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Whither Alt Weekly Newspapers (and Their Education Coverage)?

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There's a provocative opinion essay in The New York Times today from an editor at the Baltimore City Paper, an alternative weekly that is being acquired by the Baltimore Sun Media Group, the publisher of that city's old-school daily newspaper.

"For many people, the alt weekly as a genre is already passé, rendered irrelevant by the rise of the Internet," Baynard Woods, a senior editor at Baltimore City Paper, says in his essay. "But an alt weekly is connected to a city in the way that a website can never be."

"An alt weekly has a staff of paid reporters and editors whose jobs are not only to know the city, but to love it, to hate it, and to be an integral part of it, cajoling, ridiculing, praising and skewering city officials, artists and entrepreneurs alike, while giving voices to the 'city folk,'" Woods writes.

That means in education coverage, too. Alt weeklies don't have the resources of the local daily newspapers, and they're obviously not as focused on school coverage as the newer education-specific print and online publications popping up in many cities. But they do have the perspective to step back for the occasional deeply reported cover story or series that usually has a point of view.

A year ago, in the March 13, 2013, issue of Baltimore City Paper, Edward Ericson Jr. wrote a cover story titled "The Money Pit." It was a detailed, opinionated analysis of what he called the city's "half-baked" $2.4 billion plan to rebuild or replace 136 public school buildings.

"The fact that this enormous, creative, risky push for school financing would deliver just 44 percent of the school system's minimum identified need is obvious to anyone who reads the school system's plan or the IAC report," Ericson wrote. "But it has not been featured in the media coverage of the funding drive."

Other major alt weeklies also prominently cover education in their communities:

  • The Chicago Reader, owned since 2012 by the same company that owns the daily Chicago Sun-Times, has been running a series on poverty and segregation in Chicago's schools, including a report last month on diversity in the city's elite private schools.
  • In 2011, Miami New Times ran "Rotten to the Core," a cover story investigation that exposed flaws in Florida's McKay Scholarships voucher program for students with disabilities.
  • Also in 2011, Phoenix New Times won an Education Writers Association award for "White Lies," a look at opposition to the Latino-focused ethnic-studies program of the Tucson, Ariz., school district.
  • LAWeekly, the popular alternative paper serving Los Angeles, published a lengthy story examining "Why Los Angeles Schoolkids Get Lousy Meals."

"This, then, is lunch in Los Angeles public schools: impossibly short lunch breaks, processed food, unappetizing meals. Even the nutritious items can look so unappealing that kids pass them up," Gendy Alimurung wrote in that 2011 LAWeekly report that also won recognition from EWA. Among her observations: "School principals beg the district to stop sending them grapes because there aren't enough janitors to sweep the floor after lunch period is over."

One of the post provocative alt weekly education stories I can recall came back in 1997, when the nation was embroiled in a debate over a vernacular sometimes called American Black English.

"Ebonics: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ax," a Village Voice cover story said. It's safe to say the story (and headline) caused it a bit of a stir, in part because it was accompanied by a sidebar full of un-politically correct jokes, "Ebonics for Travelers."

In his New York Times piece today, the Baltimore City Paper's Woods notes the demise last year of a venerable alt weekly, the Boston Phoenix and cuts at others, and that many others "have been bought by corporate conglomerates, then thinned out and tamed."

A contrasting view comes from Christina Cauterucci, who wrote a report for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (which counts as members most, if not all, of the papers I have cited above). She says that most alt weeklies have been nimble enough to approach their audience in new ways, mostly on the Web.

"The printed and stapled product you pick up every Thursday at the neighborhood indie coffee shop isn't the main event for most alts any longer," Cauterucci wrote last month. "They're producing videos, making interactive online tools and mining their followers for user-generated content. They're publishing daily content on blogs, updating stories as they develop and using social media for live event coverage."

That may be true, but there's lots of competition on the Web. And those big education stories can look best when they are on the cover of the weekly print publication.

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