubs and the listings.

    Just recently, however, the weekly underwent a modest layout revamp that does a better job of placement and visual strategy, and I’ve detected a quantitative uptick in coverage too, so clearly, someone else noticed what I’d noticed. A new A&E editor came in recently, so I’m assuming that’s related. (That said, the coverage is still mostly make-the-advertisers happy stuff — no thinking outside the box — except for a dedicated space each week for local reviews.) This all gives me hope that the weekly will not only survive but grow — it even added side staples not long ago, which would appear to be a sign of health. The arts community here in general is thriving, and the music scene in particular has the sort of infrastructure that typically helps local musicians to flourish, so along with another anomaly-like aspects of Asheville and its general culture, it will be interesting to see how things pan out in the long term.

    Not so my old home of Charlotte, where from 1987-92 I served as music editor of Creative Loafing from its inception there (the home base is in Atlanta) to when I moved to Arizona. I’ve always carried a bit of pride with me for the paper, and even after I left I continued to contribute occasionally with features, reviews, etc.; more recently, during Kandia Crazy Horse’s tenure as music editor there, I happily penned a regular reissues column. After she left there was a period of turmoil, and then they brought in a new guy who promptly canned my column. By way of full disclosure I should mention that, no, that didn’t make me overjoyed, but since I’ve been on both sides of the editorial table, I understood that this is how things happen sometimes when a new editor comes in, so it didn’t cause me any long-term aggravation. (Fun fact: this same new guy had the balls to later pitch some story ideas to me when I was the editor of Harp, and later Blurt. I must say, while I’ve been canned on several occasions in the past, I’d never before been canned and subsequently pitched by the same person.)

    With that full disclosure in mind, it has still pained me to watch Creative Loafing’s steady decline, music-coverage wise. Said “new guy” is a very poor writer and it’s amazing some of the gaffes and sheer utterances of ignorance that appear under his byline, but what’s even more astonishing are the choices he makes for coverage: one recent howler was a pseudo-confessional in which he talked about how he had just discovered the Black Keys (this from an alt-weekly music critic); this week he’s happily polishing the knob of John Legend (that’s an alternative to… I dunno, Kanye?); which is to say, he sounds like a reject from a daily paper suddenly in over his head. One of his co-workers who shall remain nameless tells me that he’s actually a photographer who somehow wound up writing about artists too, so there ya go… This is pretty much the case throughout the entire paper. Some of the old-timers are still there (the theater and film coverage remains cutting edge), but I suspect that some of the above-noted staffing consolidations have taken place over the past couple of years and a lot of farming out to freelancers, too, so it’s no wonder the quality and depth of writing has declined.

    The point is that a once-respectable alt-weekly that actually made its mark going head-to-head with the dreadful daily in Charlotte, the Charlotte Observer (the Loafing has won numerous awards for its coverage of politics and local issues) is now almost indistinguishable from that daily paper, and it just saddens me because, on a personal level, I put a lot of my energy into helping build the brand, as it were, during its early days, and I continued to support it, contribute to it, and be a cheerleader for it. My friends in Atlanta tell me that the Atlanta branch of Creative Loafing isn’t much better – the “McNugget approach” to music previews, I’m told, is how the Atlanta paper scans nowadays. The fact that the company had to file for bankruptcy recently doesn’t bode well for any of this, either.

    I write these words as someone who’s worked within the alternative newsweekly community for over 20 years both as an editor, staff writer and freelancer, but also as someone who is not currently engaged on the day-to-day matters. Although I know that everyone is struggling. But I guess what bugs me the most gets back to Anthe’s initial question, and my initial question: yes, the current scenario HAS adversely effected what we call “the final product.” There’s a scramble on simply to survive and hold on to jobs and benefits, so when in doubt — mainstream! Lowest common denominator sells, after all. And if a writer refuses, say, to do a John Legend piece while holding out to do that Sun City Girls profile, well, that writer’s easily replaced.

