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Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 12:19 am

Alternative weeklies, 40 years later

IT staff with new owner, 1977.
In the fall of 1977, not long after Elvis Presley died, I took a call on one of the two phones in our Illinois Times office on Eighth Street, a few doors from Lincoln’s home. Both phones had long floor cords so they could be moved from desk to desk, but if someone walking by tripped on the cord the phone would go flying. Luckily that didn’t happen this time. The caller was Darrell Oldham of the Seattle Weekly, then a year old, saying they had the idea of inviting the alternative weekly newspapers that were springing up around the country to a conference early next year to share ideas. Would I like to come?

I had been the owner/editor of Illinois Times for less than six months, trying to keep my head above water, with little idea that similar papers were being started in significant numbers around the country. I had never heard of an “alternative” paper before, much less knew that I owned one. It was 40 years ago this month I arrived at the Seattle Center, home of the 1962 World’s Fair, for the first conference of what became the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Still going strong with 110 members, the organization now calls itself the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, to make way for the all-digital publications. At AAN’s annual conventions over many years I’ve learned much of what I know about journalism and nearly all I know about the journalism business. I and IT have been shaped by the values I first heard articulated and debated in Seattle, 1978.

“We gather in a hopeful spirit,” welcomed David Brewster, editor of Seattle Weekly. “We are linked by a desire for intelligent, human businesses and a respect for fine writing. We are part of a revival of good, serious journalism going on in the country. We have watched the chaining up of the media into huge, national organizations, accompanied by a loss of regional flavor, and a loss of the sassiness and spirit that had been a hallmark of the American press. We are trying to restore a personal voice, in contrast to the dessicated, fact-clogged style of the dailies.”

News, investigation, opinion, diversity and press freedom have been shared values of AAN members. But for the most part, then and since, we have accepted that we are cool and courageous journalists, but we could use some help on the business side. What good is it to do great journalism if you don’t have a platform to publish it on? Journalistic courage requires financial stability to sustain it for the long term, I learned from AAN, and the long term is huge. At that first conference the publisher of the Baton Rouge weekly showed us the lawyer’s letter they send to advertisers who are slow to pay for their ads. The deadbeats are threatened with legal action “that will amaze and astound you.” We networked about vendors for wire newsracks. I came home with the idea of free circulation – which seemed quite eccentric in those days – promoted by my new friends at the Chicago Reader. When I got home we quickly implemented it – giving up a few quarters in exchange for vastly expanded reach for news and advertising. Friends complained that made it no fun to steal the paper anymore.

Ours has always been one of the smallest markets represented in our national organization, but from the start the big papers have been kind to IT. We benefited more than most from the opportunity to rub elbows with Chicago Reader, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Phoenix New Times. My friend Jeff von Kaenel, now publisher of Sacramento News and Review, attended the 1978 gathering as a staffer for the struggling alternative weekly in Santa Barbara. “I learned a ton,” he writes. “The experience was a little like sitting at the grownup table at Thanksgiving.” Jeff and I are the only AAN members left who attended the founding conference.

Over the years our member papers have grown, and many went from stable to fat. There is always an attempt at AAN conventions to spotlight journalistic values, and the best papers manage to win Pulitzers while making good money. But the fierce independence and entrepreneurial spirit that fueled these papers in the beginning often goes by the wayside when my publisher friends sell to chains or cash out to retire. Thank goodness Springfield has remained small and undesirable enough for us to escape the grasp of greedy buyers waving their millions in our face. So far at least.

I feel like I did way back then, before I got the call inviting me to Seattle. Before the grand excitement of being part of a journalistic movement called alternative. We were “alternative” to big arrogant dailies back then; later, as daily newspapers faded, we saw ourselves as alternative to bad journalism. Now we’re alternative to being chain-owned, and alternative to being out of business. So we still need our national professional organization to help keep us afloat, even if we’re more mainstream than we used to think we were. We’re an independent small-town newspaper in the best tradition of the American free press, a small business struggling happily to publish high-quality news, opinion and advertising, week after week. For the long term.

Fletcher Farrar is editor and CEO of Illinois Times. Contact him at editor@illinoistimes.com. James Krohe Jr., whose column usually appears in this space, is taking time off to finish a book.

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