Yesterday's news that the alt-weeklies Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper had been sold to Creative Loafing, which owns a few alt-weeklies in the Southeast, left some people a little puzzled—especially employees of both papers, who didn't seem aware in the slightest that their publications were on the block at all. Over on the Reader's website, commenters are debating what it means that Creative Loafing bought the paper; the general sentiment seems to be cynicism and wariness of an outsider company buying their beloved Reader. So what does the sale portend for the state of alt-weeklies in this country? Is Creative Loafing emerging as the only viable national competitor to Village Voice Media?
Well, maybe—but the company is far smaller (six papers to VVM's 16), and most of its papers, with the exception of its Atlanta paper, have been in less prominent markets than VVM's. (In addition to the Voice here, VVM owns papers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Dallas, Seattle, and other major cities.
By acquiring papers in D.C. and Chicago—two major markets where VVM doesn't have a presence—Creative Loafing could be gearing itself up to buy other independently owned alt-weeklies in other cities. After all, it's not just the Times and the Tribune Co. that are being hit hard by the downturn in classified advertising. Classifieds were alt-weeklies' bread and butter, but now that you can hire a prostitute just by going online, the ads for trannies and massage services in the back of alt-weeklies are becoming fewer and farther between.
Then there's the whole alt-weekly culture thing. A few years ago, at an AAN convention in San Diego, I went to dinner with another youngish woman who worked for a Creative Loafing paper, as it turned out. We discussed the prototypical alt-weekly editor: white dude, middle-aged, former SDS member (or at least, sympathizer), someone who still believed that the alt-weeklies were fighting the good fight, who hired attractive youngish girls to keep around the office and make inappropriate comments to whenever he felt like it. This seemed like an archaic prototype, to us, and we wondered what would become of these editors, speaking so earnestly as they did about how lame the free dailies in their cities were. There was even a slide show about lame free dailies trying to bite alt-weeklies' steez, and everyone reassured themselves that smart readers would always realize the difference between the "fake-alts" and "real" ones. But maybe part of the problem is that alt-weeklies themselves were slow to change, and do things like embrace the Internet, and maybe have a few more female and black editors, and espouse a perspective that was anything other than predictable left-wingism (or, in the case of the New Times papers, that weird Western Libertarianism).
Of course, that's just us. Now that it looks like the whole country's alt-weeklies will eventually run Rob Harvilla's music reviews and be subject to blog-hating Bill Jensen's new media ideas, maybe things will get... better? Hey maybe not.