    And that means that music fans and consumers lose out, and young, local, deserving bands lose out too. I remember when Loafing started up in 1987, and we did TONS of local music coverage –the response was astonishing. The daily paper had NEVER given more than lip service to local acts, and all of a sudden we’re plugging shows and reviewing cassettes from these bands, and their reaction was along the lines of, at long last we are validated, someone acknowledges we exist. As a result, the daily paper had no choice but to eventually get engaged with local coverage too (a friend of mine got the job at the daily and he and I would frequently collude… there, I’ve finally confessed… so the really, really deserving bands would get the exposure that was due them. Not long before I moved away, Loafing mounted a three-night celebration of local acts modeled roughly along the lines of SXSW, and it was a watershed event for Charlotte’s music scene. I’m sure similar things have happened all over the country at various points in time, and to me that represents what a strong, engaged alternative weekly can accomplish with a little bit of dough and a lot of enthusiasm.

    But my sources down in Charlotte tell me that now things have gone in the opposite direction, a music scene in severe decline, for all the reasons outlined above and probably a lot more too. It’s a fucked up time, and my heart goes out to those folks at newspapers and alt-weeklies who suddenly find themselves confronted with the reality that nobody really gives a shit right now about who they are or what they do (not the least of whom are their employers).

    Didn’t alternative weeklies get their start because, well, we needed an alternative to the dailies? I guess the internet is now our collective alternative weekly.

    I remember telling Jason Gross some years ago that I would never get my news from the internet because it just wasn’t a rewarding reading experience – nothing could take the place of curling up with a cup of coffee and the Sunday New York Times. Of late I’ve eaten those words many times over, however. My gut feeling is that weeklies will go the way of the dinosaurs because they’re simply not providing anymore what they were intended to provide; it’s all available on the web now. Perhaps they’ll all go digital, or consolidate with dailies until eventually we have, say, three or four national papers.

    In the meantime, though, a lot of talented writers are going to be out of work. And we all lose.

  2. Frank Church says:

    We have Citybeat here, which mostly talks about local bands and where to get drunk, which is not always a bad thing–unless you don’t tend to roll that way. We live in a conservative city so the alt. weekly has to cris cross certain cultural barriers.

    Not surprisingly, the cover story on censored news didn’t empty the bins, unlike the hot issue or the holiday shopping guide issue, which were swept up. You folks in New York and LA have it pretty good. Best to always remember us ants here in the hinterlands.

    Obama being elected hasn’t changed much. More provacative headlines is all I can say.

  3. Jeff says:

    Wow – as the music editor for Creative Loafing Charlotte, I’d like to thank Fred for the blindsided bashing. Since he says I often make gaffes, I’d like to make a couple points of clarification to what he stated –

    * Fred’s column was cut from the paper before I took my position. It looks like his last story was in February of 2007. I didn’t take the helm until April… A co-worker can’t remember the last time you were writing a regular column for us. I actually didn’t cut anything when I first took over, eventually changing out the random Top 10 list for La Vida Local, a space dedicated to writing about local events, CD reviews or happenings, and writing a column of my own when Kandia wanted to focus on other writing ventures. I don’t believe in burning bridges and wouldn’t have canned Fred’s column and then pitched to him later…I was not, and am still not, aware of the circumstances that led to his column being removed.

    * Thanks for the comment that I’m a “very poor writer” who should know every band under the sun. While my CD collection is in the thousands and my interviews and concerts are in the 100s, I don’t think I know of one person anywhere in the world who can possibly know every band that exists. That’s the great part of music – there are millions of bands out there and you find someone new every day. I’m glad that I can still make those discoveries like The Black Keys. I make it a point to listen to everything that comes across my desk — yes, every single CD. I hope to impart that knowledge to my readers while continuing to diversify our coverage for all genres. I believe in having different voices to impart the wisdom of variety into our publication so that people aren’t stuck in the same old indie-rock, pop, classic rock or whatever rut it is. Sometimes it’s also about the story as much as the music. While Colbie Caillat’s music may not belong in an alt-weekly, this week’s feature on her is more about her success on the Internet and MySpace where so many bands are trying to break out these days. It’s a story that’s meant to shed light on a subject to those who are trying to walk the same path — an alternative to the standard label showcases. Why John Legend? We’re living in a time when AutoTune is dominating the airwaves and you have a singer who is known for showcasing his voice having AutoTune pop up on his album. He’s breaking away from ballads by experimenting with reggae and hip-hop. Again, it’s an interesting story.

