DigBoston hosts the premiere indy newspaper convention at a difficult moment for journalism
Publishing an alternative weekly—an independent metropolitan newspaper with a left-leaning editorial policy, crusading investigative reporting, and up-to-the-second cultural coverage in the tradition of the now-zombified Village Voice—in the 21st century can be a solitary enterprise. So it is a real pleasure for my partners Chris Faraone and John Loftus and I to have the opportunity to spend three days with over 150 of our peers from around the US and Canada at the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia trade convention. And it is a signal honor to be hosting this year’s iteration of that confab here in Boston.
Actually, we were supposed to host the event now dubbed BostAAN last year—which was to be the 42nd anniversary of the founding 1978 convention of our trade group. But the pandemic made that impossible. So we were gratified when our AAN colleagues decided to keep the convention here this year, when it is once again possible to hold an in-person gathering in a local hotel.
And what changes the last four decades have wrought. Forty-three years ago there were hundreds of alt weeklies. Today there are fewer than 100. In fact, several of our sibling newspapers went under during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis. With most of the surviving papers remaining on the edge of financial ruin for the foreseeable future. Readers that have been following Dig editorials will note that we almost went under ourselves when all our advertising evaporated within a week of the World Health Organization declaration of a pandemic on March 8, 2020. But we were saved by generous supporters and, ironically, Papa Trump’s Small Business Administration.
Forty-three years ago, a few young journalists and a couple of business heads could launch an alt weekly newspaper in their city in a matter of weeks. And pulling in advertising revenue was like shooting fish in a barrel from sea to shining sea. Within a couple of years, such a paper could easily have a dozen full-time staffers with decent benefits and a circulation approaching 100,000.
Today, most people that work for alt weeklies are freelancers and contractors. While owners like my partners and I often struggle along with meager salaries out of a sense of the importance of the Fourth Estate to our failing democracy and our love for serving our audiences with cutting-edge journalism. Even as the advertising that has sustained us (as I wrote just a couple of weeks back) has dried up for local newspapers—absorbed, in large part, by digital giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Forty-three years ago, people flocked to read the latest issue of every alt weekly—which led public discussion and debate on every conceivable issue from elections to nuclear power to the popularity of disco. Today most everyone’s attention is on the latest social media outrage. And fewer and fewer people turn to newspapers at any level from the once-mighty dailies to the most humble village weeklies for the information they need to be engaged citizens (or residents), in print or online. Less readers means even less advertising for surviving papers; so the downward trend in the economic model that once drove alt weeklies from success to success is easy for all to see.
Meanwhile, the US in general and cities like Boston in particular have become the scene of economic devastation for everyone but the rich and upper echelons of the professional managerial class due to both the pandemic and forty plus years of rapacious, neoliberal capitalism. So the need for more and larger independent news outlets to offer a strong alternative to the corporate-dominated information sphere that has replaced journalism with marketing copy and critical thinking with propaganda has never been greater.
Yet, as we make the final preparations to gather here in the Hub with our colleagues, we very much look forward to discussing the many challenges facing our corner of the news industry and to working together to rebuild our enterprises back to their former strength and relevance in the years to come.
We are therefore thrilled to welcome the 43rd Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention to Boston, Massachusetts. And to plan the future of independent journalism in the service of democracy … together.
Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.