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David and Art - Alternative Newspapers

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

While mainstream news coverage may overlook particular art scenes, there are other ways of putting them in the spotlight.

I was in Austin over the week of Thanksgiving, and, as I always do when I’m there, sought out a copy of the city’s venerable alternative newspaper, the Austin Chronicle. This time I did so in a quiet coffee shop on the Drag. The Chronicle is a weekly that began publication in 1981 and still provides a thorough accounting of the Austin art scene, particularly its music.

When I lived there, the Chronicle gave its readers the clearest sense that something special was percolating in Austin. This was long before marketers turned the city into the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Perusing the Chronicle was the way to find out who was playing where, and the amount of coverage it gave to music—and the arts in general—convinced working musicians that this was a place they wanted to be. To get your first mention in it was to feel like you’d made it.

The country’s first alternative newspaper was The Village Voice, established in 1955 in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was started by novelist Norman Mailer and two other writers. They were convinced that mainstream news outlets completely ignored most of the city’s real artistic energy. Mailer put up $10,000 of his own money to get the paper started and it was he who made up its name. He wanted the Voice to, as he said, “give a little speed to the revolution which is yet to come upon us.”

In general, there’s far more that goes on in any city than the local papers can cover. That’s even more true in our age of shrinking newspapers. The abandonment of arts coverage hardly warrants notice any more, even when it happens in major papers. In general, in the face of “real news,” it seems like the arts are often thought of as some sort of unnecessary adjunct to everyday concerns instead of being an elemental part of what constitutes a good life. As this attitude spreads, alternative newspapers play an even more important role in a city’s art scene.

All that isn’t utilitarian in our culture today, whether in public schools or news broadcasts, becomes disposable, becomes “alternative” in a sense. This is the great power of alternative newspapers: They represent a different testimony of what could be important if materialism and utilitarianism weren’t so dominant in their power.

While an alternative newspaper isn’t a creator of a vibrant arts scene, it’s often the symptom of one. Many cities are simply too small for a regular alternative weekly. But it could also be that in many places there’s still not enough curiosity about things that aren’t completely mainstream.