When the Independent Weekly launched in 1983 as a monthly, paid-subscription, statewide political publication, it entered a very small media universe. There were a handful of local daily newspapers and radio stations. CNN had just started broadcasting, and the notion of 24-hour cable news was a revelation made possible by the major technological innovation of the day: satellites.
It would have been impossible to imagine then how much the media universe would expand. The Internet has exponentially increased the number and the reach of media outletsfrom local blogs debating teardowns in Raleigh and county commissioner elections in Chapel Hill to the hundreds of international newspapers Triangle residents can now read with their morning coffee (as long as they don’t spill on their keyboards).
Meanwhile, alternative weeklies, once the renegade upstarts of the newspaper world, have become institutions in their own right. The professional Association of Alternative Newsweeklies counts 129 member papers (including the Indy). All are struggling to adapt their economic models to the declining print circulation and rising online readership newspapers in general are experiencing.
Further complicating that picture is the fact that the consolidation of media ownership has affected alt weeklies, as well. Chains like Village Voice Media and Creative Loafing now own many once-independent outlets.
With so many more sources of information now available to readers, with blogs providing a democratic platform to all comers, alt weekly journalists are asking themselves, What do we provide the alternative to?
We caught up with four editorial alumni from the Independent‘s first 25 years to get their perspectives on the past, present and future of alternative journalism.
Katherine Fulton was the founding editor of the Independent from 1983 to 1992. She currently lives in San Francisco and works for the Monitor Institute as an organizational consultant in the field of philanthropy and nonprofits.
What were some of the highlights of your work at the Independent?
We did a number of really significant investigative stories that won national awards. One of the things I would say I’m quite proud of is collaborating with Bob Hall and the Institute for Southern Studies in 1984. We did some of the earliest groundbreaking work on campaign finance. We put together portraits of who gave Jesse Helms money. We were able to tell stories using some of the earliest computer assisted reporting.
One of my favorite stories we ever published during my tenure was about Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who’d been elected in 1985. There was this debate going on in the state legislature about what should be the state vegetable of North Carolinashould it be the yam? So we wrote a story that asked the question, “Is Jim Martin the real state vegetable?” It was a serious story told with a funny headline and subheads, but we got a lot of people on the record, including Republicans, talking about how little he was getting done and about a lot of frustration with his administration.
He called a press conference to deny being the state vegetable. There’s a front-page story story, I think I still have in a file someplace, by the Greensboro News & Record‘s political reporter that literally said, “Governor Denies Being State Vegetable.” It was just hilarious.
The other thing that happened was the “steal this newspaper” story. There was a guy running for lieutenant governor in 1988 named Harold Hardison and the Independent published this big endorsement issue, and on the cover was this thing about why we were not endorsing Hardisonhe was really a dreadful politician.
Our delivery people in Raleigh saw somebody picking up newspapers after they had been delivered and throwing them in a dumpster. The delivery person wrote down the license plate, and it turned out it was somebody working for the Hardison campaign, and they got caught.
So we very quickly went back to press and published another 10,000 copies and put on the cover, “Steal this newspaper before someone else does.” It was this famous reference to an Abby Hoffman book from the 1960s, Steal This Book. This became a really big factor in the campaign because it became a news story that the Hardison campaign had done this, and it became part of a pattern of dirty tricks that the campaign was pulling. He lost.
The “steal this newspaper” story became the lead story on All Things Consideredis it illegal to steal a free newspaper? It was quite a fun episode.
But in many ways, the biggest thing that happened in the first five or 10 years of the Independent was trying to figure out a business model for the Independent.
I was a city editor at the Greensboro News & Record when Steve [Schewel] recruited me to come join him to start the Independent. I was 27 then, 28 when we published the first issue. I thought I was leaving daily journalism to be the editor of an alternative paper. And while that was true, what I was really doing was starting a small business and learning how to run it along with my colleagues. We were learning that the business of journalism is not about journalism, it’s the business of selling advertising. That was a hard lesson for an idealistic and naïve 27-year-old.
That seems to still be what the business of journalism is, it’s just getting harder because the method of distribution is changing.
