The New Alt Media and the Future of Publishing

You might have noticed, it’s not a super fun time to be in the publishing industry, especially if you’re trying to do journalism. The years-long drumbeat of bad news issuing from nearly every newsroom has left people understandably despairing about what’s going to happen next.

I’m not a Pollyanna; I don’t think everything is just magically going to turn out okay. But for the first time in decades, I’m seeing a movement that gives me hope. Call it the New Alt Media.

But first, we probably have to go back a little bit.

Finding a Voice

Early in my career, I was a middling web developer at The Village Voice. The paper was no longer at the peak of its cultural relevance by the time I got there, but it was still a platform that had meaning and reach. I got to witness first-hand when an incredible editorial team covered everything from niche cultural works that I was obsessed with to the biggest story of my young life, when we scrambled to keep the website running on the morning of September 11th.

Recently, my former colleague Tricia Romano put out an incredible oral history of the entire lifespan of the Village Voice, from its start in the 50s to its eventual shuttering in 2017. My tenure was somewhere past the middle of that run, but around the height of the alternative weekly era, when every major city in America had at least one credible, loudmouthed alt weekly offering up horoscopes and personal ads and a little bit of grief for the current inhabitants of City Hall. Tricia’s book reminded me of the context and culture that drew me to that newsroom, even though I was mostly just a kid in the corner peeking at the cool people writing about the cool things. It was a medium that meant something.

“Alternative” is a term that got diluted into meaninglessness sometime during the 1990s, but it’s worth remembering that it once had real significance. It’s impossible to overstate how stuffy and gated the major media of the day was. Alternative music genuinely was made up of songs that wouldn’t get played on the radio. And Alt Media covered topics, issues and communities that were erased from the institutions that shaped culture. As much as we rightly criticize major media for its biases and omissions and distortions today, those flaws were all even more extreme in an era when nobody even trued to hide the fact that they were just making their editorial hiring decisions on the golf course.

So the piercing of that bubble by raucous, unruly, messy alt media created by malcontents was genuinely powerful. To be clear, there were also always a whole bunch of assholes in the alt weekly world — this was still the publishing industry, after all — but every once in a while, a story would slip through the cracks and kind of… change everything.

For me it led to the revelation as a young kid growing up in the middle of nowhere that Prince’s ironic “All The Critics Love U In New York” somehow had something to do with those stacks of Village Voice issues that my best friend’s folks had in their rec room. By the time I made it through the Village Voice's front doors for the first time, I was broke, had almost no friends, didn’t have any connections, and half-bullshitted about my technical knowledge and promised I could make their website better. By the time I got canned less than 2 years later, the social media revolution catalyzed by blogs had taken off. The successor to, and destroyer of, the alt weekly era had begun to emerge. The blogger meetup in 2002 where I introduced Nick Denton to Elizabeth Spiers (they soon created Gawker as the first truly important social media publication), took place down the street from the Village Voice’s offices.

I hadn’t felt that same sense of “this is the future of media” since then, until just the last few months.

A Movement

There’s Flaming Hydra. 404 Media. Defector. Aftermath. Racket. Hell Gate. And so many more. This isn’t a new phenomenon — several of the publications in this broad category have been around for years. But we’ve reached a tipping point, for a number of reasons. The bad ones are obvious: the old news media is truly, finally dying. Distribution by social media collapsed as the neo-fash tycoons swept in. Something something AI.

But there are positive reasons that we’re about to see a truly significant cultural change catalyzed by the new alt media publications, too. Young, engaged audiences give a damn about working conditions for creators, so they like that many of these are workers’ co-ops, and that the rest are mostly non-profits that try to treat their writers well. After years of capture, digital distribution is returning to open formats like email and even the nascent world of the fediverse with its interesting potential for new delivery options. Paying for subscriptions for content has been fully normalized between Patreon and OnlyFans and Dropout and a lot of other human-scale media memberships. Many would much rather pay normal people every month than fork out for yet another corporate streaming service.

And all of that is without even mentioning the important part: these new platforms are telling the stories nobody else is. When local news is hollowed out, when vital beats are neglected, when algorithms are spammed with generative nonsense, audiences that crave relevance or humanity will naturally gravitate to the outlets that offer something real. That’s as fun and interesting and important as the impulses that drove people to first embrace alt media 70 years ago.

Look, I could talk your ear off about how the tech aspect of this alone improves the odds for these new publications. (Content management is business strategy! Open distribution platforms are fundamentally politically radical!) But the more important thing is that regular people, people who aren’t nerds who’ve spent two straight decades worrying about how insufferable writers in Brooklyn can make money publishing snarky but smart shit on the web, are finding value in this work.

And it’s not one or two successes, it’s lots of them. That’s what makes it a movement instead of a moment. That’s not to say they’re all going to work. We still haven’t even had the inevitable giant public flame-outs, or the attacks from the most venal oligarchs, but those times will come.

For now, I’m content to celebrate that we’re in the initial flourishing of an important new wave of media, a movement that will both provide necessary insight and also inspire a new wave of creators and storytellers. May the New Alt Media mean as much to its audience as the first era of Alt Media meant to its time.