On October 13, Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly, quit rather than obey an owner's order to lay off half of his staff. He became part of the eulogy for the American alt-weekly. Despite all the spilled ink and tears, Arellano writes, "The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death."
The early 2000s were the last hurrah for alt-weeklies (though longtimers said things were better in the 1990s). The Iraq war raged on. John Ashcroft, John Yoo, and others were busy wrecking our civil liberties. The left wanted a champion, and the alt-weeklies were it. Every Thursday at the OC Weekly offices, we'd get papers from across the country sent by fellow members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). I'd marvel at how fat they were with ads and at how much calumny they threw at Dubya. The Miami New Times was as big and thick as Rolling Stone; the Chicago Reader came in four sections. Our paper was growing, too: from about 58 pages in our inaugural issue to an average of 120 around 2005. And yet we were only a pamphlet compared to the mighty LA Weekly, which had expanded into book publishing and a San Fernando Valley edition.
But even then, I saw systematic problems in the industry. The OCWeekly didn't start to publish online-only exclusives until 2004, and it didn't even start a news blog until 2006. Alt-weekly websites were laughable, with every redesign at least three years behind whatever was current to digital natives. The Weekly had a chance for a TMZ-style TV show but declined, arguing that wasn't journalism.
Such stasis wasn't because of unimaginative reporters. The hold-up came from the multi-tiered bureaucracy that emerged as bigger papers bought smaller papers to create chains and increase profits by sharing resources. The consolidation drained local idiosyncrasies out of publications. In 2006, for instance, the six-paper Village Voice Media company that owned OC Weekly was acquired by the New Times, an 11-paper empire we had long reviled for its supposedly neoconservative politics and for a boy's-club ethos exemplified by founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, whose penchant for drinking was surpassed only by their love for hard-nosed reporters and liberal-mocking columnists.
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