Sunday, June 16, 2024



Local alternative media are getting better. Almost all.

Most noteworthy in a tight pack is the website of Spare Change, because many people might not think to check it out – being a street paper, much of it by and for the homeless and sold only by official homeless vendors, Spare Change has a reputation of being a thing you buy to be a good person, tuck in your bag and forget until you recycle it, also to be a good person.

Interim Editor-in-Chief Joshua Eaton has made the paper feel more vigorous and engaged than predecessor the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, whose approach to social justice was strong but intellectualized and whose redesign of interior pages used large expanses of gray and small headlines. Aside from the puzzle pages, it made demands of readers whose very readership was all too often already a favor to the producers.

Turning Spare Change into a kind of academic journal didn’t work, and Eaton has been smart in working the fringes of its mission of “inequality, homelessness, culture and resistance” to look recently at health care, medical marijuana dispensaries and outrages such as those facing Fanchon Fetters, who was evicted from transitional housing after a six-month terminal diagnosis of breast cancer. The part-time, low-paid nature of the Spare Change editorship and its nature as a ragtag nonprofit with a directing board of nonjournalists doesn’t always allow for strong, fast changes, even when the changes are good, so what Eaton is doing is impressive.

But the best thing he’s done? The brand-new Spare Change website, which looks great and directs readers to content in a better, more sophisticated way then ever before. The downside is that Spare Change content is suddenly available for free, but there are likely way too few people buying the paper for the free content to outweigh the upside: Making it easier and simpler for people to discover what the paper does can show value and stimulate street sales.

Since the alternative really comes down to having no website at all, Eaton’s online redesign (and accompanying slow-motion tweak of the print edition, which comes out every two weeks) is actually pretty spectacular, if best appreciated by people who suffered through the site’s previous version.

To emphasize how well Eaton did on the redesign, check out the far bigger Open Media Boston, which fights the good fight on coverage of labor and similar issues but did a recent online revamp that is sadly dull, dry and awkward. The topics it covers would do better with a site that reflects urgency, but the site is discouraging, like a company newsletter that has been dragged to the Web for reasons unclear to the people doing it.

With The Phoenix’s death in Boston a little more than a year ago went a news force that had been covering and crafting local culture for nearly a half-century. Predictably, much of the effort that had been energizing the Phoenix went online, most directly to Vanyaland (a 10-person somewhat national music site led by Michael Marotta, the Phoenix’s music editor as it died) and The Media (a purposefully retro, charmingly and eccentrically clunky site by the Phoenix’s Liz Pelly that goes well beyond arts coverage and embraces an alt ethic so fully that it rejects ads), but also to Vanyaland competitors such as Sound of Boston.


The Boston Compass stepped up as the Phoenix went down. Essentially the zine of music promoter the Boston Hassle, the Compass arrived at a 50th issue in March that keeps showing improvement and growth from its musical mission, over the months adding regular coverage of art and film and a full page of alt-comedy (and nearly a separate full page of alt-comix).

The Compass has a print design aesthetic meant to induce anger in the olds: The type is tiny and san-serif and the editors’ approach to layout is equal parts psychedelia and whimsy. The website is more mainstream, but there’s also nothing too notable about it, while the print edition is strikingly idiosyncratic.

But it’s also evolving toward a helpful consistency, moderating the weirdness a bit for a cleaner, just a wee bit simpler feel that gives the sense it’s keeping its creativity while becoming a genuinely valuable resource to a wider community. It makes sense that the collective behind the Compass is now seeking direct reader support of as little as $2 per month and advertising for grant writers for all its efforts, including funding for music festivals and a bricks-and-mortar all-ages hangout and performance space.


DigBoston has been the Phoenix’s most direct competitor since 1999 and became default inheritor of its position in the city, but that doesn’t mean it leaped automatically to fill the gap in news needed by the 99 Percent. Editorially, its default positions are snark, which can be tiresome, and lifestyle coverage, which means when its pages slim down it’s actual news and opinion that gets lost in favor of beer columns and shopping features.

But Dig is thickening up again, and publisher Jeff Lawrence made smart promotions in September: Dan McCarthy as editor and Chris Faraone, the politics pro of Phoenix fame, to news and features editor. That’s paying off in more hard-news substance even as Faraone uses some of his time for such tasks as a review of local jukebox joints.

The Dig print redesign unveiled over the past couple of weekly issues makes big strides in good directions. The typography and graphics are better; the paper even seems to be printed better, with crisper blacks, although that may just be luck of the press run. The website is still pretty bad, though, with transparent blocks that result in layering this color picture over that color picture next to lots of color ads around what is actually a pretty dully typical reverse chronological blog format. At least the staff has eliminated the giant, colored text it used to break up the gray in stories; for anyone conditioned to giant, colored text being quotes or paraphrases from a story and not part of the flow of the story itself, like in most media everywhere, this was jarring and confusing.

Dig has been a better, more substantive and fulfilling read in the past few weeks. Not everything works: There are short takes on the paper’s “News & Opinions” front that get the headers of “Boston Bastards,” “Somerville Sleazes” and “Cambridge Curmudgeons” with no connection to the content they’re heading, a supposedly cute but ultimately confusing conceit that should be abandoned immediately. And Media Farm is better, but still a long, long ways from the incisive take on Boston media it was years ago.

Overall, the trend is exciting. In print and online, our regional media are alive and looking healthier than they have in a long time – without apparent compromise to their various missions.