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The net pushes aside alternative newspapers

Posted by Mark Leccese  August 23, 2011 09:34 AM

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At its annual conference last month, members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies voted unanimously to change the organization’s name to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“Times change, and so does our name,” said Colorado Springs Independent CEO Fran Zankowski, the AAN’s new president, in what sounds suspiciously like press release-ese. “This year, a 100 percent web-only news network became a member of our association. And, with the increasing number of apps, digital, mobile, and web platforms our companies use, it was time to reflect those changes in our name.”

I have two questions:

  • Alternative to what?
  • What took so long?

What are known as alternative newspapers (for example, The Boston Phoenix and The Dig) are big business now. The average circulation of the 130 members of what used to be known as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies is 50,000. Seven of those papers — including the Boston Phoenixclaim circulation of more than 100,000 copies a week.

This is a long way from the badly printed, unevenly written and snarky underground newspapers of the 1960s and 1970s. The Village Voice, founded in 1955, is considered the first alternative newspaper. Now it is part of Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC, which owns a dozen other alternatives papers around the country.

Here in New England, the Boston Phoenix Media Group owns an impressive array of properties:

  • The Boston Phoenix
  • The Portland Phoenix
  • The Providence Phoenix
  • WFNX-FM
  • El Planeta
  • Stuff Magazine
  • MassWeb Printing Co. Inc.
  • g8Wave (mobile marketing)
  • people2people (dating)

Not much “alternative” about that kind of business. But while the alternative newsweeklies may have built themselves over decades into thriving businesses, they are no longer the only — or even most important — source for news not covered by traditional media.

My second question was what took the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies to drop “Newsweeklies” from its name and replace it with “Newsmedia”? I ask this because underground or alternative newspapers once filled a gap in coverage left by big news media, but that gap was long ago better filled by electronic media — more than 20 years ago, in fact.

Alternative newspapers arose because a large enough group of people with common interests weren’t having their interests addressed by the traditional news media. Entrepreneurs figured out enough people would buy (or at look at the ads) in a newsweeklies that focused on those interests: Think of Boston’s Gay Community News, a weekly that published started publishing in 1973 and folded in 1992.

Twenty years ago, though, you no longer needed printing presses to speak to a large group of people with common interests. You could much more cheaply set up an electronic Bulletin Board System (remember those?), also known as a BBS.

Users would dial into the BBS and be presented (after the requisite screeching and squawking of the modem) with a text-only screen, which could be navigated to join discussions, read topic forums, and even download documents.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were tens of thousands of BBSes; then, in the mid 1990s, came the World Wide Web and, more important, the first point-and click web browser.

The Web took over the most important function of alternative newspapers. Pretty much anyone who wanted to speak to an audience with a common interest started a website or a blog. Or, today, starts a Facebook group or types a hashtag into Twitter.

The real alternative news media is no longer that weekly newspaper in the newsbox on the corner. The real alternative news media is now websites (especially Twitter and Facebook), blogs and apps.

Are you a fan of the Decemberists? Go to the band’s website and click on “News.” Want to keep up to date on knitting patterns? The Vogue Knitting International website will send you a free email newsletter. Interested in Boston politics? Bookmark Gintautas Dumcuis’ Lit Drop blog at the Dorchester Reporter website. Looking for news on healthy eating? Check out the news at the Oldways website.

You want alternative news media? Go online.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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