Déjà vu

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Arthur Miller, 1961

Photo Illustration By Don Button

While I lament the diminishment of daily newspapers and fear the loss entirely of the journalism they provide our societies, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of alternative newsweeklies. There are many parallels today to the reasons we started alternative newspapers some 30 years ago.

Those were the days of civil-rights marches across the South, protests against the Vietnam War, women fighting for equal rights and the nascent environmental movement. We didn’t trust the mainstream press because it didn’t really cover the issues we cared so much about. We didn’t trust the left-wing press coverage either, because it was slanted with a strong political agenda.

We came to believe our job was to tell stories in a different way, exploring a variety of truths and points of view. The local daily newspaper in Santa Barbara, where we worked on one of the nation’s first alternative newspapers in 1973, wasn’t covering the women’s movement, the environmental movement or the anti-war movement in any serious way. These issues had huge impacts on our lives at the time. Take the women’s movement, for example. It was changing the way men and women related to each other and it was increasing opportunities available for women, but reports of bra-burnings didn’t begin to get at the scope or importance of the changes occurring. The daily press ignored these issues, while the left-wing press told a one-sided story that left me feeling manipulated and uninformed. That’s why we sought to offer an alternative. We wanted to create a community where people could speak to each other across socio-economic and political divides.

Weekly alternative papers are affected by the changed market, too, but I believe it’s essential that we continue to bring another perspective to issues like global warming, sustainable living, an immoral war in Iraq, crippling political and social polarization, devastation of community in America, and the future of American society. These are the issues that—like those we covered in the 1970s—are not being discussed seriously in the mainstream press. They will continue to form the core of our discussion for today’s generation of alternative readers.

The level of our shared discussion needs to be lifted up. Why are we spending so much time on things like Janet Jackson’s mammary glands, flag burning or whether it’s OK to put a Christmas tree on public property? How can someone be more concerned about gay marriage than global warming? It’s beyond me.

I believe people are concerned about more than these inconsequential things—that, like me, they’re concerned about how they live today and the legacy they’ll leave for their children. As I did when I first got into alternative newspapers 33 years ago, I hope that our newspapers can carve out a viable economic niche to be able to play a role in giving people information about these issues so we can work together to make things better.

I believe today, as I did in 1973, that sometimes the leaders are better than the people, but sometimes the people are better than the leaders. I see our role as continuing to play a part in giving our fellow citizens the information they need so they can do the right thing.