Blogging is where its at these days for alternative newspapers serving
the largest cities in America.
Blogging about local theater, trendy cocktails, city politics, transgender
issues, bicycling, Lithuanian hip-hop, video dating for dogs & cats...
pretty much anything an inspired (and often unpaid) blogger is willing to
peck out on a keyboard.
The hoped-for effect is that blogging will produce the kind of
back-and-forth magic with readers that energizes Facebook in order to
churn up oodles of online advertising.
Unfortunately, this is mostly wishful thinking.
At least that seemed to be the lesson at the Association of Alternative
Newspapers (AAN) convention in New Orleans recently, where we had the
surreal experience of discovering that Northern Express Weekly is now one
of the largest urban newsweeklies in the country, at least in terms of
The July 25 issue of Northern Express was 72 pages. We cover a 13-county
region with a population of 300,000 or so.
Meanwhile, the Village Voice, New York Citys premiere newsweekly and the
grand-daddy of the alt press, also weighed in at 72 pages. This is for a
distribution area of 10 million potential readers.
The Village Voice, Bostons Phoenix (60 pages), Denvers Westword (88
pages) and Chicagos Reader (60-some pages) are shells of what they used
to be. A decade ago, these alternative newsweeklies were among the most
profitable publications in the country, running 200 pages or more each
week in 3-4 sections -- bricks of newsprint big enough to serve as
This week, the New York Press was set to close its doors. In the 90s,
this was the edgiest alternative newsweekly in the country, rivaling the
Village Voice. So, as is the case with the mainstream media, publishers of
alternative newsweeklies fear for their long-term survival.
This sense of doom has produced a voodoo-like belief in blogs, websites
and social media as the salvation of the printed word among the
journalists gathered in
Unfortunately, blogs dont connect readers with the ads in print that pay
for the journalism. Along with the typical newspaper website, they cut
advertisers off at the knees from the get-go.
Benjamin Franklin, a dollars-and-sense printer who established the model
for the American newspaper, must be spinning in his grave over this
We dont run any blogs at the Express because we want our best writing and
opinions in the printed version of the paper, rather than buried in online
Siberia. If you love blogs, you have hundreds of millions to choose from
(not to mention Facebook) and probably dont need more online chit-chat
from us about the latest hors doeuvres or planning commission dramas.
This blog-free approach is considered suicidal by the publishers and
editors who attended the AAN convention.
But the Express, along with other small city newspapers such as Seven Days
from Burlington, Vermont and the Santa Barbara Independent, are steaming
along like the Good Ship Lollipop, while the web-centric big city papers
seem to be going down with the ship.
Some publishers claim that readers in small markets -- such as Northern
Michigan, Santa Barbara and Burlington -- still cherish their printed
weekly newspapers, while young, tech-savvy hipsters in New York, Chicago,
LA and such will only read blogs and online news.
But what if theyve got it all backwards?
Fifteen years ago, publishers across America drank the online Kool-Aid and
have been trying to make the leap into cyberspace at the expense of their
publications ever since.
This has meant slashing features, columns, comics and investigative
reporting in favor of pumping resources into websites and blogs that fail
to link advertisers with the thin content that remains. Many papers have
also moved their calendars of events online, making their publications
worthless to tourists and advertisers alike.
As a result, in the print versions of todays alternative newsweeklies,
there seems to be little to read and less to think about, all mashed in
with busy, unreadable designs and microscopic type.
Despite the fact that newspapers still make about 85% of their revenues on
their print editions and 15% via online ad sales, there are legions of
digital Don Quixotes in the industry intent on diluting what succeeds in
favor of whats failed to deliver despite 15 years of massive effort.
True, bloggers can deliver real-time comments on the snide remarks made at
a town hall meeting, but theyve forgotten what drew people to the alt
press in the first place: great stories about striving, social justice,
weird scenes, raving lunatics and unlikely saints. Stuff that cant be
conveyed in a 140-character tweet.
Is it possible that this lack of substance and story-telling is the real
reason that young readers in NY, LA, Frisco, etc. are no longer diggin
the print thing? Hmm...
At the Express, weve taken the now-radical approach of adding (rather
than subtracting) features, such as our new Public Safety map, while
hiring more writers for Al Parkers Art Beat, Steve Tuttles Spectator
column, Kristy Kurjans My Style and Mike Terrells Call of the Wild.
Readers and advertisers are responding favorably. But no one wanted to
hear that message in New Orleans. Newspapers wont even exist 10 years
from now! one outraged blogger told me.
One might add that millions of jobs wont exist either if that is true.
Jobs in forestry, paper-making, ink production, trucking, paper recycling,
printing, newspaper composition and delivery... thats the downside of the
digital world that young idealists fail to grasp.
But no worries -- there will be plenty of work for unpaid bloggers when
the day comes that the last newspaper is printed, along with big smiles on
the faces of online media moguls whove managed to cut millions of costly
jobs and labor issues out of the picture.
Well see. We plan to upgrade our website to make it easy to read on
mobile tablets and computers, but the emphasis will remain on a virtual
paper that includes the advertisers who make the Northern Express
possible. Someday, perhaps, we may even add blogs. In the meantime, your
comments are welcome on the ultimate blog: our Facebook page.