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Wednesday, June 20, 2007 02:32 pm

Newsweeklies at 30, devoted to journalism

Progressive Portland hosts healthy, and growing, alternatives

Untitled Document The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies gathered for its 30th annual convention last week in the Left Coast city of Portland, a booming place that prides itself on its light-rail transportation system, green buildings, and progressive politics. It sometimes calls itself the People’s Republic of Portland, boasts that it never voted for Bush I or II, and brags that it doesn’t cooperate with the National Joint Terrorism Task Force, whatever that is. Oregon pioneered legalization of the medical use of marijuana and had the first “death with dignity” law. (Don’t call it assisted suicide.) The state allows no self-service gas stations, just to be different. Portland cringes when it admits that it’s the second-whitest major city in the country, next to Salt Lake, but it’s promoting diversity. It was an apt place for our group’s newspapers — growing, progressive, different, mostly green, and mostly white but working for change. I was among the few old-timers in Portland who remembered our first gathering of newsweeklies, in Seattle, in 1978. That was when we came up with the word “alternative” to describe these weeklies-in-cities-with-dailies. We were an alternative to bad journalism, formulaic “objective” reporting, and too-close-to-advertisers boosterism. We would provide competition to the dailies and give readers another source for news. In the early years there were about 30 papers; now the membership totals 130, covering every major metropolitan area in the country and many minor ones. There would be many more members if the group weren’t so picky about whom they let in. This year only five of the 19 papers voted on for membership were admitted.
In the early days, much of our discussion centered on how to get our struggling enterprises to survive financially, with convention seminars on how to win respect among advertisers for free circulation and how to attract national advertising. There is still plenty of attention to the business side, especially how to get revenue from the Web to replace shrinking classifieds. But as this industry matures, many of its members are reporting healthy, and growing, profits. With that profitability has come increasing attention — in our convention discussions, at least — to the core values of journalism. I can’t determine the extent to which financial success has translated into better reporting in alternative weeklies overall. Trends toward chaining up and staffing down are worrisome — too many of the papers are trendy, elitist, thoughtlessly liberal, and too tame — but many weeklies are kicking butt and getting bolder. At the core of this group, and what keeps me going back to the annual gatherings, is an idealistic devotion to independent, truth-telling journalism. “What ties them all together,” the AAN Web site says of its member papers, “are point-of-view reporting; the use of strong, direct language; a tolerance for individual freedoms and social differences; and an eagerness to report news that many mainstream media outlets would rather ignore.” The convention host, Portland’s Willamette Week, says we share “a devotion to the very cool idea that our journalism may be the last best hope.”
When Jim Hightower put on his cowboy hat to go to the speaker’s platform, the scrawny Texas populist, whose column runs in our paper, seemed an anachronism in that bastion of urban cool. But the sophisticated weeklies seem to have adopted him for the way his Texas witticisms express the values they hold dear. After proclaiming himself “more excited than a mosquito in a nudist colony” to be there, he presented an award named for the late columnist Molly Ivins, “who epitomized the big, broad, capital-J kind of journalism. She broke free of corporate tentacles. She gave a shit.”
He reminded the journalists in the room: “The opposite of courage is conformity. It’s a big and dangerous time for our country. We have people in office who think they’re the big dogs and we’re just the fire hydrants. We need you to be outrageous outsiders. Remember, the water won’t ever clear up until we get the hogs out of the creek.” And have fun along the way, Hightower said: “Battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com
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