The Problem and Promise of Alt Weeklies

My column on The Dundee Theatre published a couple weeks ago illustrates an age-old war in the print world, a war that The Reader can't win. But in the internet age, neither can the Omaha World-Herald or any other media outlet.

When I interviewed Denny Moran about the theater, I was blind-sided by the news of his intention to do a top-to-bottom renovation. I went into it with a heavy heart, assuming by the ongoing dilapidated condition of the theater that Denny had been negotiating with developers, and that its demise was imminent. I expected Denny to stonewall me -- as any good developer would who was in the middle of a negotiation.  Instead, he pulled this rabbit out of his hat with the renovation news.

That interview was on a Wednesday. The story was written four days later, tightened the next morning and filed Tuesday morning for a Wednesday online publication and a Thursday print date. I knew it was a hot story -- a news story, at least for those of us who live in the neighborhood -- and I watched Omaha.com daily expecting it to break there before we could go to press.

Well, over lunchtime Wednesday, the story went live on The Reader website and was promo-ed via social media and my personal website (lazy-i.com). Within an hour, links to the story started to pop up on a number of Facebook walls and were being retweeted into the vast inter-verse. This time The Reader scooped the Omaha World-Herald.

But it didn't matter. By 5 p.m., Bob Fischbach, the OWH's movie critic, filed his own version of the story, repeating most of the pertinent facts. Whether he already had been working on the piece before we went live or simply picked up the phone and called Denny and confirmed the facts based on my story, I do not know, though the timing was more than coincidental. The Herald now had the story, and as is their policy, they didn't print where they first heard it. They don't have to. I guess that’s how the news game works.

But where The Reader would really lose was the next morning (or even that evening, if Bob made the evening-edition deadline) when the story would appear in print, a full 12 to 24 hours before The Reader started to hit the racks around town. For those out of the Internet media loop, it would appear that the OWH once again scooped The Reader and everyone else in town.

It's a problem that alt weeklies always have faced. When you publish only once a week, you're never going to win. The dailies will always beat you to the punch. It's a scientific fact.

But what are we whining about? The dailies have faced the same problem since the invention of the radio. An Omaha World-Herald reporter can work for weeks on a story and see it published in the morning only to have the local TV and radio stations (maybe) verify the facts and report the story as their own over the lunch hour. If the anchor doesn't credit the OWH for first reporting it (and they never do) readers who don't get the morning edition have no idea that the Herald had it first.

The Internet, of course, trumps all of them. Back in the old days, before the WWW, when someone stumbled over a bit of news, that news stayed with them unless they went to the media with it. Today, anyone can report news via Facebook, Twitter or their personal blog. From there, it's all about dividing rumor from facts from conjecture from opinion. It's all about who you trust to know what's really going on.

Does it really matter who “breaks” the news? By the time that guy whose thumbing through his iPhone behind you in line at Baker’s finally makes it to the check-out, he’ll already have learned who won the French elections, the final score of the Knicks game, this year’s Emmy nominees and the latest on Warren Buffett’s health -- all “news” that the OWH will benignly republish word-for-word in its analog edition the following morning.

And in the end, Mr. quart-of-milk-and-a-6-pack will have no idea who broke those stories in the first place, if he bothers to remember them in all their 140-character splendor.  So why does any print news organization bother to chase the proverbial tail of breaking news? And where does a turtle like The Reader fit into all of this?

Well, in an era where everyone has access to breaking news at their fingertips, alt weeklies and magazines could have an advantage if they take off the running shoes and focus on style and substance over timeliness. The Reader must become the publication where people go for nuanced, detailed local stories, humorous analysis and thoughtful criticism and opinion. Not “breaking news.”

Since we’re not focused on being “the first,” The Reader and print magazines have the luxury of writing stories (not providing “content”) for the folks who take time to soak it in. I’m talking about that guy or gal kicking back with a skinny latte at Blue Line, waiting between sets at The Slowdown or The Waiting Room, or sitting at home in the nursery waiting for Junior to finally go to sleep.

Let the other guys concentrate on their 140-character deadlines while we focus on our 1,000- to 1,500-word story telling. Let the other guys "break" the news; then come to us for the real story. Because an alt-weekly cannot win the race to your eyeballs, and shouldn’t even try.

 

The Moleskin Diaries is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 07:14 am
on Tuesday, May 08th, 2012

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