    * If your mother says she loves you, check it out – I’m a journalist/writer by degree and experience who has been writing about music on and off for 15 years, consistently for the last eight, at a variety of weeklies and dailies around the Southeast. I’m a photographer by hobby. I started out in college working as a staff writer and slowly making my way up to entertainment editor, where I worked for 1.5 years. I spent seven years in Greensboro doing music writing for blogs, the weekly entertainment paper and the daily.

    * Since starting here, I’ve gotten a lot of support and positive reactions – locally and nationally – after putting out two compilation CDs of local, independent artists. One of the first stories I wrote was on a local band called Soulganic. My phone and email were swamped by people stating, “Wow! Creative Loafing actually did a story on a local band!” I’ve kept that tradition going by writing about a variety of local artists, along with La Vida Local and the QC Inferno column. So, the paper now has local coverage every week, in addition to the column every other week and occasional features on local musicians and artists such as The New Familiars, Simplified, The Noises 10, The Belmont Playboys and others. Right now, I’m working on a story about Benji Hughes. To say the paper no longer supports local music would show that you aren’t reading or aren’t in Charlotte much anymore. Also, we are the sponsors of a monthly showcase called the Crowntown Showdown which features local and regional bands and artists. Still think we aren’t doing much to support the local scene?

    To answer the above question on the site — cutbacks aren’t easy. We’re shifting some of our coverage to online only because of reduced editorial space. We all hope that it’s temporary. I could care less about an increased personal workload because of a reduction in freelancers — what bothers me is the lack of voices in the section it will cause. I try to bring in as many different voices as I can to show the variety of opinions that exist and help bring in more diversity to the bands that are covered and featured.

  4. Chuck Eddy says:

    Let me try that again…

    “this week’s feature on her is more about her success on the Internet and MySpace where so many bands are trying to break out these days”

    Good point! Sounds like you guys are true journalists, keeping up on all of the new trends!

    “We’re living in a time when AutoTune is dominating the airwaves and you have a singer who is known for showcasing his voice having AutoTune pop up on his album. He’s breaking away from ballads by experimenting with reggae and hip-hop. Again, it’s an interesting story.”

    SOUNDS like an interesting story! Well, there you go…

    Alt weeklies are obviously in GREAT shape these days! And they even cover SHITTY local bands now! Can’t get much more edgy than that, now can you?

  5. theresa k. says:

    During the past 10 years or so, the alt weeklies have become less and less important reading material for me. Perhaps that’s when they started getting bought up by the same parent? Don’t know and can’t be bothered to figure out if there is a causal relationship. HOWEVER…. since I’ve spent the past year traveling, I’ve had a chance to peruse the alt weeklies of several cities and towns, and find that often these papers seem incredibly ALIKE. Where has the “alt” gone?

    Since basing myself in Nashville earlier this year, I’ve seen the music section of the various weeklies shrink indeed. I’ve seen the advertising in all of the papers shrink also.

    During tough economic times, strange things happen to pop culture. First of all, what it is (and it’s what we all do, right?) is completely discretionary, so we’d be acting all entitled and shit if we expected the revenue from advertising to continue at levels from better times, and that is the engine that drives any paper’s car. On the other hand, the creativity level during tough times increases in response (so many interesting topics to write about and art about, I guess).

    I never thought this would happen to me, but now that I’m a cranky old lady, I also find that I kind of don’t give a damn about what bands are being covered in the papers, alt or mainstream. Really. I AM however, always impressed, moved and take notice of good writing. and that too seems to be on the decline. Good writing, even about a blah topic is always welcome.

    That begs the question, for me at least… if you get paid crap – do you generate crap? I mean, do you still care enough to write at your A game? It seems to me that the quality of the work quite hit and miss with both the writing and the editing – even within one issue. it didn’t always seem that way. IS IT the money?

    When I edited the weekly online zine of a brand within the holdings of the biggest media company in the world, I had two kinds of writers: the fabulous guest stars who delivered promptly their perfect texts with delightful turns of phrase and reviews that confirmed they listened to and considered the music… AND the so-called “writers” on the staff I inherited who didn’t care and let that show. I don’t know if the big difference was in the rate of pay or if I just inherited a few bad hires. I wonder if editors and publishers ask the same question…

  6. maura says:

    Not to pile on here, but isn’t the myspace angle sort of old when it comes to writing about colbie caillat? people were talking about it when ‘bubbly’ first broke so many months ago, and, um, all those online pals haven’t exactly helped her get a second hit. (one could argue that her father’s connections played into her getting signed as much as the internet did, what with the music business being “all about relationships” even in its current frayed state, but i know that old-fashioned nepotism doesn’t provide as romantic an angle as web 2.0 puffery.)