I’ve been dealing my entire adult life with the question of the economic model of journalism. The fundamental reality is that, except for very specialized types of information that people will pay for, journalism has been and will remain subsidized. We’ve had a model for much of the last 75 years where advertising subsidized journalism. I think the question is, what will happen to that subsidy?
When I left the Independent, I went to Harvard for a mid-career fellowship, the Niemann fellowship. I heard the word “Internet” for the first time in the fall of 1992 at Harvard. That was pre-World Wide Web, and there was no graphical user interface for the Internet. It was just at the beginning of what would very rapidly take off in the 1990s. I understood that it was going to change everything.
Between 1993 and 2000, I spent probably about half my time working on the future of journalism in one way or another. I stopped being a practicing journalist and went into essentially journalism strategy. I ran a couple of conferences for the Niemann foundation in 1994 and 1995, trying to get the journalism business to begin to adapt to the changes. I wrote two cover stories for the Columbia Journalism Review in 1993 and 1995 on the changes and what was coming.
Then in late 1995, I came out here to California to work for Global Business Network, which is a small, alternative strategy consulting firm. When I came to GBN, a very brilliant guy there said to me, “I know that news has a future; I’m not sure about journalism.” In the context of 1995, I could barely wrap my head around what that meant. Because up to that point, news and journalism were the same thing.
But of course, he’s exactly right: News has a great life. Anybody can write news. Any organization can spread it. A lot of it isn’t true! It’s news on comedy shows and on blogs. But journalism, what we think of as vetted reporting, is a smaller and smaller subset of a larger and larger information and communications system, which has in fact enveloped our culture.
I did a lot of work, especially with daily newspaper companies, public broadcasting and some with alternative media between 1995 and 2000 on what the changes were going to mean and how might we adapt to them more quickly. I’m sad to say that, by the late 1990s, I gave up that any of the mainstream institutions were going to adapt rapidly enough because they were making too much money using the old model. I could see it was inevitable that the new model was going to be invented by people outside journalism and media.
I shifted my energy to nonprofits and philanthropy in about 1998. I continued to do some work in journalism, and I actually still believe that there will be very important nonprofit journalism models and that philanthropy will be of growing importance in funding significant journalism.
There are a lot of experiments under way now with nonprofit models of journalism. NPR has pioneered listener-supported media. Another is ProPublicaa major philanthropist out here put up a large sum of money and hired the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a bunch of investigative reporters to start a whole new model of investigative journalism.
I also think that really good journalism will be done by other people who don’t consider themselves journalists.
There was a period of time about five years ago when I used to stand up and say, “I used to be part of alternative journalism and to think of myself as an alternative journalist. Now I think it’s actually more interesting to think about alternatives to journalism.” I did that as a way to get people’s attention to the fact that many of the functions that journalism used to play alone were being done by other sorts of vehicles.
The Center for Public Integrity in Washington is pioneering investigative reporting in a non-profit setting. Human Rights Watch is another good example, a whole organization full of people who are monitoring human rights abuses around the world. They’re essentially doing reporting.
There’s a lot of information out there and it’s great that people have access to sharing it freely, but journalism is supposed to verify that information before it goes out and provide the source, provide something people can trust.
The role that you described is an absolutely vital role, and I believe it will remain vital. Google news can only aggregate what someone has produced. Somebody originates the news. The question is, where will there be an economic model to pay for it? For what audiences, about what topics?
People may be over time convinced to pay small amounts of moneynot subscription prices, but for pieces of information that are interesting to them. I don’t know that we’re headed that way, but at least the technology is in place.
What we had in the past was a model that essentially cross-subsidized types of journalism. We know that people love to read People magazine, that type of thing. They don’t necessarily want to read about people on death row. It goes back to he question of what people wants versus what they need.
One of the most important questions to ask in the ecology of journalism and news today is, what is abundant and what is scarce? I think that’s a very dynamic thing. There’s more and more that’s abundant. But we’re seeing slowly withering away certain types of thingsyou’ve seen it in foreign reporting, there’s much less international news in mainstream media. At the same time, people have much more access to international news because you can now see newspapers from around the world on your desk. So it’s a very complex picture.
