Conventional thinking

Alt-weekly convention brings grim news, but we look to Grace Lee Boggs for hope

As if the crew here at News Hits didn't have enough to be depressed about already, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia rolled into town last week for its annual convention, towing clouds of gloom.

Sure, there was much frivolity and a river of free booze for conventioneers. Laughs were also plentiful, especially when Baratunde Thurston — author, comedian and Onion alum — delivered a hilarious keynote talk to close things off on Saturday. 

But much of what we heard only reinforced the long-held perception that ships are sinking all around us, and no one really knows exactly what can be done to survive, let alone thrive. Be it alternative publications like this one, the newspaper industry in general, the city of Detroit, or the macroeconomic picture, there's a sense that the ground is shifting beneath us and firm footing is a scarce commodity.

The tone was set from the get-go when we attended a session featuring Marilyn Geewax, who oversees coverage of business news for NPR. In addition to three decades as a reporter, Geewax has studied economics and international relations at Harvard, and has a graduate degree in international economic affairs from Georgetown University.

In other words, she really knows her shit. And though she did her best to be objective, which is what the mainstream media is supposed to be, it was hard not to see someone who is worried abut the future — at least in the short term.

Looking at the fallout from the Great Recession, Geewax noted, "We will all be hurt by this forever. Will live with the consequences of this for the rest of our lives. Everybody has lost ground."

The collapse of the housing market — not just here but around the country — has had negative ramifications beyond the obvious widespread depletion of wealth it caused. For one thing, she said, the fact that so many people are underwater on their mortgages — owing more than their home's are worth — has widely inhibited the ability of people to migrate to those places in the country where jobs are plentiful, adding to the impediments standing in the way of economic recovery. 

Some positive things are going on. For example, there's been slight growth in private-sector jobs, with agriculture and the auto industry doing well. And because of fracking, there is a glut of natural gas. Geewax went so far as to talk about an "age of energy abundance."(Anyone interested in learning about the environmental and health consequences of the natural gas boon should check out the documentary Gasland to help keep things in perspective.)

But those rays of sunshine are struggling to break through persistent economic stormy weather. There's the foreclosure crisis, for instance: "We're nowhere near the end of that," said Geewax.

And then there's the massive load of student debt that's going to be a drag on the economy far into the future. For one thing, that debt is going to impede the ability of younger people to become homeowners; they won't be able to get a mortgage because of the massive amounts of money they already owe on student loans, which can take decades to pay off.

So who is going to be there to buy the houses of baby boomers as they head into retirement and look to cash out? 

There is, of course, always the possibility that some new technology will emerge that changes everything for the better. Around the time the 19th century was becoming the 20th, for example, major metropolitan areas around the world were facing what seemed to be the completely intractable problem of horse manure. There was just way too much crap to deal with, and the widespread concern was that cities like New York and Paris and London would literally be buried in shit. Then along came the automobile, causing a seemingly insurmountable problem to become almost immediately irrelevant.

So, there's no telling what saving grace may be waiting just over the horizon.

And what about the news business, which Geewax has been in for 30 years?

"I have no idea where it's going," she said. "It's a wild ride. All the business models are changing, collapsing."

Detroit has been at the forefront of that change. Just more than three years ago, the Detroit News and Free Press stopped home delivery four days a week. At the time, the move was described as an experiment the rest of the industry would be watching.

Last week The Times-Picayune of New Orleans announced that it would be introducing a similar model, limiting publication to just three days a week.

"The developments were the latest instance of reorganization in a rapidly changing industry, which continues to struggle with declining advertising revenue and the changing preferences of readers for online news outlets," explained The New York Times.

The nation's paper of record added this observation from Ken Doctor, a consultant to the newspaper industry: 

"This is a forced march to digital, brought on by the fact that advertising this year has declined so much more than the industry expected. Everyone knows that print editions are going the way of the steam engine, but I question whether they have the readiness to make this switch in such a hurry."

Now, we are not experts on the business side of the newspaper business, but we have yet to talk with anyone who can point to a model that has online advertising supporting an enterprise that encompasses all the functions traditionally supplied by newspapers.

We're certainly biased when it comes to evaluating the importance of those various functions, but we're far from alone in thinking that having a free and independent press serving as a watchdog on the powers that be is a crucial component to our democracy. 

That, in fact, is one of the points made by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Obviously, he's a guy with way more brainpower than the crew here at News Hits. But Zuckerman only told us that it was important to keep on doing the heavy lifting of journalism, not how we can continue to pay people to do it.

As the conference went on, and we did our best to keep paying attention through a hangover haze that grew denser by the day, we began to see a theme in all this, and how in some ways all these problems were connected to an overall decline.

It continued on through Saturday afternoon, when historian, author and Detroit native Thomas Sugrue — the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania — sat down for a Q&A with W. Kim Heron, editor of this rag.

Among the other things touched upon in a wide-ranging conversation is the fact that, while the problems facing Detroit might be happening here on a bigger scale, they aren't fundamentally different from the maladies any number of big cities across the country are struggling to deal with. Sugrue is another guy who's blessed with way more than his fair share of gray matter, but he, too, is left at a loss when it comes to knowing exactly how you solve a problem as big as Detroit.

Certainly, a federal government that pursues an urban policy designed to uplift Detroit and its big-city brethren, is key to that. Unfortunately, the hope that Barack Obama — a black Democrat from Chicago — would deliver just that has been transformed into disappointment. Big cities, it appears, just don't have the political clout to bring about the change that they need.

But even the pessimists here at the Hits need to hold on to some hope. In this case, it comes in the form of Detroit philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, who, near her 97th birthday, retains hope of a better future. 

If we understand her point of view, it's that the world as we know it will continue to crumble. Detroit is perhaps our most stunning example of how our current system has failed us. But if we are to survive the collapse, we have to rely not on our leaders but on each other.

What will sustain in the long run is community.

And though it wasn't talked much about in the convention sessions we attended, there is a lesson for alternative papers in what Boggs has to say. If we are to survive, we can't just deliver information. 

Building and sustaining community is vital for us all. Our future depends on it.

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