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Watchdogs or Lapdogs?

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Illustration by Alexandra Westrich

Tamed alternative papers join mainstream media’s hunger for profit

What you have in your hands is part of a dying breed. This collection of pages you are reading right now belongs to a league of media that is slowly disappearing from the Chicago landscape.

We’re talking about locally owned independent newspapers and magazine publications. The recent sale of the homegrown Chicago Reader to a Tampa, Fla.-based media company, Creative Loafing, has us wondering, will truly alternative publications soon be a thing of the past? And if so, how will this affect the arts scene?

Newspapers and magazines of all kinds are in a panicked, vulnerable state right now. This is true even for hip and in-the-know city weeklies. You know, the ones that supposedly have an independent voice unaffected by corporate dictates.

However, publication companies that have long been venerated for fostering critical, city-savvy and locally-informed writing lately resemble their mainstream media counterparts.

Village Voice Media was born of a cross-nation merger and has since been busy buying up local weeklies around the country. Media-insider blogs have condemned it for squashing inventive music criticism in favor of bland, affirmative writing deployed to attract more advertisers.

Creative Loafing seems to be following in Village Voice’s footsteps, buying publications in far-flung cities. The inevitable result is that loyal readers fear a change in content, and staff anxiously wonder about their jobs. While the Creative Loafing’s CEO, Ben Eason, has been reported as saying there is no plan to make major changes to the Reader’s writing staff, one must keep a skeptical outlook. After all, Eason is on the other side of editorial—the side that calls newspapers “products,” the side that panics over the successes of Amazon and Craig’s List, and, let’s face it—the side that values the quantity and revenue-raising potential of advertisements over the quality of content.

Some might argue that it’s natural for the suits of publications to focus on advertising over content. How else will these sinking ships stay afloat?

See, this is where print media leaders have it wrong. As high-ranking editors fearfully nest under the guidance of profit-minded publishers and marketers, news publications are pressured to dumb-down their content, emulate tabloids and produce paper versions of daytime television.

Cheap freelancers replace expert staff writers, and editors panic at the sight of copy that could offend readers or advertisers. Thus begins a downward spiral that dilutes informed arts criticism, carefully crafted artist profiles, and accurate and well-selected information about upcoming events.
When larger, corporate-owned publications drop staffers and writers, visual arts coverage is often the first to go. That makes alternative publications as we know them even more relevant for arts coverage. But now they’re at risk of neglecting this important role by following the blind and tight-fisted business model of mainstream media companies like Gannett Inc. and Lee Enterprises.

Is this really what the public wants? The transformation of these publications typically leads to loss of loyal readers and failure to pick up new ones. Because, let’s face it, newspaper readers are a unique bunch in the first place. They read local publications for in-depth, detailed and insightful content that poorly trained bloggers and hype-oriented broadcasters don’t provide. Diluting their last refuge for information and cutting out the viewpoint for which independent publications are famous will alienate discriminating readers.

Do the business-minded folks even know this?

To answer that, we’d have to find out if they read such “products” in the first place. We have a feeling that if they did, this publication sea-change would be a little easier for everyone to handle.

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