    Jeff, i understand that by working off the bands that are traveling to charlotte you’re at least partially forced to play a hand that’s dealt by local show promoters, but c’mon, the piece doesn’t exactly ‘examine’ her success on the internet (what do ‘50,000 plays a day’ mean? when was she getting that sort of traffic? did signing to a major help boost her myspace profile? is ‘bubbly’ still getting plays/selling digital tracks?) as much as it does mention it and then move on to other boilerplate ‘how does it feel to be so awesome’ q&a material. you’re an alt-weekly; you can go deep on angles that are different, exciting, fresh.

  7. gkruz says:

    There’s only one remaining alt weekly in the city where I live, and the quicker it goes under the better. The same two superannuated dudes write all the music reviews, reflecting their own well-known personal likes and dislikes, and just like the typical liberal PC boilerplate that makes up the feature articles, you know from the first line what they’re going to say.

    Seriously, no one but masochists like me and an even smaller minority of true believers reads the editorial matter in these things; most people pick them up only for the entertainment schedules or the sex ads in the back. Heavily subsidized by entertainment (booze, food and music) and fringe businesses who will soon be cutting back on advertising to cut expenses or even going out of business thanks to the recession, these “priceless” (as in they couldn’t give them away for free otherwise) throwaways will soon be extinct. I won’t miss them.

  8. Matt says:

    I think alt weeklies are going to have to rethink their existence in a big, big way. The notion of picking up a paper on Thursday that’s basically designed around helping you program your upcoming weekend/next week seems pretty strange when online venues like Cityguide, Metromix and whatever are doing that online. Denver’s Westword seems to have figured that out, and upped its online content.

    The AV Club’s Decider recently launched in Denver, and is putting a lot more stock in taking online entertainment guides beyond the usual evergreen club listings for more real editorial content, which adds a glimmer of hope that art/music/entertainment side of things will make the transfer to the ‘net beyond the AOL/Gannett versions of entertainment listings.

    As far as long, in-depth interviews, though, I’m a little worried that they’ll fade with alt-weekly circulation.

  9. bobgulla says:

    First post, folks.

    Of course, it goes without saying that our alt-weeklies will soon be going the way of the buffalo, which is pretty much the same direction all of music journalism is going/has gone. It’s ironic that the medium, ostensibly “alternative” and “modern,” is itself having trouble navigating the new world. In my experience here in New England our weeklies are still being run and in many cases written by the same people who started them in the late ’70s and ’80s. Editors and publishers cling desperately to their titles, their livelihood; can they not know that their future is in peril?

    Yeah, I’m a casualty of my own alt-weekly, where I covered the local music scene as a stringer, not a full-time employee. For a few years now my paper was predominantly financed by the skin trade insert, and who knows how robust those ads will be in our new economy? A few forward thinking editors and writers like our own Fred M. have found refuge in online work. But I wonder where the rest will go after all of our alt-weeklies—they’re newspapers after all—run their last snarky editorials and “cutting edge” political commentary.

    So, in my opinion, anything in newsprint is dead meat, with the possible exception of a handful of metro newspapers. My real question is whether there will be an outlet for legitimate music journalism after all the new media havoc is wreaked. Or will our art form go the way of poetry and literary criticism? Not that the alt-weeklies were Grade A forums for our kind of thing, but lately I’ve been obsessed with the future of what I’ve been doing for the last 17 years. I mean, I know it’s over for me … But is it over for all of us?

  10. Mark Kemp says:

    I intended to reply to this question a while back, but Fred Mills nailed the problems we’re having in this area. Fred and I, being from the same neck of the woods, both feel the pain of the loss of good music journalism in our region. Having served as entertainment editor of the Charlotte Observer and, briefly, overall editor of Creative Loafing, I saw the general decline of alt weeklies coming long ago. One of my worst career moves (not to mention health risks) was moving from the Observer to the Loafing with the thought that I’d be freer to cover more interesting terrain at the alternative weekly. I actually was much freer at the Observer, where my background and experience (and that of other writers and editors) was much more appreciated.