Where do alt weeklies fit in now? What are they the alternative to?
In a funny way, the model of the free weekly has probably pioneered what is essentially happening to journalism on the Web. In a way it was a leading indicator: It was free.
There are two kinds of things that work: There’s the 24-hours, all-the-time thing, now possible that didn’t used to be. Then there’s making sense of what’s going on, especially once a week, on that rhythm, giving you the calendar and things you need, along with the high level what’s going on in your community, that’s free and that has strong voices in it. When this model was created and when the Independent began doing that, those things were not taken for granted. Increasingly that’s what a daily newspaper has to do: provide their content for free, filter things, and have strong voices and points of view.
Then what is the role of weekly newspapers? And the business model, is free subsidized by advertising going to be enough to pay for journalism?
I just think nobody knows the answer to that question. I think you have to look at the overall news and information environment and ask yourself, what did people have access to 25 years ago and what do they have access to now? Overall, is it better, or has it declined?
My answer would be that overall, it’s better, and parts of it have declined. So much of the mainstream journalism that was once done by television networks and daily newspapers has diminished. But you have to balance that with the fact that a small player of really any size can play the game. So the question of “alternative” was in a way a concept that may be completely out of date. It was the question 25 years ago, even 15 years ago, when there really only were a few news and information outlets that people could get access to. It’s not the right question anymore.
Some of the current industry research suggests that alt weeklies will need to be hyper-local in order to provide something that isn’t already being provided. There’s so much information you can get now about national politics and issues. But particularly with the consolidation of newspapers and broadcasting, there’s actually less local reporting.
Right, as I said, there are parts of it that have shrunk. But I also think that there’s a question about points of view, perspectives on what’s happening in the local community, and that might also be what’s missing and harder to get. Certainly the Independent has always represented a particular point of view, and that was part of how it was alternative.
I don’t want to be depressing. I think there is a cloud of uncertainty over the professional journalism industry and business, but I believe that we will move through that uncertainty and come out on the other side with journalism institutions serving the public good. It just may look very different than the ones we have now.
Eric Bates was a staff reporter at the Independent from 1995 to 1999. He is now executive editor at Rolling Stone, where he edits national affairs coverage and non-music feature stories.
What were some of the highlights of your work at the Independent?
I did a couple of death penalty pieces, one on a guy who there were questions about whether he was wrongfully convicted, and another on the whole death penalty system and how it operates more or less like a lottery. I did a big two-party piece on an alternative high school in Durham. I spent about nine months attended classes there, at this school where they stuck all the bad kids. I did a piece on private prisons companies, when there were two different private prison companies trying to get into North Carolina at the time. I did a piece called “Why we love Jesse Helms” about what we liked about him.
Was that pre- or post-Bono?
I think that was pre-Bono, actually.
How has the Internet affected the practice of journalism?
That’s a big question. I think the Internet is part of a bigger explosion in information on demand. There’s an expectation that you can have access to any kind of information at any point anywhere you are. That simultaneously means that as journalists we’re competing for people’s attention more than ever. There are more channels, more sources, more availability and that tends to drive people to do things quicker, faster and shorter. But at the same time that instant availability and omnipresence of information means that people need more context than ever before. They need more filtering to figure out what matters and what’s noise. So in a way, I think there’s as much or more demand for the kinds of long-form journalism that places like the Indy do than ever before. People are really looking for things that synthesize and explain, and that’s the kind of stuff that we do.
I recently read an interview with your national politics reporter Matt Taibbi where he talks about the point of view in his reporting. Rolling Stone has certainly always had a distinct point of view. Do you think there’s more or less point of view now in mainstream reporting?
I think there’s the same amount. It’s more overt than it used to be, because the Internet in particular has made it possible for everyone to express their point of view. And that’s a great thing. It’s made it harder particularly for the mainstream media to pretend that it doesn’t have a point of view. For one thing, people are looking for attitude and voice, but they’re also looking for honesty about it. So the mainstream media is constantly getting critiqued now from all sides all the time online, and that’s made for a lot more transparency.
