Lest alt acquaintance be forgot

Watching alt-weeklies thrive, and shrink, and endure.

I first remember reading what would later be known as an “alt-weekly” when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, picking up a copy of the Berkeley Barb. If memory serves, it had a really interesting review of Patti Smith’s Wave album. But it also had a whole lot of attitude, and was obviously quite different from the reporting I had been reading in The New Yorker, New York, Time and Newsweek, much less the San Francisco Chronicle. A sassy and different take on the news, and free to boot.

Unfortunately, the Barb’s reign ended soon after (right around the same time that “freeform” radio stations like San Francisco’s KSAN died as well). But that didn’t mean the good journalism went away.

My next encounter with alt-weeklies was my discovery of the Village Voice in the 1980s, in particular the political writings of James Ridgway, the music criticism of Robert Christgau, the movie reviews of Andrew Sarris, and most enjoyably, the transcendent sports page at the very back of the book that looked critically at sports issues from a perspective rarely found anywhere else. Around this time I also started reading the San Francisco Bay Guardian, but to be honest, it took me awhile to warm up to that earnest publication, in part because of its narrow focus on the hobbyhorses of its eccentric longtime publisher, Bruce Brugmann.

Weirdly enough, my interest in the Guardian increased when a second alt-weekly was introduced into the SF Bay area market, SF Weekly. It was part of the big alt-newspaper chain New Times, now part of Voice Media Group (owners of the Village Voice and many other publications, but no longer, as it happens, SF Weekly).

As Georgia State historian John McMillian points out in his book Smoking Typewriters, underground newspapers like the Berkeley Barb were the progenitors of what ultimately became known as alternative newspapers. The underground papers were either heavily political or steeped in the counterculturalism of the moment.

But once the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s began falling apart, McMillian maintains that most of these paper then “stumbled inadvertently” onto a commercially successful formula that has persisted to this day — papers with a heavy concentration of music and arts listings, buttressed by solid political reporting, smart arts criticism, and especially over the past decade, an emphasis on food and drink.

“It wasn’t quite so much about smashing the state and ending capitalism, but that liberal muckraking was a winning commercial formula, that you could make money this way,” he says, adding that the alt-weeklies really began picking up steam in the ’80s and ’90s.

But you’d have to have your head deep in the white sand of the Pinellas beaches not to realize that the terrain for alt-weeklies, including CL, is a lot rougher these days. Looking back through CL’s back issues from the past 25 years (including the era when it was called Weekly Planet), you see a paper that was able to run a lot more pages each week, both for editorial and advertising.

But CL is not unique; every year when I get home and pick up copies of the Guardian and SF Weekly I’m astounded at how thin they have become. Blame the Internet — not just for Craigslist’s conquest of the classified advertising market in the late ’90s, but also for the diversity of online subject matter, once available only in alt-weeklies but now at readers’ fingertips daily in a million or so blogs.

The latest blow to alt-weeklies came last month when the venerable Boston Phoenix went out of business. “It was the long-term decline of national advertising dollars that made the Boston Phoenix economically unviable,” Executive Editor Peter Kadzis wrote in a press release.

But CL may yet prove that alt-weeklies can, despite everything, endure.

The paper’s origins go back to 1972, when Deborah and Elton “Chick” Eason founded the first Creative Loafing in Atlanta. Fifteen years later, the Easons’ son Ben launched a second paper in Charlotte, followed by the Tampa edition in 1988. (Fun fact: Jill Hannity, the wife of Fox News’ Sean Hannity, was the managing editor of the Atlanta newspaper from 1993-1996 until the couple moved to New York City.) Sarasota was added in 1998, and then for a few years the Chicago Reader and Washington, D.C. City Paper were part of the family.

I contributed a few freelance pieces back in the early aughts, but wasn’t introduced properly into the Weekly Planet/CL fold until early 2009, when my predecessor as News & Politics Editor, Wayne Garcia, reached out to me (and others) as the paper began to expand its online news coverage. I began contributing a piece a week for the Web, which I eagerly composed every Saturday.

When Garcia announced he was stepping down as the “Political Whore” later that year (at around the time the Eason family lost its ownership of the chain), I wondered (along with many other loyal readers) how the paper/website could absorb his departure. I’m not sure what the verdict is on that count, but I will say that CL has been my home for the past three and a half years, and it’s been the professional thrill of my life.

Mitch Perry will interview former CL staffers John Sugg, Wayne Garcia and Mary Mulhern on Sat., April 20 at 5:15 p.m. at the Ritz Theater in Ybor City, part of CL’s 25th anniversary birthday celebration.