Generation Gap in the Alternative Press

Will youthful newsweeklies upstart their '60s forebears?

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Rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and the politics of the Vietnam era, alternative newsweeklies are still going strong in the 1990s. But some feel the papers are losing the edge that once set them apart from the mainstream culture. 'Corporatization, mergers, newspaper wars, and plain old gray hair have made a lot of alternative newspapers seem in many ways like the mainstream media -- The Establishment,' writes Jeff Gremillion in Columbia Journalism Review(July/Aug. 1995). Kate Hawthorne, editor of the newsletter for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, an organization of 104 papers, puts it more bluntly: 'We've become our parents.'

When the Village Voice can buy out the LA Weekly for a rumored $10 million and the founders of the Association have come a 'long way from eating brown rice and sleeping in the car to save enough money to pay the printer,' Gremillion finds hope in a handful of irreverent newcomers put out by struggling twentysomethings. Papers like The Stranger in Seattle and The Met in Dallas are ushering in a new era of journalism 'with the same kind of hunger as the first alternatives,' but little else in common with their forebears. Unlike the 'grownups' of the alternative press, who still believe in 'hard news' and 'wear their left-leaning idealism on their sleeves,' Gremillion says that the upstarts eschew more traditional reporting for a heady mix of social commentary, satire, and youth culture coverage that can draw even the most jaded GenX readers.

Those with a stake in the alternative press, however, feel that the generation gap isn't nearly so pronounced. Writing in the Index, a newsletter for alternative weekly editors, editors at the AlterNet news service concede that there are newer, hipper papers that offer cutting-edge arts and culture coverage often lost on the older papers -- but not as many as a 'trend' piece like the CJR assessment would suggest. The real question, says AlterNet, is why there aren't more under-30-owned papers challenging the old-school alternatives in a market ripe for newer voices and younger attitudes, and why the ones that do aren't more successful.

Money, of course, is a huge issue -- starting a weekly isn't as cheap as it used to be, and twentysomethings with something to say often find low-cost zine publishing to be a more viable option. But an even greater factor could be the explosion of multimedia. 'While weeklies once represented a true alternative for writers who felt their efforts were smothered by daily newspapering, for many of today's most creative writers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs, weekly journalism is only one of many places to put their energy,' says AlterNet. Now they are (for better or worse) out there pursuing what Wired magazine dubs 'way new journalism' -- publishing online magazines, designing home pages on the Web and engaging in other forms of amorphous multimedia endeavors.

Original to Utne Reader Online, August 1995.

Jeff Gremillion, 'Showdown at Generation Gap,' COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW (July/Aug. 1995).