There’s a lot of debate about how to incorporate the Web and blogging and citizen journalism into what we do. How do you see the role of journalists as gatekeepers?
I don’t think there’s a lot of gatekeeping to be done. Journalism’s role is to do the hard work of reporting and documenting what’s going on. The Web and the proliferation of television news channels isn’t a substitute for that. There’s a lot more opinion; that doesn’t mean there’s more informed opinion. The Web encourages people to post things quickly and not think very much about what they’re doing. What newspapers and magazines and newsweeklies ought to do is ask questions and talk to people and actually go out and look at things first hand and explore issues from all sides and come up with a thoughtful, informed accurate picture of what’s going on. There’s not a lot of that on the Web.
We had a right-wing blog attack us the other day for changing the headline on a story about Barack Obama that was up online. It was a whole long rant accusing us of making this change to make Obama look better. The guy who wrote it never bothered to pick up the phone and call us and ask us why we changed it. Simple thing to do, first thing a reporter would have done before sitting down to write something. But there isn’t a presumption that there’s any need to ask anybody what’s happening or talk to the people involved to find out.
The Web makes people a little bit lazy, and that can happen even to journalists if we’re not careful. We have to not just sit at our desks and look things up on Google.
Sure, if you think Wikipedia is a source, then you’re probably not a journalist.
When alternative journalism first got started, it was new, but now alt weekliesand Rolling Stone, which just celebrated its 40th anniversaryare institutions. What are we the alternative to now?
The world has changed more for alt weeklies probably than for any other form of journalism. To some extent that’s due to forces outside journalism’s control. Alt weeklies started out as a business model delivering personal ads and connectivity that are far easier on the Web these days. So the whole advertising model got replaced. That’s true for daily newspapers too, but it’s even more true for weeklies.
In terms of content, the alt weeklies were part of a trend that came out of the ’50s and ’60s that did introduce voice and attitude and literary form to journalism. In some ways, we’ve been so successful at that that it’s become mainstream.
When I was investigative editor at Mother Jones, it was interesting to see that, in the old days, you’d do a story about something like the Ford Pinto at Mother Jones and The New York Times wouldn’t touch a story like that. Nowadays, The New York Times would love to have that story. 60 Minutes would love to have that story.
There are plenty of places that will be competing for the kinds of stories the Independent’s going to do. There aren’t as many taboo subject areas that the alternative press has cornered the market on. In some ways, we’re victims of our own success, that we modeled that for the rest of journalism and it became a much more accepted form.
Is there a niche we could be filling that we’re not filling?
I’m not sure what it is on the business side. If I knew that, I’d be a lot richer. But in terms of the journalism side, we just have to do it even better. In the old days, you could get away with a lot of weak ass shit, because there was nobody else doing what we were doing. That’s not as true anymore. A more competitive marketplace of ideas means that our ideas have to be sharper, that we just have to bring excellence to everything we do in order to stand out. That’s a good problem to have because we should demand that of what we do.
Do you consider what you do alternative journalism?
You put your finger on it. I’m not sure the world “alternative” really has as much bearing now, and even if it does, I’m not sure it’s the most useful lens to consider it through. There are a lot of different ways you could look at it. One of the bigger differences is in terms of ownership.
The biggest change over the past 25 years has been the rise of corporate chains, even in alt weeklies. The Independent is one of the last family-owned alt weeklies out there. You could get into the extent to which the Independent has succeed by driving all of its competitors out of business, taking them over and shutting them down. But it’s still true.
Most of the places I’ve worked personally, Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, are not part of corporate chains. They’re mass market magazines, but they’re not a Condé Nast or a Hearst. So the way decisions get made is different in that kind of environment. There’s still a premium placed on journalism over advertising revenues. Our publisher will make decisions to add pages to the magazine beyond what the ad ratio would call for because there’s an investigative piece he wants to publish or a photo portfolio he wants to show the world. Those aren’t the kind of decisions that get made when you’re working for a big corporation that’s ruthlessly focused on the bottom line.
