I think we can all agree that last week was a particularly bad week for news.
I wasn't in Dallas, but I was in Texas — in Austin at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, eating chicken-fried steak, black-eyed peas and ... well, there's always a side of gummy mac and cheese. (Not a vegetable in sight.) It's a once-a-year gathering where we go to listen, learn and share with others in the newspaper industry. I noticed during sessions on copyright issues, integrated marketing and financial standards, my colleagues were checking their phones more frequently than normal. Something bad was happening.
AAN started officially in 1978 in Seattle when 30 alt papers from across the country came together to form an organization, newspapers that practiced journalism with a certain evangelical zeal. At that inaugural meeting was the Village Voice, the very first urban tabloid in the U.S. founded by Norman Mailer, among others, in the year 1955. (Early writers for the Voice included Ezra Pound, Henry Miller and E.E. Cummings.) The San Francisco Bay Guardian (1966) co-founders — Bruce Brugmann and his wife Jean Dibble — were there. The Wikipedia listing says SFBG was known for "reporting, celebrating, and promoting left-wing and progressive issues within San Francisco ... [which] usually included muckraking." A group of college friends started the Chicago Reader in 1971, a paper that became known for its coverage of the arts, particularly film and theater, in additional to its literary, long-form journalism. Willamette Week (1974), which eventually became the first weekly to win a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, was represented, as was the Seattle Weekly, host of that 1978 meeting, which came just two years after the paper's launch.
In the 1980s and 1990s, alternative newspapers sprung up across the U.S. and later, Canada, not just in urban areas but in progressive communities with universities nearby. The North Coast Journal began publishing in 1990. We've been an AAN member since shortly after going weekly in 1998.
Market changes have been particularly harsh on the newspaper industry over the past two decades. First, entire groups of advertisers found other ways to deliver their messages. Grocery stores went to inserts or direct mail; car dealers to TV; cigarette manufacturers, big spenders in the 1990s, went somewhere. (Overseas, I think.) Classified revenue, which once accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the revenue of free alt weeklies, disappeared almost overnight as Craigslist moved from urban markets into university towns. More recently, bloggers and web-only competitors sprung up and gained entry to the news biz without the heavy costs of printing, distribution and, often, real reporters.
What I found last week at the conference were the survivors, those who adapted to changing technology while they navigated through the biggest recession to ever hit this country short of the Great Depression.
Today, profit margins are slim but they are there, as we learned in our financial standards class. More importantly, these alts are still doing some amazing, kick-ass journalism — each in their own communities, big and small.
The conference ended with an awards ceremony where we all patted ourselves on the back. The winners are handed a plaque and a shot of tequila. If you're web browsing, here's the link to all the finalists: http://altnewsmedia.wpengine.com/aan/2016-aan-awards-winners-announced/#cash
In addition to feature writing, arts criticism, design, political columns, etc., AAN has awards for things like LGBT coverage. This year's winner, NUVO of Indianapolis, published a riveting story about a deaf transgender boy, born to deaf parents. It's called "Trans Athlete." (Trust me: It's one fantastic read.) On race reporting, the prize went to the Washington City Paper for "Where the Sidewalk Ends," a story about how very often residents of our nation's capital get arrested just for standing outside their apartments or homes. Basically, for occupying a sidewalk.
The Journal was a finalist for the Free Speech award for our continuing attempt to obtain a police video of an EPD incident involving the arrest of a 14-year-old boy in 2014. But the prize went to the Monterey County Weekly for "True Confessions: The Case of Father Edward Fitz-Henry." Publisher/owner Bradley Zeve told me the paper was tied up in court fighting the local Catholic diocese for more than two years. At huge expense. Eventually MC Weekly won the right to examine court documents that should have been available all along. But, unfortunately, they were not reimbursed attorney fees.
So I didn't get that shot of tequila this year on behalf of the Journal editorial team. It's all good. We're proud nonetheless.
Maybe next year, when the AAN conference is in D.C. We'll be there.