By Aaron Brown
At the risk of sounding too self-important, we journalists in the fourth estate hold a critical role in the distribution of information necessary for a well-informed populace and a stable democracy. Whether it’s an important political scandal waiting to break or a light-hearted look at the local arts scene, it is the duty of the journalist to deliver these stories to the willing public in an accessible, factual, and relevant manner. This reminder about the continuing importance of journalism brings us to the dilemma of the media in the 21st century; the prospects for print journalism have never looked so dim. The corporate media conglomerates continue to add airwaves and newspapers under their belts, Craigslist is devouring potential ad revenue, and the Internet/cable television phenomenon has enabled a new generation of citizens to obtain news whenever they want at the click of a mouse or remote control without ever touching newsprint. As newspapers continue to be purchased by MediaNews Group and other corporate entities, they lose their local ties to the community and their independence as they submit to corporate interests. Others are forced to cut costs to make ends meet, often firing the gritty journalists and relying on the Associated Press or Reuters for news.These problems plaguing the national media as a whole are mirrored here in the Twin Cities. The Star Tribune, one of the 15 largest newspapers in the country, was sold in late 2006 to the private equity firm Avista Capital Partners for a staggeringly low $530 million, under half what the McClatchy Company, the previous owner, bought the paper for fewer than 10 years ago.In an age of transnational corporate control of the media, increasing financial hardships on local media, and the rise of Internet-based institutions that siphon readers and advertising revenue, on what will the citizens of the Twin Cities rely for information and hard-hitting journalism related specifically to their hometown? The logical place to start would be the alternative press, often known as the alt-weeklies, although even here financial realities are taking their toll.While most major American newspapers are at least as old as the cities in which they were founded (including the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press), alternative press has its roots in the radical, anti-establishment late fifties and early sixties. The leftist alternative weekly movement, according to hip-hop journalist and author Jeff Chang, began as the progressive foil against mainstream politics and journalism by publishing news and arts stories never told by the corporate mainstream media.Ironically, many of these alternative weeklies are now starting to look rather corporate. The New Times Media, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based chain of weekly newspapers, acquired Village Voice Media in 2005 and adopted the name, thereby amassing 17 alternative weeklies across the country from San Francisco to Miami, including Minneapolis/St. Paul’s own City Pages. Village Voice Media now has a total circulation of over one million readers. Critics decry the corporate acquisition going so far as to say that Village Voice Media is “the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies” and note that important political and cultural content included in many alt-weeklies that was inherently local and relevant has been co-opted, nationalized, and homogenized. In short, while reading the far left political cartoons of Ted Rall or the unapologetically frank sex advice column of Dan Savage in an alt-weekly might make you feel counter-cultural, it’s worth noting that many metropolitan alt-weeklies are now owned by the same corporate entity that stands to produce the same syndicated columns and cartoons in each newspaper while cutting down on local journalism. This has become particularly disheartening after the disbanding of Pulse, a progressive Twin Cities alt-weekly dubbed “Your locally grown alternative newspaper” that ceased publication this June, and after the flight of City Pages reporters after the acquisition by New Times.Yet perhaps we’re being too harsh. While many alt-weeklies are cutting costs (read: reporters) in an attempt to remain economically viable, is it fair to say that the new corporate ownership of City Pages will necessarily ruin the journalistic integrity and mission of alt-weeklies? City Pages remains the largest weekly newspaper in the cities, with a circulation of over 100,000 spread throughout the Metro area, and the news stories are still often relevant and local. An article in the Oct. 31st issue, for instance, documents the campaign of St. Paul City Council candidate Pakou Hang, a Hmong woman running against a longtime incumbent vowing to better represent the interests of the diversity of immigrants now residing in East St. Paul. The story went largely uncovered by the Pioneer Press, which also endorsed her opponent to protect his voice as the “conservative minority on the council.”Many niche communities in the Twin Cities have founded specific weekly and monthly newspapers that cater to their needs. The Asian American Press is based on University Avenue in St. Paul, the epicenter for Minnesota’s Hmong population, and has a circulation of 15,000. Lavender magazine, Minnesota’s only LGBT publication, has a circulation of 25,000 and brings attention to queer rights issues and stories not always covered by the mainstream press.Furthermore, journalistic competition is cropping up in the form of online publications that attempt with varying degrees of success to harness local community dialogue. The Twin Cities Daily Planet, a product of the nonprofit Twin Cities Media Alliance, aims to “[bring] together media professionals and engaged citizens to improve the quality, accountability and diversity of the local media.”Even more intriguing is the Nov. 8 launch of Minnpost.com, an online newspaper funded by donations and staffed by a plethora of reporters formerly employed by the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, and City Pages, including two Pulitzer Prize winners. Minnpost has raised eyebrows across the country, stating on its web site the intention to “.combine the best of traditional journalism with new forms of newsgathering and story-telling made possible by the Internet.”Steve Perry, the former editor of City Pages, also recently launched The Daily Mole, a Twin Cities-based online publication. This, of course, is coupled with a growing contingency of well-read Minnesota based blogs, whose agility and grassroots coverage (for better or for worse) was on display most notably following the I-35W bridge collapse last August.Traditional alt-weeklies are learning, albeit slowly, to utilize the Internet for their own purposes as well. Vita.mn, a year-old arts/events weekly published by the Star Tribune, launched a web site with enough interactive gadgets and gizmos to command a respectable Internet presence in the Twin Cities community. Part social networking (the 21st century evolution of the personal ad) and part event/music/restaurant publicity, Vita.mn hardly stands as a beacon of gritty investigative journalism. Still, Vita.mn attracts largely younger audiences that would otherwise be less likely to pick up a newspaper, and Vita.mn’s publication and web site stand as an example of the possible future relationship between the Internet and newsprint. Readers can create profiles on the web site, post reviews of articles, announce which concerts they are attending, and take part in the participatory Web 2.0 phenomena similar to Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube, all distinctly within the Twin Cities community.Other publications are adapting to the wired age as well. City Pages’ web site, for example, has an extensive collection of CP journalist-written blogs covering everything from “Culture to Go” to updates about the upcoming Republican National Convention, as well as a myriad of local links to other third party blogs and websites. City Pages also takes advantage of the technical possibilities affo
rded by the Internet by using its web page to host videos and music files, new forms of media originally unavailable to the local newspaper. Almost all Twin Cities publications are creating internet archives, publishing articles online (sometimes web-only articles), and attempting to take in extra revenue from online advertising.The Twin Cities are witnessing a myriad of changes in the way the media interacts with the public and processes and shares information. Changes in technology, economics and citizen lifestyle will all play a vital role in the success and failure of everyone from the Star Tribune to the up-and-coming Minnpost; every variation in the media institution remains vulnerable to economic sustainability and relevance. As Vita.mn, The Daily Mole and others are showing, there is clearly a demand for a unique, localized voice to help us wade through the complex political and cultural realms that define our times that also asks for reader input and response. Perhaps the only way to ensure the continued survival of these vital journalistic institutions is to continue to support these local publications by demanding their relevance and accuracy. In short, don’t be afraid to pick up a few of the alt-weeklies waiting for you at Dunn Bros. next time you stop in for a latte; the future of localized journalism might just depend on it.