11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hoping to Compensate for Their Waning Influence, Alt-Weeklies Sacrifice Quality for Sensory Overload

Anyone involved in journalism or interested in journalism or interested in anyone who's involved or interested in journalism knows that journalism is in the midst of an existential crisis equal in size and severity to the one Hollywood went through when it discovered sound and silent-movie titans like Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford were suddenly staring into the abyss of irrelevance and realizing that the abyss was too busy going to the movies to stare back at them.

It's not surprising in this bold new age of 24-hour "tweeting" and lightly researched celebrity-gossip rustling that institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post would begin to feel hoary and tired. What is surprising, however (especially for those of us raised in a particular era), is that alternative weeklies -- which for years were the model for cool, relevant, dangerous, cutting-edge journalism -- are starting to feel like dinosaurs as well. Anyone who grew up reading the Washington City Paper or the Village Voice or the Los Angeles Weekly can be forgiven for assuming that the alt-weekly model would exist forever. Like indie rock, alt-weeklies always seemed like an unshakable bastion of uncorrupted cool in a world of over-commercialized blandness and a fundamental component of an ill-spent adolescence.

But those days are over. There is no street cred anymore. Readers who were raised on the alt-weekly model can't possibly justify waiting until Thursday anymore to find out where and when and why some movie is showing or some band is playing or some political catastrophe is occurring, not when their computers and phones are 24-hour sources of freshly updated information.

And for the younger generation, who formed relationships to media in a time when immediacy and convenience were everything, the alt-weekly model isn't just dying -- it never existed in the first place.

Alt-weeklies are in a tough spot. Their authority -- which came from the daring of their investigative reporting and the conviction, attitude, and obscurity of their cultural opinions ("Antonioni-syntax revamp," is an actual phrase once seen in a Voice movie review) -- was always the source of their attraction and influence. The reason you read them every week is because you were convinced they were cooler than you, that they knew more than you, that they were plugged into something you weren't but wanted desperately to be. But authority doesn't mean anything anymore. This isn't an age of expertise or approbation; it's an age of access. People searching for information these days are much less concerned with journalistic boldness or critical acumen than simple availability; they just want as much of it as possible, to sift through and judge as they please.

For alt-weeklies, it hasn't been enough to just acknowledge that print media is dying and then build a Web site. They've had to resign themselves to the democratic vastness of the Internet, to the sheer unlimited expanse of the information readers have access to (and may be producing themselves) at any time, to the idea that the only way to stay relevant is to provide as much of their own information as possible.

And so they've turned Internet publication into a game of expansion, overload, and saturation. They've filled their payrolls with bloggers and aggregators and gossips and spies and told them to update constantly, hoping they can attract more young people, with their wide eyes hungry for new stimuli and their teeming brains starving for novelty.

Just look at the Web sites of some of the biggest alt-weekly newspapers. The amount of information available on their home pages is enough to rattle Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. I look at the headlines on the LA Weekly home page -- "LAUSD's Finest: Los Angeles School Police," "Antonio Villaraigosa: Overkill Mayor of the World," "When Bad Things Happen to Funny People," "Gold's 99: Where's the Fire?," "Headless Woman: Seeing but Not Seeing," "Hail the Conquering Chicken," "Cat Fanciers Unite in Santa Monica," "The Last Supper: Masonites Converge at El Coyote," "Brick's Picks: Festival of Nations," "Inside a Filthy, Hazardous Hollywood Slum," and "Apparently, 'Dogoo' means 'Magic Breasts'" are just a few notables this week -- and my brain shuts down. The site isn't just imposing; it's exhausting. It's intimidating. Words stacked upon words stacked upon pictures stacked upon links stacked upon advertisements stacked upon comments stacked upon personal ads stacked upon more words stacked upon more pictures stacked upon...

In the desperate rush to keep up with a culture that becomes less interested every day in reading anything more than 140 characters long, alternative weekly newspapers -- once models of journalistic pickiness and severity -- have decided to follow a strategy of sensory overload and diminishing discrimination.

I don't blame them for this approach. God knows no one else has figured out a more effective means of keeping readership up in our non-literate era. These are desperate times, and as the clock continues to count down to the inevitable demise of alternative weekly journalism, the time has apparently come for desperate measures.