Alternative weekly newspapers are going out of business all over the country, leaving a huge void in local government coverage. Who will scrutinize city halls now?
The front page of the Philadelphia City Paper’s final issue, which came out in early October, showed a typewriter sitting on a desk and a simple message: “Goodbye, Philadelphia.” The old-school image carried both sentimental and symbolic value. The black Royal typewriter in the picture originally belonged to the alternative newsweekly’s first publisher when he helped found the paper in 1981. Somehow it stayed with the staff, even through four office moves, as new technologies rendered it completely obsolete, and as the weekly’s circulation climbed to 300,000 in the mid 1990s and then dwindled to 56,000 by the time it ceased publishing.
City Paper joins a number of high-profile alternative weeklies that have succumbed to changing media trends in recent years. The Boston Phoenix and San Francisco Bay Guardian, both venerable publications, closed. The Village Voice in New York City let go of most of its best-known writers in 2013. Indeed, layoffs have been common throughout the industry, thanks to declining circulation among the biggest alt-weeklies. The country’s top 20 alternative weeklies lost an aggregated 6 percent of their audience just within one year, 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Only three of the 20 papers increased their circulation.
Everybody knows times have been tough for local journalism, and there’s been plenty of attention anytime a mainstream daily newspaper has shut down (the Rocky Mountain News, The Cincinnati Post), ceased daily printing (New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) or scaled back staff (basically everyone). These events have tremendous implications for how government is covered. Often it means readers get less information about far-off places, whether they be foreign cities or state capitals.