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I Cover the Waterfront: On the Alt-Weekly

By WILL DIGRAVIO

Three weeks ago I touched on the importance of original reporting in this column, and argued that the blogosphere would never replace traditional media because the very existence of news relies on reporters immersing themselves in their respective beats.

In that column, I mentioned newspapers like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe, but failed to discuss the role of alternative newspapers like The Village Voice, the Washington City Paper and Vermont’s own Seven Days, cofounded by Paula Routly ’82.

Given their independence and weekly print schedule, alt-weeklies historically have been able to produce some of the country’s finest investigative reporting. Take, for example, last month, when a pair of journalists at the Phoenix New Times, an alt-weekly based in Phoenix, Az., published a story that unveiled how local Motel 6 chains were handing over guest lists to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency commonly referred to as ICE.

One of the story’s coauthors was Joseph Flaherty ’15, who headed The Campus during the 2014-2015 academic year. The report came after Flaherty and his colleague Antonia Noori Farzan received a tip that ICE agents were raiding local Motel 6 locations on a regular basis.

“All we knew was there was talk of undocumented guests being picked up frequently at area motels, and that immigration attorneys were concerned. But we didn’t know the chain of events that led to undocumented guests being arrested after check-in,” Flaherty told me.

“Was it a lone front-desk clerk who was racially profiling guests, placing a call to ICE based on someone’s I.D. or surname? Were the arrests a product of regular police activity at the motels? Or — as it eventually turned out — was it a routine process where the guest list was sent directly to ICE on a nightly basis?”

After New Times published the story, Motel 6 said the practice had taken place unbeknownst to senior management and would be discontinued.

Flaherty believes he and Farzan received the tip because they had experience covering immigration and ICE-related stories in Phoenix.

“From the source’s perspective, my guess is that we seemed like reporters with a proven track record who could cast a critical eye on motel practices related to ICE,” he said. “It probably goes to show that as you report on a subject and establish yourself, sources start to come to you.”

Unlike daily papers, alt-weeklies are not obligated to churn out copy and report news as it breaks. Instead, they are able to focus on important stories we don’t yet know we need to know. With this flexibility, reporters at alt-weeklies can immerse themselves in stories in ways that reporters at daily newspapers or websites may not be able to do.

“In order to track down which Motel 6 locations were responsible, we had to do a deep dive into court records — making note of the motel addresses where arrests occurred, calling attorneys to verify details, and so on. This isn’t to say that a daily couldn’t report this story, and we certainly had to do our fair share of juggling other stories while reporting it,” Flaherty said.

“But cities need publications that are willing to report aggressively and invest time where other news outlets might not. From my perspective, that’s the definition of an alt-weekly.”

Deep dives into local stories with a national twist are a staple of the alt-weekly, and part of what makes them a central piece of American life and journalism. However, this importance does not make them immune to the financial woes that have beleaguered the newspaper business for, well, practically my entire life.

In August, The Village Voice, the country’s foremost alt-weekly, announced the end of its print edition and the beginning of a new, online-only platform. When the decision was made, many Voice devotees deemed it the end of an era.

Though he was sad to see the print edition end, Flaherty is optimistic that alt-weeklies can thrive in the digital age. Last month, after New Times published his piece, it garnered significant attention online, especially on Twitter, which is where I found it.

“Watching a story like this one get picked up and shared everywhere is thrilling and definitely doesn’t happen everyday,” he said.

For Flaherty, online news is the future, in part because it has the unique ability to bring together readers from different locales, and allows for a greater back-and-forth between reporters and their readership. At the end of the day, what’s worth protecting is not the print edition, but the dogged, pavement pounding reporting itself.

“There will always be a place for alt-weeklies and magazines in the digital age,” Flaherty said. “Readers are still going to want the incisive writing and feature-length reporting that these publications offer, whether they’re paging through a physical copy at a newsstand or clicking on the latest story that everyone on Twitter is talking about.”

Will DiGravio is the managing editor of this paper.

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