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As NOW marks 40 years, Norm Wilner assesses the past and future of alt weeklies with a panel of industry trailblazers
NOW is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year – as you might have noticed – so for this week’s episode of the NOW What podcast I thought I’d step back and consider the larger impact of alt weeklies on journalism and arts coverage over the years.
NOW didn’t emerge from a vaccuum; indeed, the paper’s arrival in 1981 came somewhere around the peak of North America’s alternative weekly boom, when U.S. papers like the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, the L.A. Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian were regularly breaking crucial political and cultural news. So I reached out to Michael Hollett and Susan G. Cole, respectively NOW’s co-founder and former senior entertainment editor Susan G. Cole, and to Tim Redmond, formerly the executive editor of the Bay Guardian, to talk about where alt weeklies came from, what they’ve accomplished and what might lie ahead for us all.
“The Bay Guardian’s motto was ‘We print the news and raise hell,’” Redmond explains. “The vision was to offer an alternative to the moribund, boring daily newspapers in San Francisco. We always used to say the Examiner and the Chronicle cover the city from the top of the Transamerica Pyramid down, and we covered the city from the bottom up. We looked for the stories they wouldn’t do, and the arts and entertainment they wouldn’t [consider], and we covered San Francisco culture in a way the daily newspapers couldn’t and wouldn’t do.”
Hollett and co-founder Alice Klein’s impetus for launching NOW was much the same.
“Tim describes the motivation very well,” Hollett says. “That was what we wanted to do, too… give voice to the voiceless, but also bring in those voices, and have them be a part of what we did. There was a huge cultural scene being ignored [by the daily papers].”
“I was at college in the United States, in Boston, between 1970 and 74,” Cole recalls, “and there were not one but two papers there, the Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper. It was just so thrilling to get ahold of those things every week… and [they] not only covered news and entertainment in that profoundly political way, as a form of advocacy journalism, but listed every single thing that was going on in our cities. And nobody else was doing that. And I remember, when I came to Toronto and found out about NOW, how completely thrilled I was to see it and how I really couldn’t wait to get involved in it, in whatever way I could.”
A key difference from the more august daily newspapers was the willingness of alt weeklies to bring people on board from all walks of life, whether or not they’d had formal journalistic training.
“We developed new writers who went on to be some of the top journalists in the country,” Redmond says. “People who were just out of school, people who had dropped out of school – people who had crazy ideas could come to us.
“One of our best investigative reporters – a guy who’s now a groundbreaking investigative reporter for ProPublica – never went to college. He was a printer, and he was working on printing magazines, and he decided, ‘I actually don’t want to print these anymore, I want to write for them.’ So he started working with us, and he developed with us, and he became one of the top investigative reporters in the country. We went out and we found new talent, raw as it may be.”
NOW’s been something of a talent incubator as well, notes Cole. “Cameron Bailey, who’s now the [co-]director of the Toronto International Film Festival, wrote film reviews for NOW. Matt Galloway, who now hosts CBC’s The Current, was NOW’s music editor decades ago. Many people came through.”
Hear the entire conversation in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, which also features filmmaker Michael Showalter discussing his new film The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. Available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or streamable right here:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday,