We've been trying to figure that out for 35 years

Someone asked me that question recently, and I opened my mouth and started to talk. It’s a question that comes up enough that I have a couple of standard answers I can riff on. If I’m talking to someone who assumes I work at a daily newspaper when I tell them I’m an editor—“Sun papers?” “No, City Paper”—I usually just say that it’s a free weekly tabloid and most cities have one just like it. If someone’s not just being polite and actually wants to know what an alt-weekly is, I might elaborate that alts like City Paper started out as alternatives to mainstream daily newspapers, with a much heavier focus on local arts, scrappy news coverage, lefty activism, untold stories, etc. I might even invoke the Village Voice, the granddaddy of all alts and a key inspiration for me as a young reader—a big part of the reason I work at an alt now, in fact.

But the person who asked me the question recently knew all that. When she asked me “What is an alt-weekly?” she wanted to know what an alt was in the year 2012. And as that dawned on me, before I actually got any words out, I closed my mouth and thought. It was, as they say, a good question.

For decades, alt-weeklies defined themselves in opposition to mainstream media. If you’d asked me the same question 10 years ago, my answer more than likely could have been boiled down to “Not The Sun. “ No stolid paper-of-record tone. No presumed middle-American, middle-aged, middlebrow filter on language or subject matter. Alts were feisty, upstart, nimble, irreverent, not hidebound and sclerotic, as mainstream print was supposed/stereotyped to be. The daily could break news as it happened and put reporting resources on a story that we never could (and put said story in front of more eyeballs as well), but we were more daring. More gimlet-eyed. More thoughtful. More fun.

But with the rise of the web, both dailies and alts have had to redefine themselves in unexpected and often uncomfortable ways. The Sun started by, well, attempting to become more like City Paper. After the daily cycled through various iterations of its weekly Live supplement, it rolled out faux-alt b, now weekly too. It put more emphasis on nightlife and local music coverage, traditionally the preserve of City Paper, and not just coverage in the classic daily sense, but lively coverage, spread across web-based platforms and social media. And that liveliness isn’t limited to softer topics. The Sun is not the Sun it once was, as many longtime readers and some staffers grumble, but frankly that’s a good thing in some ways.

But more than grappling with each other as competitors/models, both the Sun and City Paper have had to come to grips with defining themselves against the ever-expanding menu of options the web, blogging, social media, and smartphones in every pocket have successively presented to what we once quaintly referred to as readers. We are all awash in “content” (as stories and images are called these days), and every Facebook friend and Twitter tweep serves as another micro-publisher calling for our attention. It makes no more sense for alts to define themselves against dailies or other mainstream press in 2012 than it does for the United States to define itself against the Soviet Union. The game has changed.

That was always the flaw hidden in the “alternative” tag: defining ourselves by what we are not rather than by what we are. That’s not to say that the term has no meaning at all anymore, however. It’s hard to be an upstart outsider at anything for 35 years. In its longevity, its history, its institutional heft, its ongoing newsprint presence, City Paper now has as much in common with the Sun as it does with any of the various actual upstarts that now compete for eyeballs in Baltimore. But the elements that distinguish what an alt-weekly does or should be doing remain in place and remain important, and not just for those of us tasked to carry them out. Looking back over 35 years of City Paper hammers home that, despite the changes in the paper and the city, the current paper has a lot in common today with the paper that Russ Smith and Alan Hirsch co-founded in 1977.

City Paper is all about stories—good stories, unusual stories, told well. And there are still plenty of stories to tell that, it appears, no one else will if we don’t get to them. One example: our ongoing scrutiny of the ways in which Baltimore’s massive drug trade intersects with its legitimate economy. It is exactly the kind of sprawling, complex subject that is increasingly beyond the efforts of a more traditional newsroom, and that can easily overwhelm an amateur “citizen journalist” of the cadre the web was supposed to raise up to replace those of us who get paid now and then. Not that everything we do involves weighty investigative work—you’ve read the paper before this week, right? In any event, while everybody’s prospecting for eyeballs one way or another these days, we try to get them the best way we know how—with stories you won’t see anywhere else.

On the arts front, there are now more publications, web sites, blogs, social-media feeds, and radio programs than I can count devoted to local arts at all levels. And yet, so much of what’s out there is content to cheerlead. Not that there isn’t a lot to cheer for these days in Baltimore, but it is, and has always been in my institutional memory, part of City Paper’s mission to take local arts seriously, and taking something seriously means asking that it stand up to scrutiny and take less-than-glowing reviews in stride. Claws-out criticism of local arts is no more valuable than blatant rah-rah, but criticism and context are just as important as praise, for both readers and artists.

And there are ever more tailored ways for Baltimoreans to learn about upcoming events these days, but that tailoring threatens to funnel the sort of information you get into silos—focusing on what’s happening along Harford Road might mean you miss some of what’s happening in Station North. (And those silos can be cultural as well as geographical.) We strive to make City Paper the most comprehensive source for information on happenings in Baltimore on any given week. Given that there’s so much going on here right now, across neighborhoods and scenes and every other provincial barrier, it’d be a disservice and an embarrassment to do less.

Now, I know as well as anyone else in this city that City Paper has a reputation among many readers for snark, for dwelling on the negative. It’s part of the alt-weekly legacy, and looking back over 35 years of issues, you can make all kinds of cases for it. In the end, we bust on Baltimore now and then because we love it. We disapprove of it sometimes, we marvel at its “issues,” but if we didn’t care about it, we wouldn’t bother. And all the journalistic fairness we do our best to adhere to, all the service-y stuff we roll out, we do because we care about this city and seek to understand what makes it what it is.

What will City Paper be in another 35 years? Who knows, really. But we hope we’ll be growing and changing alongside Baltimore—and yes, continuing to cast a critical eye on what happens here—while retaining the irreverence and character that have gotten us this far. Cheers. Here’s to 35 more.

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