Progressive Alternative Media: Wither Art Thou?
In my mid-twenties, I came back from a road trip across America in a VW bus. I had little plan for my future until I picked up a copy of an alternative weekly newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird, and saw a small ad: Wanted: Local News Reporter. I interviewed with the entire staff of 12 and was hired! Thus began my journey into the bowels of Atlanta policy and politics, and progressive political theory. Although now almost forgotten in the Atlanta hustle, the Bird published weekly from 1968-1976 and was considered one of the best and most successful examples of alternative or underground newspapers around the country.
Happily, all the issues of the Bird are digitized and searchable at the archives at Georgia State University. “The Bird stood out among the alternative press for the quality of its writing, its cover art and its fearless opinions and reporting on a range of topics—national and local politics, the counterculture, women’s issues, gay liberation, reproductive choice, music, art, and more,” according to an introduction to the archives of the Bird. But no Atlanta area news outlet has effectively and consistently emerged to fill the gap in independent news and culture coverage quite like the Bird did.
The local and national media market, and the economics of media have changed drastically since the hard-scrabble days of The Great Speckled Bird. The ever-increasing media consolidation, loss of advertising, and the rise of the digital age, with both the internet and social media, have drastically changed the media landscape.
As one gauge, the number of daily newspapers has dropped significantly creating news deserts, and fewer and fewer Americans use newspapers as a major news source. There has been a decline in the quality of journalism, “The content of many newspapers today that is being produced is minimal at best. So much of what we see of newspapers today is really focused on simply providing content packaging around advertising,” observes Ann Hollifield, retired professor at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
We have the flip side of news deserts: there are too many voices. According to Hollifield, “Every time you post to Facebook or send a tweet you're competing with the AJC and the NYTimes for the audience's time and for advertising. One of the big issues is that Facebook and Google and the other digital platforms have far more effective mechanisms for targeting local audiences for local advertising. So increasingly, they are skimming off local advertising from traditional media.”
There is a real question of whether we should feel sorry for the shrinking of traditional corporate media. The Atlanta Journal Constitution owned by Cox Enterprise has for decades been a mouthpiece for the business community and a booster for development and corporations. There are countless examples down through the years of this boosterism and uncritical reporting, but one clear example happened less than two weeks ago, when the AJC published a staff written editorial, (which it doesn’t often do), advocating for the Atlanta Prison Farm to be leased to the Atlanta Police Foundation to construct a $90 million public-private funded police and fire training facility. The piece originally omitted that Alex Taylor, Cox Enterprise President and CEO is also the chair of the effort to raise private money for this effort. After being called out, the paper did insert wording in later editions, acknowledging its corporate involvement, but did not issue a formal correction. The AJC continues its tradition of serving the interests of the business community, which in this case seems to have determined that a new training facility will help reduce crime.
There are competent, well meaning reporters and staff of the AJC. But the business model of the company is to make a profit for the owners, and to sometimes serve as part of the Atlanta boosterism team. These goals often interfere with quality content.
Bright Spots: In a way, Georgia and particularly metro Atlanta are in the middle of a perfect storm, which is shifting the political dynamics of our state and its media eco-system. Because of the hard work of Democratic candidates, progressive non-partisan civic engagement organizations, and changing demographics, Georgia has become a political battleground state. It was recently reported that our rate of voter registration is one of the highest in the nation. It seems that we have a more engaged, and informed citizenry. And, for better or worse, we’ve stepped into the national media spotlight with frequent articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal among others. This type of extractive reporting, when a reporter flies in, interviews a few people, and writes something that purports to be the true picture is sometimes misleading. But generally, the national attention has been helpful in shining a light and exposing problems in our state.
This national attention is likely to continue. Propublica last fall announced it will establish local news bureaus around the country, including a seven person unit in Atlanta to cover southern states, including Georgia. Another new media outlet is Capital B describing itself as a “Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country, launching fall 2021.” Capital B will also be headquartered in Atlanta.
There are a few Georgia focused news outlets worth noting. The Georgia Recorder is a nonprofit on-line news source offering quality journalism focusing on state policy without the fluff of legacy newspapers like the AJC. Another bright spot worth following is The Current, an on-line source with the tagline “in depth journalism for coastal Georgia.” Also, Canopy Atlanta is a non-profit using a model of community powered journalism, which produces some nice articles and engages neighborhood folks in the process of identifying issues and then reporting and writing articles.
Other news options: Email newsletters are another type of news source that readers can sign up for. Most are free. A number of established journalists for major outlets are starting newsletters, and independent writers are publishing them also. Heather Cox Richardson’s national newsletter is a notable example, and my Political Peach is focused solely on Georgia. Lastly, social media is a source with which we all have a love-hate relationship. But I want to put in a plug for Twitter, which for all its faults and frustrating features, can be an effective source of news and information if managed with a firm hand.
The most refreshing of the alternative news outlets in Atlanta is a fairly new, explicitly progressive, news source called Mainline that provides well-written news articles and also covers music and other Atlanta culture. It describes itself as an independent-women-led magazine that is explicitly antiracist and antifacist. In addition to its website, they also have both an email newsletter and a podcast. Recent issues it has covered include the Atlanta Prison Farm controversy. Other articles it has recently posted are here.
Founding editor and publisher Aja Arnold says, “We are an alternative or alt news source. It has evolved after the murder of George Floyd to keep up with what is going on in the community. We try to speak truth to power. We’re an explicitly anti-racist press, which I think is vital for Atlanta.”
Good quality, independent journalism is critical to the functioning of democracy. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as an acknowledgment that an informed citizenry is a necessary condition for democracy. By definition, the press should be free of government or business control or even influence. Atlanta needs a variety of voices, and voices that can be independent and fearless. Our city will be a better and more vibrant place as a result.