In that sense, independent journalism is more the lens than alternative journalismthat’s what alternative used to mean, was freedom from those sort of revenue-over-all calculations that go on. People like to talk about the demise of daily newspapers and how they’re dying as a business model, but what they don’t look at are the profit margins of daily newspapers. Dailies are fantastically profitable. Their numbers are going down, but their profit margins aren’t.
I don’t see that mentioned a lot when I read about newspapers’ demise.
No, it’s one of the best kept secrets about newspapers. Maybe 25, 30, 40 years ago, people expected a rate of return on their investment of 3 to 5 percent, which is what General Motors got back in those days. Now newspaper publishers expect 25 or 40 percent rate of return. And the only way to get that, particularly when your circulation is falling off, is to slash staff to the bone. But that means what’s driving newspapers down isn’t lack of readership, it’s corporate greed.
Barbara Solow was a staff writer at the Independent from 1999 to 2005. She is now a public policy writer at the Center for New York City affairs at The New School.
What are some of the highlights of your work at the Independent?
I wrote a profile of Floyd McKissick who was running for mayor of Durham. I’d actually never done a political profile like that. But I was proud of it because it was clear from our reporting and having followed McKissick’s career that we weren’t supportive of him being mayor, but I think it was a fair, honest look at him. It was a critical profile, but it was sort of softly damning instead of strident, which was the right approach.
I was working with MJ Sharp, who is an incredible reporter as well as a photographer. There was a Bulls game one night and Floyd McKissick was going to be there meeting and greeting. I hadn’t called MJ about it, it was sort of a last minute thing where I was thinking, “I should go and get some color for this piece.” I showed up at the Bulls game and there was MJ taking exactly the pictures we needed.
I was also really proud years later of this piece I wrote on the “Mexican paradox,” which is a health trend where immigrant women, particularly those from Mexico, tend to have healthy babies and don’t have prenatal problems even though they’re most often poor and don’t have as much access to prenatal care as other people. The way I’d heard about it, it was this afterthought, somebody was talking about health financing or something and it was just kind of dropped into conversation. That was part of what was cool about being at the Indy, you could look at what was seen elsewhere as some dry health statistic and look into it and do something interesting with it.
The story got a lot of attention, and I was happy because it was a way to talk about immigration that wasn’t pitying or horrified. It’s this fascinating positive thing about immigrants. Given the fact that North Carolina has terrible infant mortality rates, particularly among African-American women, there was something people could learn from this group of new people coming to the country who had this protective advantage.
You were the editor of the Indy for a short while. What was that like?
We went through this roller coaster of different editors after Bob Moser left. I filled in as the editor for about six months in 2001, and I was editor on Sept. 11. The attacks happened on a Tuesday, and we were actually interviewing a job candidate for the editor’s post who ended up getting stuck in Durham because they closed the airports. We put a little tiny alert in the paper that came out on Wednesday saying, “This has happened, the world has changed, we call on everybody to be calm and to try to keep thinking and try not to lose what’s best about us.” Then for the next Wednesday, we pulled together a special issue.
Taylor Sisk was there, too, and played a big role in this. We reached out to the community, and we asked different kinds of people with different perspectives to write short pieces on thoughts about the attacks, what it meant to the community, to the country. Duncan Murrell wrote about being a marine. It was a wonderful, deep, thoughtful, sensitive and also outraged, sad issue. It really captured all the things people were feeling but kind of tied them together with some analysis and some clear-headed calls for thinking, keeping our minds on the important issues and not losing sight of what we all cared about. Information at that point was really minimal, nobody knew what was going on, and we didn’t want people to jump to conclusions about what the attacks were about and use it as an excuse to go after Muslim residents. I was really proud of that effort because we pulled it together really quickly, but we managed to stay true to our alt weekly mission. We were trying to give people a forum but at the same time, keep thinking, keep our minds clear. It represented the best of the Indy’s relationship with the community: We called on them, and they called on us.
What are you working on now?
