Sunday, September 07, 2003

The Culture: Defining Media

Matt Welch, an associate editor at Reason, pens a telling article for the Columbia Journalism Review on the state of "alternative" media, specifically the so-called "alternative newsweekly" papers such as the Village Voice and the Washington City Paper. Welch finds an industry that has matured to the point of stifling uniformity:
This February, I attended my first Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference, in the great media incubator of San Francisco. It's impossible to walk a single block of that storied town without feeling the ghosts of great contrarian media innovators past: Hearst and Twain, Hinckle and Wenner, Rossetto and Talbot. But after twelve hours with the AAN, a much different reality set in: never in my life have I seen a more conformist gathering of journalists.

All the newspapers looked the same — same format, same fonts, same columns complaining about the local daily, same sex advice, same five-thousand-word hole for the cover story. The people were largely the same, too: all but maybe 2 percent of the city-slicker journalists in attendance were white; the vast majority were either Boomer hippies or Gen X slackers. Several asked me the exact same question with the same suspicious looks on their faces: "So . . . what's your alternative experience?"

At the bar, I started a discussion about what specific attributes qualified these papers, and the forty-seven-year-old publishing genre that spawned them, to continue meriting the adjective "alternative." Alternative to what? To the straight-laced "objectivity" and pyramid-style writing of daily newspapers? New Journalists and other narrative storytellers crashed those gates long ago. Alternative to society's oppressive intolerance toward deviant behavior? Tell it to the Osbournes, as they watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Something to do with corporate ownership? Not unless "alternative" no longer applies to Village Voice Media (owned in part by Goldman Sachs) or the New Times chain (which has been involved in some brutal acquisition and liquidation deals). Someone at the table lamely offered up "a sense of community," but Fox News could easily clear that particular bar.

No, it must have something to do with political slant — or, to be technically accurate, political correctness. Richard Karpel, the AAN executive director, joined the conversation, so I put him on the spot: Of all the weeklies his organization had rejected for membership on political grounds, which one was the best editorially? The Independent Florida Sun, he replied. Good-looking paper, some sharp writing but, well, it was just too friendly toward the church. "And if there's anything we all agree on," Karpel said with a smile, "it's that we're antichurch."

I assumed he was joking — that couldn't be all we have left from the legacy of Norman Mailer, Art Kunkin, Paul Krassner, and my other childhood heroes, could it? Then later I looked up the AAN's Web site to read the admission committee's rejection notes for the Florida Sun (which was excluded by a vote of 9-2). "The right-wing church columnist has no place in AAN," explained one judge. "All the God-and-flag shit disturbs me," wrote another. "Weirdly right-wing," chimed a third.
Welch's description of AAN's ideology is especially interesting in light of the Justice Department's recent antirtust settlement with Village Voice Media and NT Media, the nation's two largest alternative newspaper chains. In that case, the DOJ defined an "alternative newsweekly" as a paper that exhibits an "anti-establishment" viewpoint, although that phrase is never itself defined. This was one of several hints in the DOJ's filings that they considered a newspaper's ideological slant grounds for inferring market power, a standard that contradicts the traditional First Amendment requirement that government regulation be "content neutral" with respect to speech.

In my own filings in the Village Voice-NT Media case, I questioned the government's vague market definition. According to the final judgment, an alternative newsweekly need only meet two of the following requirements: published in a market already served by one or more daily newspapers, published weekly and at least 24 times annually, distributed free of charge, not owned by a daily newspaper publisher, and a not focused exclusively on one specific topic.

I argued that blogs would be considered alternative newsweeklies by these standards, a point the government never refuted or denied. Welch, however, understands my argument, and elaborates in his CJR article:
The average blog, needless to say, pales in comparison to a 1957 issue of the Voice, or a 1964 Los Angeles Free Press, or a 2003 Lexington, Kentucky, ACE Weekly, for that matter. But that's missing the point. Blogging technology has, for the first time in history, given the average Jane the ability to write, edit, design, and publish her own editorial product — to be read and responded to by millions of people, potentially — for around $0 to $200 a year. It has begun to deliver on some of the wild promises about the Internet that were heard in the 1990s. Never before have so many passionate outsiders — hundreds of thousands, at minimum — stormed the ramparts of professional journalism.

And these amateurs, especially the ones focusing on news and current events, are doing some fascinating things. Many are connecting intimately with readers in a way reminiscent of old-style metro columnists or the liveliest of the New Journalists. Others are staking the narrowest of editorial claims as their own — appellate court rulings, new media proliferation in Tehran, the intersection of hip-hop and libertarianism — and covering them like no one else. They are forever fact-checking the daylights out of truth-fudging ideologues like Ann Coulter and Michael Moore, and sifting through the biases of the BBC and Bill O'Reilly, often while cheerfully acknowledging and/or demonstrating their own lopsided political sympathies. At this instant, all over the world, bloggers are busy popularizing underappreciated print journalists (like Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn), pumping up stories that should be getting more attention (like the Trent Lott debacle), and perhaps most excitingly of all, committing impressive, spontaneous acts of decentralized journalism.
Antitrust lawyers are obviously not trained in the art of thinking dynamically; their principal job in fact is to conjure narrow, arbitrary market definitions in the pursuit of new cases. In the Village Voice case, the DOJ argued that readers were denied their right to receive the benefit of competing alternative newsweekly content. The DOJ never, for one second, considered that consumers were already receiving superior content via blogs or other decentralized media outlets.

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