The most recent issue of Salem Weekly asks a self-reflective question on the cover: "Can Salem Weekly and Other Alt-Weeklies Survive the Tides of Change?"
I'd include a link to this cover story, but more than a week after the November 23 bi-weekly issue hit the streets, as of this writing the Salem Weekly web site still hasn't been updated to include content from that issue.
Which points to the problem facing Salem Weekly: A.P. Walther, the publisher, is marvelously dedicated to keeping the paper afloat, but along with many other alternative papers around the country, the Salem Weekly ship is understaffed and taking on water, as the cover story says:
Our own local alt-weekly, The Salem Weekly, like all print alt-weeklies these days, faces its own challenges to stay alive and well in the rapidly changing world of print journalism. As it continues its mission to reflect the full spectrum and diversity of Salem's voices in stories offering critical analysis and diverse opinions -- especially of those who are under-represented -- will our paper need to change with the times in order to keep its mission intact?
Almost certainly Salem Weekly will need to change.
Since a Salem Weekly paper box is on the Court Street sidewalk just outside the studio where I have a Tai Chi class on Wednesday afternoon, the usual distribution day, I've observed that the paper has had to postpone publication several times recently. This can't be good, since likely some advertisers would have time-sensitive ads in the paper.
I don't have any firm ideas about how Salem Weekly not only could make it through the rough times besetting virtually all print media these days, but actually thrive as our town's independent journalistic voice.
Along with many others, I just feel it is imperative that this happens.
The Statesman Journal is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Salem with the steady letting-go of staff, notably including the most senior and experienced journalists (who, not coincidentally, also commanded the highest salaries). Often there are only a couple of genuine local stories in our daily newspaper, the rest of the paper being filled with regional wire stories and USA Today sections.
Salem Weekly's cover story addresses a core question: go fully digital or stick with a print edition?
The concerns over the switch from print to digital news begs the question: can digital "newspapers" continue to be the local voice of the people and stay close to the ground on issues that affect the lives of its readers? Or will online news, where geography doesn't matter, lose their local focus?
...Can alt-weeklies survive in our new age of technological Twitter and Instagram, Facebook and Craig's List and a fast-paced culture with shorter attention spans and multiple choices? Or will the news boxes on the street, the stack of free newspapers on coffee house counters and our access to what's actually going on in town disappear?
Can print news survive?
My view is, probably not. There's a large amount of extra cost involved in printing and distributing paper copies of a publication. That money likely would be better spent on reporters, advertising staff, and other employees of alternative papers like Salem Weekly.
Look, as a baby boomer for more than 60 years I'm used to reading newspapers whose pages I can hold in my hands.
But I happily pay $15 a month, or thereabouts, to both the New York Times and Washington Post so I can read those newspapers online. The Times has such a well-designed website, it seems easier to read the digital edition than the paper edition -- especially since I'm mostly interested in the Politics and Opinion sections.
It would be great if Salem Weekly could have both a strong print edition and online presence. However, if the choice is between a faltering print edition and a weak online version, versus a vibrant digital Salem Weekly, I'd take the latter.
I had a look at the Minneapolis alternative paper, City Pages. Its website is clean and attractive. The Advertising page has an interesting comparison of the paper's print readers and online viewers.
The paper's print readership is older and has a lower household income than the online viewers. Salem is a much different town that Minneapolis, of course, but I suspect the same would hold true here. The trick, of course, is getting people to pay for an online Salem Weekly, or at least making the digital version profitable through advertising.
Like I said, I don't have any magic bullets in my mind that could slay the forces working against Salem Weekly's survival as a print newspaper. Salem seemingly is a tougher town for an alternative paper to thrive in than, say, Portland or Eugene.
My personal vision for Salem Weekly, such as it is, tends toward it becoming in part an online clearinghouse or hub for the many progressive/ liberal/ activist/ alternative groups, causes, organizations and such in our town.
Every morning I'd love to be able to click my way to a Salem Weekly website that is up to date on what's happening in Salem politically, culturally, entertainment-wise, and otherwise. I'd enjoy finding links to interesting blog posts, Facebook postings, Twitter tweets, newspaper stories, and other local online offerings -- saving me the time of digging these out myself through my own web browsing.
But this is just me. If Salem Weekly is to survive and thrive, it will need to figure out what a good share of the Salem citizenry wants from an alternative paper. I'm confident it wants something. I'm just unsure what that thing is.