I am working at this really interesting place called the Center for New York City affairs, which is a public policy-journalism outfit at the New School in Manhattan. It was founded by a guy who ran a crusading neighborhood housing newspaper. He created this center to do reporting on the child welfare system, social services and anti-poverty work in the city, but to be kind of a hybrid between public policy and journalism, to use the expertise of academics and research, to have advisory boards that help develop policy recommendations for things, but to write as journalists write. I’ve been editing and writing here for the past couple of years, a lot about the child welfare system and also on the disability services system. I’ve learned a lot about Medicaid funding and also a lot about the push to help people with disabilities be more independent and not be trapped in group homes.
One of the biggest changes in journalism over the past 25 years is the Internet. You have some funny stories about the Indy’s early attempts to connect to the Internet on its shoestring budget.
When I first came to the Indy, I believe we did not yet have Internet access in the newsroom. Then we were really excited because we finally got one terminal in the newsroomone. Then later there was one dial-up modem, and there were four or five staff writers, plus the editors. We’d have to wait our turn. You’d be on the Web, and if somebody else tried to get online while you were on, they would bump you off. It was just crazy, because we’d have to yell back and forth in the old house: “I’m off!” “I’m on!” “It’s your turn!” “OK!” It was obviously a complete misunderstanding of how one would use the Web.
I think the Web definitely makes my work go faster, especially with government reporting. You used to have to go ask the nice clerk to go look something up for you. And it is interesting to have a lot of voices out there. There are child welfare forums where parents talk about their experiences. Those are really useful to hear.
But I’m kind of a 20th century gal. I’ve recently gotten teased because I’m still using a paper Rolodex. I don’t like to do interviews by phone. I still like to actually eyeball people when I ask questions of them.
With the changes brought about by the Internet and consolidation of ownership over the past 25 years, how do alt weeklies fit into the future of journalism?
In my head I’ve been struggling to separate the struggles to preserve good journalism from the struggles of the newspaper industry in particular. I come out the era of the big newsroom, tons of people, the big steel-mill, labor-intensive newspaper mode. That’s just gone. And that’s very sad in some ways. But to me, that difficulty and change is somewhat different from talking about what’s happening with really good journalism. We still need a watchdog. We still need somebody going out and covering those little school budget meetings and looking at the police reports and keep an eye on government. That still does happen. The New York Times just brought down the governor of New York. Really, newspapers are about critical thinking.
We’re all struggling to figure out how to use technology, how to work differently, how to get young people interested in the work that we’re doing. The New York Times is asking all of their reporters to have blogs. And I’m thinking, if you have a byline in The New York Times, why in the world do you need a blog? You have this amazing platform already. Why not just let the blogs blog, and then you can use them as sources in your stories or have them be critics of what you do? This idea that the big papers are trying to own the blogs and own all that new technology stuff, I don’t know, it think that might be a mistake. I think there are ways to have different levels of reporting that might be useful for people looking for sources for news. All this competition doesn’t seem to be creating the best of that.
Having said that, I think that alt weeklies sort of have a leg up there. We’ve always done things differently. We’ve always tried to be a place people go because they can’t get what we’re presenting anywhere elsethe news or information we have just isn’t available anywhere else. And as long as that remains true, alt weeklies are going to be vibrant and exciting in whatever format they come out in.
Yes, but how does that remain true? When the alternative media started decades ago, it was clear what it was an alternative to. Now that’s less clear.
That struggle with the Indy has been going on for a while as the paper became this institution in the community instead of being this upstart which it was in the beginning, and also as the dailies changed. The News & Observer started doing stories that the Indy had done. When I was at the Indy it was moving toward more magazine-length pieces and more in-depth arts coverage. I think that is the question, to look at the media world out there in the Triangle and ask, what are we providing that people can’t get anywhere else?
Alt weeklies have been a platform for people who don’t get heard elsewhereyoung people, artists, gay people, black people, working-class peopleand that you don’t see changing too much in the mainstream media, even though there is a struggle about how to present the news better and how to reach people.
The Indy has some really cool things about it that remain unique even among alt weeklies. One is the local ownershipdon’t lose that. That makes a difference. I think it’s really important that it’s not a chain, that the owners are part of the community and have to be accountable in a way that you just aren’t if you’re in a big chain. That makes it harder, of course, because then it becomes a resource question.
