An Ode to Alt-Weeklies

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This morning, I wrote my final article for Pittsburgh’s City Paper. In the long run, it’s exciting, because I’m moving to another country. But this overcast Monday, the feeling is lukewarm. I have written for City Paper, off and on, since Fall of 2001. I have seen the paper evolve dramatically—from the sloppy, inky, oversized bundle of a decade ago to the sharp-looking newsprint magazine it is today. But it isn’t just leaving City Paper that makes me wistful: It’s taking my leave from alt-weeklies in general.

I love alternative newsweeklies.

Ever since I first picked up a copy of InPittsburgh, I wanted to contribute to its pages. Coming from rural Vermont, I couldn’t believe that such a gutsy, witty, street-savvy publication could exist, much less be available to anybody for free. When arts editor Stephen Segal interviewed me in a spare room at the InPittsburgh office, I was so star-struck that I might as well have interviewed for Rolling Stone. I wrote more than 100 reviews, features, profiles and interviews for InPittsburgh, as well as two first-person cover stories—and all before the age of 22. I wrote two stories about the effects of September 11th. I would have written more, but the paper was bought out and discontinued two weeks after the planes hit the Towers. I was devastated and have never really recovered. I still contend that InPittsburgh was the best alt-weekly ever to stuff a newspaper box.

I begrudged City Paper for defeating InPittsburgh, but I had recently graduated college and needed a job. I wrote briefly for CP before receiving an invitation to “audition” for Seven Days, back in Burlington, VT. I hadn’t expected to return to Vermont, but the idea of writing regularly in my home state was too exciting to refuse. I spent a week in Burlington (appropriately), wrote a couple of features for Seven Days, seemed to impress the editors, and was offered $25,000 a year, plus benefits, to serve as their first-ever staff writer. I was ecstatic.

From the moment I arrived in Burlington, everything went wrong: I moved into a boarding house and was spied on by the landlord; an earthquake rattled my bed frame in the first week; I bought a car, whose engine imploded on the freeway; I moved into a crummy apartment with a suicidally depressed office worker and a sociopathic Satan-worshipper; my long-distance girlfriend broke up with me; a family friend died of a brain tumor; I was nearly arrested for being present at someone else’s drug deal; a guy was shot to death on my street; a drug-addict tried to evade her mother at my house; my best friend’s girlfriend slept with half the city and when I finally told him what happened, she framed me, claiming that was one of those affairs; and—most importantly—the editors of Seven Days seemed to despise me from the moment I arrived, edited my copy to shambles, and fired me after four months, leaving me without a paycheck, insurance, or any kind of future.

(For the record, Paula Routly and Pamela Polston are very strong women who have succeeded in establishing a very respected periodical. On paper, I admire them for it. They are also the most terrible people I have ever met. I do not exaggerate. The. Most. Terrible. People. I pity anyone who ever interacts with them. I would pity them, for having to live with themselves, if they weren’t such incredibly poor excuses for human beings. Just sayin’).

I thought my career was over, and if it weren’t for losing my life’s savings, breaking my lease, selling all my belongings, taking a Greyhound to Pittsburgh in the dead of winter, sleeping on couches for four months, and maxing out a credit card, I would probably still be living with my parents. In part, it was Pulp that got me through that bitterly hard winter—writing news briefs and theatre reviews for $35 a pop. Pulp replaced InPittsburgh, and although its quality was mediocre, Pulp had a lot of chutzpah and personality, and I loved contributing to it. I penned another 100+ articles for that weekly, and (again) would have written more, if the paper didn’t dissolve in 2005. Another one bit the dust.

(Here I should mention The Front, a short-lived “weekly” that attempted to replace Pulp, but aside from its abysmal management, The Front was a pathetic publication, and my contributions were the sloppiest slop in the slop bucket. My one cover story about the Pittsburgh music scene was so awfully researched and written that music poobah Manny Theiner gave me grief about it for half a decade, and I’m pretty sure he still despises me).

So I went back to City Paper.

By this point, CP was the only game in town, and its pages had profoundly improved. Marty Levine—still the greatest news editor I’ve ever worked for—revamped and invigorated the news section, and it was Marty who personally rehired me as a freelancer. I later reported for Charlie Deitch, who isn’t just a kindred spirit in the journalism world, but who probably understands my interests and reporting style as well as any editor I’ve ever worked with. My closest relationship has been with Bill O’Driscoll, the paper’s arts editor, who is not only a terrific editor but also a fellow outdoorsman, theater fan, environmentalist, and all around great guy. Freelancing is a lonely biz, and these guys have done their damnedest to make me feel welcome and included. Movie critic Al Hoff went so far as to invite me out for beer, and we shot the shit one evening in Bloomfield. When we hang out like normal people (which is rare), it feels something like alt-weeklies used to be, in their Village Voice heyday—a countercultural institution, a punk-rock, fight-the-man street-rag.

When my final review hits the presses, this Wednesday, I will have written 194 articles for the paper—plus a few, back in 2001, that predated internet archiving. These include art reviews, book reviews, news items, features, previews, interviews and (mostly) theatre reviews, for which I won two Golden Quill awards. Some of my finest and most eloquent work has debuted in City Paper, including a handful of cover stories. Meanwhile, CP has covered some of my endeavors as well, including an enjoyable interview with editor-in-chief Chris Potter (about my first book) and a very flattering preview of The Mountain.

I’m obligated to fear for the future of alt-weeklies. How will they survive, in the hyperactive world of HuffPo and Tumblr? Weeklies existed before cell-phones and the World Wide Web, when there was still a need for edgy local reporting and zine-like layouts. Weeklies dominated the 90s, because there was no where else a writer could say “fuck” in a headline or a reader could find a shemale escort. Today, such unhinged expression is everywhere, and only a split-second Bing-search away. The death of the Phoenix was crushingly laden with symbolism. I learned the hard way how fragile the weekly can be, much less the freelancer who feasts on its crumbs.

But for now, I’m just proud and grateful. These years have meant difficult, uphill battles, but I also got to hang out with pro wrestlers, grab sushi with Anthony Rapp, and shake hands with Michael Ondaatje. I chatted up homeless people at a Greyhound station and demonstrated Tupperware with a drag queen for a live audience, all in the name of journalism. Indeed, when I went skydiving, I leapt out of that plane to write one of my favorite cover stories. InPittsburgh used to have this terrible advertisement, posted on billboards all over town: “THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE.” It was supposed to be a pot shot at City Paper. But in the narrative of my life, it’s true. There was no alternative. Nor would I have wanted one.

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