Hey, That's Not an Alt-Weekly!

november 14, 2007  08:07 am
Apparently, a guy named Leland Lehrman is running for the Democratic nomination to represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. I know this because I subscribe to Google Alerts set to the term "alternative newspaper," and I've received at least a dozen alerts notifying me of newspaper stories about the Senate race in which Lehrman is invariably described as an editor of "an alternative newspaper in Santa Fe." Here's the latest example, from the Associated Press.

I've got nothing against Lehrman, but his publication, The Sun News, is most assuredly not an "alternative newspaper." To its credit, The Sun News is pretty unique and doesn't fit comfortably under any label. I guess I'd call it a local journal of politics and opinion -- left-wing, "9/11 Truth Movement"-type politics and opinion, to be precise.

This isn't the first time that a publication that is not an alternative newspaper was mistakenly characterized as one. Google sends me similar examples on a weekly basis. Community weeklies, GLBT papers, arts and entertainment tabloids -- they are all occasionally called alternative newspapers by confused reporters. Usually I just shrug it off. But today I decided that perhaps I could make some small contribution to human understanding and the brand equity of our member papers by pointing it out every time I see the term used incorrectly.

So welcome to the first edition of the "Hey, That's Not an Alt-Weekly!" an irregular series devoted to the correct use of the term "alternative newspaper" and all its variants -- "alternative newsweekly," "alternative weekly," and, of course, my favorite, "alt-weekly."

On behalf of the members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, I hereby plant our flag in the white space between the words "alternative" and "newspaper." We intend to defend this turf to the death!

A big part of the problem is that many people use the term "alternative newspaper" too literally. In the present case, for example, The Sun News is a "newspaper" -- can't deny that. And it certainly is "alternative," in the American Heritage Dictionary definition sense of the word, i.e., "Existing outside traditional or established institutions or systems," and "Espousing or reflecting values that are different from those of the establishment or mainstream."

But "alternative newspaper" is more than the sum of its parts. It is a term of art that describes newspapers that share a certain set of characteristics, which are roughly as follows:

  • Free-circulation tabloid
  • General interest coverage primarily focused on local news, culture and the arts
  • Extensive entertainment listings
  • Informal and sometimes profane writing style
  • Emphasis on point-of-view reporting and narrative journalism
  • Reporting that often concerns issues and communities that don't receive much attention from other media
  • Political philosophy and organizational culture based on tolerance for individual freedoms and social differences

    With two or three minor exceptions, those characteristics apply squarely to all 130 AAN member newspapers. They do not all apply to The Sun News.

    One final thought: At this point in our history, we are not interested in defending our use of the term "alternative." As I have explained to many reporters who have asked me accusingly, "So what makes your papers alternative, anyway?": In the 70s, when alternative newspapers first began appearing in large numbers in urban areas across the U.S. and Canada, we really did represent an alternative to the two daily papers, three television networks and handful of magazines that most North Americans were forced to turn to for news prior to the advent of cable TV and the internet. Now, with the explosion in media choices wrought by technology, we are just one of many alternative news sources. We recognize that and don't mean to imply we are the only media option outside of the mainstream. But after more than three decades of dropping the F-bomb in print and sticking it to the man, we've built up a certain amount of brand equity in the term "alternative newspaper," and we'd rather not share it with the likes of Leland Lehrman, thank you.