    The desperation at alt weeklies today to grow their readership by covering mainstream issues and mirroring the local dailies has left a severe void in coverage of good music. And that’s too bad; it doesn’t have to be that way. In Charlotte, mainstream acts acts are regularly covered at Creative Loafing while bands like Cafe Tacuba get zero coverage. (Ironically, I wrote a cover story for the Charlotte Observer’s entertainment weekly entertainment pullout on Cafe Tacuba’s tour-opener in Charlotte while Creative Loafing ignored the show.) The music that suffers most, of course, is the local stuff.

    Charlotte’s recent music scene has spawned acts ranging from Anthony Hamilton to Benji Hughes to the Avett Brothers. And yet Creative Loafing is largely silent on so many up-and-coming acts, preferring catch-up pieces (they wrote about Hughes after the fact), pieces on local bands that have been around forever, mystifying major section features on national touring has-beens like Buckcherry and Motley Crue, and devoting limited review space to stuff like Lenny Kravitz, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and a live David Gilmour album. When Kanida Crazy Horse was music editor, the writing/criticism was generally excellent (award-winning, even) and when she chose to cover big, fat mainstream acts coming through town (the Stones, for instance), she put them in alt-weekly context. But she got very little respect at CL.

    Sadly, this problem doesn’t seem to be limited to the Charlotte Creative Loafing. (After all, the Voice has ditched both Christgau and Nat Hentoff.) There just seems to be an epidemic of ignorance and bad news judgment in music journalism these days, particularly at local papers. Smart online outlets really should pick up the ball and run with it, as I’m sure they are doing and will be doing more in the future. (By the way, the Charlotte are has responded with a pretty darn good regional magazine called Shuffle, edited by the very smart John Schacht.)

  11. Mark Kemp says:

    Sorry for the above typos — I “untended” to proofread before hitting the submit button.

  12. Jeff Hahne says:

    Amazing how much negativity is on this page, but I guess that’s why they’re called critics and not supporters.

    Yes, I agree – we are sometimes limited to the acts that come through and the timing of deadlines/print dates, etc… For example, my coverage of Hughes was delayed by him being on tour with Jenny Lewis and trying to time it with one of his upcoming shows in town. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge, as implied.

    I have to wonder why Mark and Fred attack some of my choices of acts that have been covered (as they are passing through town), yet neither defends or mentions the latest story in Blurt that recommends keeping an eye out for the latest Kylie Minogue and U2 CDs (by choice)? It happens to everyone, let’s move on from the personal attacks.

    We all cover music. Instead of giving encouragement and advice on ways to improve in a personal email, or even discussing the problems in a more general manner, the “elder statesmen” above prefer to attack their counterparts and former employers by name/publication on a public forum in a manner that comes off as bitter instead of constructive.

    I feel like I’m in middle school, being picked on by bullies…

    However, as long as I continue to get regular emails and personal messages stating that my coverage is an improvement over previous efforts and that local music was all but ignored before I got here, I’ll continue on my present path and make the majority of readers happy.

    It should be noted, I’ve heard a story about a music editor (whose name and publication will be withheld — though they are highly regarded above) who did not own a car and rarely, if ever, attended a concert during their tenure at an alt-weekly. How you can be a music editor and not attend a live show or get out and talk to the bands you write about is beyond me. People need to get out and see a variety of shows, talk to the people in the scene and get out of the office. Of course, this can be said for just about every section of every newspaper. That’s JM 101 stuff…

    Instead of a question seeking personal attacks on publications, the question of the week should have asked, “What are your recommendations to the local alt-weeklies of how they can improve coverage despite shrinking news holes and fewer writers?”

  13. I didn’t know there were any left. I thought blogs were alternative weeklies.

  14. A.C. Rhodes says:

    All right smart ass. Check this out (they even tossed years of hard copy back issues, the bastards):

  15. maura says:

    How you can be a music editor and not attend a live show or get out and talk to the bands you write about is beyond me.

    how you can call yourself an editor and be stringently resistant to the idea of being edited is beyond me…

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