Some research says the niche weeklies can fill is intensely local reporting. Do you agree with that?
Yes, although I think the Indy has a good track record of doing regional reporting, I’m thinking of the Hal Crowther-type voices that have come out of the Indy. Those aren’t just local voices; those are Southern cranky voices. And I was also thinking about the Indy‘s groundbreaking coverage of state government. Local reporting is very important, but there are other things the Indy has done well and could do well in the future, to keep it on the map.
Barry Yeoman was a staff writer at the Independent from 1986 to 2000. He is now a freelance reporter and writer on a variety of topics for magazines such as AARP the Magazine, O the Oprah Magazine, Audubon and Mother Jones.
What were the highlights of your work at the Independent?
I was at the Indy for 14 years. I was full-time until I took a one-year Michigan journalism fellowship in 1994-95. Then in 1995, I started a job-sharing relationship with Eric Bates where both of us worked part-time while we freelanced.
Most of the time that I was at the Independent I was the state political reporter and a lot of my work, though not all of it, flowed from that. My magnum opus in covering state politics was the “Highway Robbery” series, a five-part exploration of the way that campaign contributions determined North Carolina’s road-building priorities and, in a bigger sense, its transportation priorities at the expense of communities, the environment and democracy.
I also did several pieces that I’m also proud of that were not state government pieces.
For four years I wrote the “landlord hall of shame,” which I’m still hearing about, in which we busted those landlords who mistreated tenants either by offering them shoddy housing or evicting them improperly or otherwise harassing them.
The series that I am perhaps most proud of is one that is not investigative: “Walking Home,” a two-part narrative about a Hispanic Baptist church in Siler City that was published in 2000, right as Latino immigration to the Triangle was peaking. For 10 months I practically lived at this church, attending services, baptisms, birthday parties, weddings and evangelism meetings and was able to write about the daily life of this church with a kind of penetrating quality that is completely a reflection of how fully they let me in and how deeply they took me into their confidence. It was a very gratifying piece of journalism and I wish more people had read it, but part two hit the week of the biggest snowstorm of the last 20 years and we may have had the lowest pickup rate of any issue in the history of the Indy. But it’s online. (See “Soul and Skin,” Jan. 19, 2000 and “The crisis,” Jan. 26, 2000.)
Now I freelance for national magazines, and even though I write about a wide-range of issues, the common thread is that I try to put a human face on complex, political, social and scientific issues.
How do you think journalism has changed in the past 25 years?
In the 25 years since I got my first alt weekly job in Lafayette, La., the role of alternative newspapers has in a strange way stayed the same, which is setting the agenda for the next great leap forward in journalism. Now, the nature of that leap forward keeps changing.
When I started at the Indy in 1986, in-depth exploration of issues was curiously off the radar screen of the daily papers around here. The News & Observer was truly stenographic. It reported what happened at meetings or on the floor of the state legislature or the governor’s press conference. There was very little truly enterprising work. Our agenda setting was almost comically obvious. There was a period in the late 1980s when I could almost predict what would be on the cover of the News & Observer on Sunday by what was on the cover of the Indy nine days before. We wrote about prison alternatives; they wrote about prison alternatives.
Over the late 1980s and early 1990s, newspapers in North Carolina and throughout the country began to do more in-depth exploration of issues. So then it was incumbent on alternative newspapers to find the next big thing. And over time, that was a different type of investigative reporting than the gotcha reporting that was representative of old-line daily journalism. Then it was personal narrative and narrative non-fiction.
Yet each time there was a new leap forward in journalism, it would be the province of alt newspapers for a while until big dailies and then finally smaller dailies would catch on. This process at its best was a mindful one at the Independent. We would have very focused conversations on, where do we want to push the craft. We had some long editorial staff meetings that were meditative. And whenever we saw daily papers catching up to what we were doing, we knew some of us earlier than others that it was time to figure out what the next leap forward was going to be.
What’s the next frontier that alt weeklies need to jump into?
I don’t think we’re done with narrative journalism. But the truth is that some of the best narrative work is happening at dailies, not at alternative weeklies.
Why do you think that is?
