What’s So Alternative About Alternative Weeklies?

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Matt Welch takes the Alt. Weekly establishment to task after attending their annual convention:

“The dull pieties of official progressivism is one of many attributes that show how modern alt weeklies have strayed from what made them alternative in the first place. The papers once embraced amateur writers; now they are firmly established in the journalistic pecking order, with the salaries and professional standards to match.”

Amen to that. Welch rightly points out that by ownership, alt. weeklies aren’t even alternative to the mainstream media industry, with giants like Village Voice media and the New York Times gobbling up properties all over the place.

I see alt. weeklies as part of a larger phenomenon of command and control progressivism that infects every corner of so-called alternative, and truly independent media.

Command and control progressivism dictates that the most important thing for any “progressive media” is that it broadcast all the proper points of view, regardless of how all that content is created. By this ideology, a newspaper or radio station can be run in a manner that is indistinguishable from Fox News or the Chicago Tribune, with complete top-down control. It doesn’t matter to the command and control progressive as long as what is printed and aired meets their political standard.

I’ve had the misfortune to confront this ideology time and again throughout my work in community radio and indpendent media. These folks always want more Chomsky or Amy Goodman, regardless of what it takes to put them in, and regardless of what local authors and producers have to be displaced. And, most tellingly, regardless of what kind of anti-democratic machinations that need to be effected to force things to suit their desires.

Indeed, it’s this kind of command and control progressivism that was behind the Pacifica takeover, where over a course of several years Pacifica management implemented increasingly strong top-down management structures, forced more standardized network-wide programming, and replaced community volunteers with paid professionals. It was done in the name of increasing “quality” and listenership. But, as it became clear, especially to those who fought to regain control of Pacifica, it ended up homogenizing Pacifica, not to mention making it more oriented towards white, middle-class professional
“progressives,” at the expense of minorities and the working-class.

While blasting the alt. weeklies, Welch praises blogs. Not because they are on the whole so much better, but because they are so much more diverse, freewheeling and interesting:

“For all the history made by newspapers between 1960 and 2000, the profession was also busy contracting, standardizing, and homogenizing. Most cities now have their monopolist daily, their alt weekly or two, their business journal. Journalism is done a certain way, by a certain kind of people. Bloggers are basically oblivious to such traditions, so reading the best of them is like receiving a bracing slap in the face. It’s a reminder that America is far more diverse and iconoclastic than its newsrooms.”

I agree, even though I have to point out that several of the most popular A-list bloggers are veterans of the mainstream media themselves (see Mikey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan, for two examples).

However, I also think that Welch overlooks Indymedia, which shares many of the features of blogs, but with the further advantage of being a large, interconnected, but loose network, which provides for all sorts of cooperation, mutual aid and assistance, that goes beyond the very loose and informal connections between bloggers.

On top of that, Indymedia avoids the dangerous command and control pitfalls of the so-called “alternative” media, since it is explicitly and fundamentally open, non-hierarchical and democratic.

I’m not saying that Indymedia is better than blogging — obviously I’m a avid blogger myself. Instead, I’m pointing out the Indymedia provides a similar alternative to the alternatives, that goes even further by putting forth a model for cooperation and network-building that is utterly apart from the corporate model.






2 responses to “What’s So Alternative About Alternative Weeklies?”

  1. Chuck0 Avatar

    Spot on comments about how Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky–who are incredible activists and writers–take up space that new authors, creators and prodcuers could fill up. I’m always trying to do what I can to promote new and unknown writers on Infoshop.org, but you’ve touched on a real problem in what I call the “established left mediaverse.” This problem can be witnessed at Z Magazine and ZNet, where that project is kept afloat by flogging the same stable of progressive writers. You cna see this dynamic at work at other publications and on progressive radio. It’s almost gotten to the point where the Best of Chomsky is brought out around pledge drive time.

    The problem also plagues progressive and radical conferences and rallies. It’s always about which big name leftist stars we can put on stage. Nevermind that local activist Jane Doe might have something interesting to say, or with a bit of help from other activists, turn into the next Noam Chomsly or Howard Zinn. I like what Michael Moore said about this, when he talked about how important it was to give jobs to people of color NOW, instead of endlessly talking about the lack of diversity in alternative media.

    We all love Chomsky, but don’t you think we are working the old guy to death? How about some new peeps on the stage?

  2. Paul Avatar

    Thanks, Chuck.

    I always wonder whether it’s laziness – since a Chomsky or Goodman can be relied upon to deliver the expected goods — or whether it’s a symptom of the celebrity culture. Probably, it’s a combination of the two.

    What frustrates me is that so much of the time the “established/ment” left is still caught up with professionalism, prestige and authority, but in denial of it.

    I’m not dissing Chomsky or Amy — they both do valuable work, and I don’t get the impression that either relishes or takes advantage of their celebrity status.

    This debate bubbles up at our local community radio station every so often, but it’s couched in terms of “local” vs. national programming. But since a lot of our local programming is music, it ends up becoming music vs. news/public affairs. It’s vexing, because I want to see more news and public affairs programming, but I hate to see a local airshifter bumped for another hour of Democracy Now a day. But the big “public affairs supporters” tend to be more middle-aged old-lefties who are more interested in piping in another hour of left celebrities than trying to stimulate and support more locally produced stuff.

    There’s a rant I’m working on — I think it’ll be in mediageek zine #2.

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