The Universal Notebook: The decline and fall of the alternative weekly

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When people ask me what I’m up to these days, I sometime answer, only half facetiously, “I’m trying not to outlive print journalism, but it could happen.” The long, slow death of print news is all too real in our virtual society.

Last week we learned that the venerable (by alternative newspaper standards) San Francisco Bay Guardian (est. 1966) had succumbed to the digital age, and that the relatively youthful Portland Phoenix (est. 1999) is looking for a buyer in a desperate attempt to avoid the fate of its parent, the Boston Phoenix (1965-2013) and sister Providence Phoenix (1978-2013).

I began my own checkered career in journalism back in 1965, as the high school correspondent for the weekly Westbrook American, so next year I will be marking the golden anniversary of my first appearance in print. Journalism turned out to be just the thing for a nosey and opinionated young man.

But my 50 years in the business corresponds directly with the death of newspapers, so I’m sure I bear a little responsibility for the fate of the medium.

By the time I joined the staff of Maine Times (1968-2002) in 1981, the days of the alternative press were already numbered. Many of my colleagues at Maine Times went on to bigger and better things. Phyllis Austin is the author of “Wilderness Partners: Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park” and a forthcoming book about Roxanne Quimby, entitled “Queen Bee.” Scott Allen is the editor of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team investigative unit. Randy Wilson is the editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. Dennis Bailey is the savvy political operative behind Savvy Inc. (and lead singer with the Bob Band, a Dylan tribute band).

I just keep doing what I do.

I got my real start as a journalist writing for The Portland Independent, the short-lived (1978-79) alternative weekly where I first wrote art criticism and where I made lifelong friends of fellow contributors Don Snyder, a well-known novelist, and environmentalist Bill Hancock. For a meteoric few months, we were the young and the hip.

We had been preceded in that capacity earlier in the 1970s by counterculture activists at the weekly North Country, including artists and activists such as Harlan Baker, Christopher Grasse, Larry Moskowitz and Pierre Shevenell.

When The Portland Independent folded, it was followed in 1981 by The Portland Chronicle and its sister publication about the Portland music scene, Sweet Potato. Those hip urban weeklies eventually begat Casco Bay Weekly (1988-2002), which helped launch the careers of crusaders and commentators such as Monte Paulsen, Wayne Curtis, Hannah Holmes, Liz Peavey and Al Diamon.

For a short time in the 1990s, Maine Times and Casco Bay Weekly co-existed peacefully if uneasily in the same office building on Congress Street. We tended to think of the CBW crew as raw recruits to the cause and I’m sure they must have thought of us as over-the-hill liberal do-gooders. I don’t think either paper ever made any money, but I do like to think they made a difference.

Alternative newspapers tend to last only as long as their owners, in these cases Peter Cox and Dodge Morgan, are willing to lose money in the name of making the world a more just and peaceful place. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the media, especially the alternative media, does have a liberal bias. That’s because young people want to change the world and because conservatives are just not cool.

I don’t think I was necessarily over-the-hill when I left the Maine Times staff to freelance in 1995, but almost 20 years later I’m pretty much there. I have written for magazines and newspapers long enough now that Kathleen Fleury, the editor of Down East, was born the same year (1983) I started writing for the magazine. That pretty much says it all.

There is a bunch of old Maine newshounds that gets together for lunch and reminiscing every few months. Columnist Bill Nemitz and I are the young turks among such journalistic graybeards as Norm Abelson, Gordon Glover, Bob Greene, Jerry Harkavy, John Lovell, Ron Palmquist, Dave Platt, Gene Willman and, occasionally, Jim Brunelle. I like the lunches because they make me feel relatively young.

If Portland Phoenix does disappear, we will still have the eccentric alternative of The Bollard. And now I read that something called Dig Portland is waiting in the wings. There’s always going to be a new generation re-inventing the wheel, but young people these days don’t read newspapers and the classified have all gone online. So I’m not sure who would be starry-eyed enough to start a new publication. Still, I hope the paperless future doesn’t mean we won’t have newspapers.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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