Critical Mass

Guest Post: Mark Athitakis on the State of Alt-Weeklies


As the summer of imploding books pages grinds to a painful halt, NBCC member Mark Athitakis, Arts Editor at Washington City Paper, offers these observations on the state of alt-weeklies:

As anybody who hasn’t arrived at this blog by accident knows, books coverage at American daily newspapers is asphyxiating. That’s the bad news. Here’s more bad news: The situation is just as dire at alternative weeklies. In March, the Project for Excellence in Journalism published its annual report on the state of the news media, and the section on alt-weeklies clanged the same damn bell: circulation is flatlining, readership is graying, and though online revenues are growing they’re not doing so fast enough to supplant the losses from the print edition.

I’ve seen much of this unhappy transformation in the past year from my position as Arts Editor at Washington City Paper. In July 2007, we, along with the Chicago Reader, were purchased by Creative Loafing, a Tampa-based firm with four alt-weeklies in the South. Painful cost-cutting initiatives soon followed. Shortly before Christmas we were forced to lay off five editorial staffers—nearly a third of our department. My weekly freelance budget, which had already been cut from to an uncomfortably tight dollar figure, needed to be slashed yet again.

Still, there are reasons to be optimistic: We now do much more online than we ever have, we’ve kept our place as a must-read for many within the District Line, routine grab the attention of those outside it, and I receive no memos from corporate central command telling me what to cover and how best to cover it. And a little surprisingly, nobody has yet given me a funny look for writing and/or assigning stories week in and week out about books, be it a brief reading preview, blog posts, interviews, features, or a cover story. We’ve taken one hell of a beating, but our basic mandate—to give people informed and lively coverage of subjects that often fall outside the larger media’s radar—remains intact. And books are still part of that mandate.

So the door remains open for a critic who wants to contribute to alt-weeklies. It’s often only slightly ajar, though; given the environment for newspapers everywhere, the smart writer will want to think carefully about what works and what doesn’t at an alt-weekly to make any headway.

Though I don’t presume to know how every alt-weekly operates—this is a world that’s proud of its idiosyncrasies, after all—I have worked at a few of them (“SF Weekly” and the “Chicago Reader” in addition to my current post at “City Paper”). While much of what follows may not true of every publication, some of the general ideas here should apply.

1. You’re Going to Have an Uphill, Ill-Paying Climb.
For many (if not most) alternative weeklies, “arts coverage” is essentially synonymous with “music coverage.” This makes good financial sense—most of the arts-related ad dollars at alt-weeklies come from concert venues (and the adult-beverage purveyors that lubricate them). Having a music editor, perhaps even an additional music writer or two, means the paper is covering the places where a large proportion of its readership theoretically likes to go. Every other cultural discipline usually fails to get that level of manpower, so handling reviews of movies, theater, and books is usually just one of an editor’s many duties.

Combine that arrangement with the frustrating but common whine that advertisers don’t support books coverage, and you won’t see too many freelance alt-weekly book reviews. In any given month I can, at best, accommodate two 500-word freelance reviews plus a handful of 150-word previews of upcoming readings. And I’m a guy who cares about book coverage; more often you’ll be approaching person with an overstuffed in-box who has made books the least of their priorities. And that person will dread that books pitch of yours because she knows she can pay very little (three
figures per piece is a fantasy to occasionally indulge in). Fact is, the paper’s budget and reputation can’t draw in a James Wood, or even perhaps a person who aspires to Wood’s depth of analysis. Getting somebody who’s “heard” of James Wood may be a stretch. Once you’ve removed the talent that wants to get paid what they deserve, most of what is left is, sorry to say, pretentious and/or incompetent. Given that, an alt-weekly books editor might reasonably think that the wisest decision he could make is to not cover books at all, or leave it to a trusted staffer.

So what you need to prove is that you can write intelligent and clean copy, write about what the paper’s readership cares about, and, most important, be more than just a book reviewer.

2. Local, Local, Local.
The first alt-weekly you ought to approach is the one closest to you. Yes, many of the bigger papers do use out-of-towners; I have a few in my stable. But I don’t actively seek them out, and I’m more likely to use a local writer in the long run—he or she is the person I can ring up when there’s something I need done quickly on a local story.

My best advice: Your first overture to an editor shouldn’t be a pitch for a book review, especially if your local alt-weekly isn’t running many (and a book review isn’t first on an editor’s list of needs). My e-mail in-box is never lacking for people who’d like to write about a CD or movie or book; I’m much more interested in pitches on ground-level stories about the local arts scene. If you can write that story, you’re a prize. If you can write that story regularly, you’re a saint. If you’ve done that for a while and then tell me you’d like to write a book review? Sure, let’s talk.

I don’t need a book critic/investigative reporter, but a book critic/arts reporter is a lovely thing to have. You may be hoping for too much if you’re hoping to be “just” a book reviewer at first, but you can likely cultivate that role for yourself in the long run by being able to report out a news or feature story about a local writer or publication or (something that happens too often these days) bookstore closing. If you have clips showing you can pick up a phone, do a records search, and interview people, include them along with your reviews, even if those news stories are at the bottom of the stack (or, better, e-mail list of clips).

3. Zig When Everybody Else Is Zagging.Given the thinning of book-review sections at daily newspapers, alt-weeklies have a great opportunity to pick up the slack. (Alas and thank goodness, my local daily, the “Washington Post,” remains a bright light when it comes to book coverage.) Look at your local daily and see what they’re not doing.

Let me guess: Not a lot of coverage of books from local presses, especially ones from university presses that could easily have wider appeal. Probably few independent presses. Not much on books in translation. Or on graphic novels. And not a lot of fun: No imaginative roundups, no visual thinking, no attempts at literary treatments of the current news, no attempts at humor that go beyond being sagely droll.

And yet freelancers occasionally seem baffled, even offended, that I have no interest in running a review of a much publicized book. A straightforward 1,000-word review of *Netherland*, even a nicely turned one, is never going to appear in “City Paper.” I assume my readers don’t need another one of those.

4. But Please, Please Don’t Try to Be Cool.
For whatever reason, alt-weeklies are still perceived as bastions of New Journalism. More to the point, they’re perceived as bastions of the worst, most self-indulgent brand of New Journalism, where writers expound at lengthy about whiskey and prostitutes and write all sorts of kuh-ray-zee prose about how whatever springs to mind, IN ALL-CAPS SOMETIMES BECAUSE RULES ARE RESTRICTIVE, and sometime around graf 20 you’ll get around to explaining what’s going on in “Netherland.”

Yes, we can use swear words in our copy and dailies can’t. We run sex-advice columns with all those words, we still do long-form reporting that welcomes a writer’s sense of style, and we value criticism with strong opinions and a sense of humor. That makes alt-weeklies interesting places to be. But I’ve seen too many writers try to contort themselves into some vision of “coolness” because they feel it’s a tone they have to affect to make it into our pages. Truth is, I value the same things in reviewers that I value in all writers, regardless of venue: Intelligence, clarity, accuracy, and a lively style that considers the reader’s needs first. The old rule applies: If you’re trying to be cool, you’re not.—”>Mark Athitakis