I think the corporatization of alternative weeklies means that business folks are looking at the bottom line more. Narrative journalism is expensive and dailies have more resources.
When alternative papers were local and less profit driven, publishers I think were more willing to bust the bottom line in the service of the political and journalistic mission of the organization and greater service to the community. When you have large multi-state corporations owning alternative weeklies, it creates a more traditional business model that I fear filters down to locally owned alternative weeklies. The alt weekly industry has financial standards and even locally owned newspapers aspire to meet those standards. Unfortunately, operating on relatively small scales, those standards are not always adequate to produce penetrating journalism. It’s a terrible dilemma, because on the one hand you want the business model to be sustainable. On the other hand, if limiting editorial resources means limiting quality, you’re compromising the original purpose of alternative weeklies.
Katherine Fulton said when she spent 10 years as editor figuring out how to build a business model for the Independent.
In its early days, the Indy did operate more as a community resource. And during the many years when we didn’t make a profit there were people standing by to make up the difference. We were biweekly at the time, and as we moved to weekly production we began thinking along the lines of a sustainable business more than a community-held resource. This was completely consistent with the national business model. We were not doing anything different; in fact we were, relatively speaking, more generous than most alt weeklies. Which explains why we produced better journalism.
Do you think intensely local coverage is a niche alt weeklies can fill?
I think that’s right. To me, the formula is localism plus quality. What you have on the Web is a vast, undifferentiated resource. When you look at Durham, for example, you have some very high quality blogs, and you have a lot of static. My morning local news regimen is to see what Bull City Rising has to say and to read the crime news in The Herald-Sun to make sure everything is safe in my neighborhood.
Neither the high quality blogs or the static are journalism in the traditional sense. And what we continue to offer is professionalism. What we need to do is exercise that professionalism and ask ourselves, how do we produce a product that is so good and so credible that it rises from the rest of the media environment? I would like to think that as Americans become more sophisticated about the web, that they will recognize there is a difference between professional journalism and what’s being called citizen journalism. There’s a useful role for the latter, but that role is neither about good accurate reporting nor about high quality storytelling. And it’s funny to me that in a sense, the alternative press needs to be thinking again about the very nuts and bolts of journalism.
In what sense?
As a way of distinguishing itself from what’s online. One of the waves that alternative journalism went through was the rant. And that was useful, because it infused journalism with a type of passion that was missing from all those gray dailies. Now anybody can rant, and they do.
The alternative press needs to ask itself what’s beyond democracy, and I think what’s beyond democracy is that professionalism. We know how to ferret out information that bloggers don’t, because we’re trained. We know how to make people comfortable telling their stories, because we’re trained. We know how to craft our research into beautiful and damning and compelling and angering and life-affirming stories, because we’re trained. For all of the exhilarating results of citizen publishing, it often occurs with limited tools. And we have those tools.
To play devil’s advocate to that idea, people don’t trust the media. Especially after the war, I think people are rightly skeptical that journalists really are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I think that’s part of why there’s an attitude of, let’s take the Web and do it ourselves.
People are rightly concerned and angry that journalists don’t always act professionally. The answer to that is not less professionalism. The answer to that is more professionalism. There are doctors who commit malpractice or try really hard but are constrained by managed care. The solution is not to give everybody a scalpel. When I read bad journalism, I feel frustrated that the writer and his or her editors did not live up to the high standards that I set up for myself. So we need to set higher standards. I think that substituting blogging for journalism is moving in the exact opposite direction that the current failure in confidence calls for.
I want to be able to pick up a newspaper and read about my community in all its myriad facets and be sustained by penetrating insight, tuneful writing, and authoritative marshalling of facts. There is more stuff vying for my attention now than even five years ago. So that makes it essential for all newspapers, particularly the alternative press, to push harder to do better work.
I have friends in New Orleans who say that nobody who lives there would ever eat at a bad restaurant, because why should you? There’s so much good stuff out there. In a way, the media environment is similar. There’s so much good stuff out there that I don’t ever want to read a bad paragraph for the rest of my life. And if a newspaper is going to keep my loyalty, it’s got to publish a lot of good paragraphs.