Alternative to What?

Alternative to What

Don’t get me wrong. I like a good free weekly paper. It’s the first thing I grab when I visit a new city.

But when I read that Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism will administer the AltWeekly Awards for The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and that national advertisers buy big-time space in alt-weeklies because the young base readership buys cars, not just tobacco and booze, and that media consolidation is as rampant among alt-weeklies as among daily papers and broadcasters, I’ve got to ask: “Alternative” to what?


Image by Mike Licht. Classified ads are guaranteed to be racier than Craigslist.

4 Responses to “Alternative to What?”

  1. Richard Karpel Says:

    I’m not sure I understand why having Medill administer our awards, and attracting national ads, makes us un-alternative.

    And media consolidation isn’t as “rampant among alt-weeklies as among daily papers and broadcasters.” In fact, we have actually had some un-consolidation this year along with a merger or two:

    Most importantly, though, at this point in our history, we are not interested in defending our use of the term “alternative.” In the 70s, when alternative newspapers first began appearing in large numbers in urban areas across the U.S. and Canada, we really did represent an alternative to the two daily papers, three television networks and handful of magazines that most North Americans were forced to turn to for news prior to the advent of cable TV and the internet. Now we are just one of many alternative news sources and “alternative newspaper” is just a term of art that people use to talk about our papers. We recognize that and don’t mean to imply we are the only media option outside of the mainstream.

    Thanks for listening.

    Richard Karpel
    Executive Director
    Association of Alternative Newsweeklies
    1250 Eye Street N.W., Suite 804
    Washington, D.C. 20005-5982

  2. Mike Licht Says:

    When “alternative” publications affiliate with J-schools, participate in the national economy through major corporate advertising, and use the term “alternative” out of nostalgia, perhaps your association’s disinterest in re-examining the adjective “alternative” needs re-visiting.

    I am glad to learn that Village Voice Media of Phoenix has sold East Bay Express to an employee group, but unless Greenwich Village has been relocated since my last visit, consolidation certainly looks like the dominant trend.

    Metro newsweeklies publish an astounding volume of meaningful long-form journalism, something daily papers are abandoning, even on weekends. Describing weeklies with an adjective that was history before most readers were born seems sort of silly as well as inaccurate.

  3. Richard Karpel Says:

    Mike, what in the world is wrong with affiliating with j-schools or participating in the national economy? I think you may be mistaking “alternative” newspapers with “underground” newspapers.

    Also – I didn’t say we use the word “alternative” out of nostalgia. We use it because that’s what people call us. And after 30 years of being called that, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to change it. And what would we call ourselves, anyway? Believe it or not, we had this discussion 30 years, when this organization was formed. Even back then, many publishers didn’t want to call their paper “alternative,” for a host of reasons, but there weren’t a lot of good options. We needed to come up with something to distinguish our papers from other kinds of newspapers, and after several years of arguing and wailing and gnashing of teeth — and two name changes (we started as the National Association of Newsweeklies, which was too much like Time and Newsweek) — we settled on the word alternative. Thirty years later it is even less apt of a description. But it is what it is.

    I really think you’re too hung up on the word. You seem to agree that our papers often do good work. Just think of “alternative newspaper” or “alt-weekly” as the term we use to discuss them so we both know what we’re talking about.

  4. Mike Licht Says:


    Names are important. That is why your publisher-members trademark the names of their papers and buy and sell those names.

    Language use changes. That is why NAACP is no longer an acronym although it still identifies the same organization.

    Society changes and makes descriptive names inaccurate or irrelevant. AARP is no longer an acronym because few Americans “retire” anymore.

    That is what this post is about.

    Bohemian and underground weeklies did indeed establish the metro weekly format; the earliest claimed or aspired to be part of some separate “alternative” culture and society. Today’s weekly is an unabashed bastion of “hip consumerism,” vanguard of the mainstream economy, and the term “alternative” in that sense is jarringly out of place.

    With the exception of NYT Magazine and the New Yorker, long-form journalism has few outlets outside alt-weeklies, so the J-school connection is a good thing. What it isn’t: “alternative.”

    If the papers are called “metro weeklies” or “alt-weeklies” in natural speech, why not just call them that in print? The latter retains a vestigial syllable of the historical term without extra syllables, pretensions, and 20th century baggage.

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