Goodbye, Columbus Alive; long live alt-weeklies

The last remaining staffer tries to make sense of how we got here, why it matters and what the future could hold

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Thanks for reading

I never thought I’d be the guy writing a eulogy for Columbus Alive

For one, the final iteration of Alive is the brainchild of former editor Andy Downing. It was his vision that led to the rich, sometimes find-able treasure trove of stories on this clunky, ad-riddled website. But Andy left for another job two weeks ago, just missing his chance at a eulogy (though you should definitely read his goodbye post).

And two, I never thought I’d even work at Columbus Alive. Back in the day, after a stint at Columbus Monthly, I was a regular contributor to The Other Paper, Alive’s onetime rival alternative weekly. Sitting in my Monthly cubicle, I’d eavesdrop on guys like Dan Williamson and Danny Russell arguing and laughing hysterically at our CM Media offices on Sinclair Road. The resulting paper retained a lot of that personality, with sharp critiques, incisive political commentary and doofy jokes. I wanted to be a part of it, so when I left Monthly for the world of freelance journalism, I began writing for Russell and his successor, Eric Lyttle.

In those days, you were either on Team TOP or Team Alive, though I’d argue the division was more playful than caustic — a far cry from the harsh tribalism we see on most issues today (the rival ad departments may have felt differently). I’d bet neither newsroom wanted to see the other one go away; I certainly didn’t. And while Alive, which at that time was newly under the Dispatch umbrella, didn’t have the teeth I was looking for in an alt-weekly, I often had to admit that former Alive staffer Chris DeVille (now at Stereogum) was doing a better job than I was at covering the Columbus music scene.

Alive predates my 2004 arrival in Columbus, of course. If I had the time, and an actual staff, I’d write a story detailing Alive’s long history. Alas, I’m the sole remaining staffer here, and I’m out of time (though somebody out there should write a history of Columbus alt-weeklies, including the Guardian). So here’s the bare-bones version: Columbus Alive was founded in January 1983 (seven years before The Other Paper) by Phil Miller and Pat Schmucki. Sally Crane bought it in 1993, revamped it and later sold it to the Dispatch Printing Company in the fall of 2005. “With the resources available to a company like The Dispatch, this paper's growth will no longer be limited by our advertising base and my pocketbook," Crane wrote at the time. In 2015, the Dispatch Printing Company sold its print assets, including Alive, to New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse Media, which then merged with Gannett in 2019.

It’s a familiar media tale, with multiple local owners giving way to multiple corporate owners, inevitable ad revenue losses, staff cuts, an online pivot to avoid printing costs and, eventually, the death knell. But I’d argue that Alive’s journey took an unexpected turn in the last several years.

***

By the time The Other Paper folded in 2013, I had a bad case of local-itis. I was tired of writing about Central Ohio, particularly the Columbus music scene. I wanted to write stories about topics of national interest, and I wanted to publish them in national outlets. I wanted to have an impact.

For a few years that’s the direction I took, writing fewer local pieces while focusing on freelance stories in outlets like Pitchfork, Spin and BuzzFeed. One of those longform BuzzFeed stories, a heartbreaking look at Columbus musician Brett Helling’s struggles with Empty Nose Syndrome, made some waves locally at about the same time that Andy Downing took the reins at Alive. He reached out after the BuzzFeed story and asked if I had any interest in working at Alive.

My initial reaction? I did not. I wanted to go bigger and bigger. Alive seemed like a hyper-local step backward. But I had a nagging sensation that began to override that gut reaction. For one, the freelance hustle is exhausting and even less lucrative than a full-time journalism salary. But even more than that, I’d noticed a change at Alive. Andy had a vision for what Alive could be, and I liked it. He had an appetite for in-depth, magazine-style feature stories. He saw the arts as a way to explore important cultural issues. Plus, he had a new boss, Ray Paprocki, a journalist with whom I’d worked at Columbus Monthly, and Ray was on board with that vision. Maybe this Alive reboot could actually work.

I joined Andy, Erica Thompson and Jim Fischer, and in no time we were a team, trying with all our might to make each week’s paper better than the last one. Jim covered the gallery and theater scenes, with a little Blue Jackets and beer thrown in. Erica had the “Community” beat, which encompassed all sorts of people and topics, from Confederate cemeteries and Columbus ghosts to local bartenders and the Black Pride 4. Andy and I wrote about the local music scene and anything else that seemed interesting. Longtime Alive contributors like G.A. Benton and Nick Dekker covered the food scene, along with Columbus Monthly’s Erin Edwards. Former Alive staffer Brad Keefe loyally turned in an insightful movie review every single week.

It wasn’t easy to find time for bigger stories, but we made it work. Andy was a writer-editor from the jump, running the ship while writing more than anyone on staff. I have truly never witnessed anyone work harder than Andy Downing, and I grew up landscaping. He didn’t just churn out stories hoping that one out of every five would be worthwhile. He put his all into every single story, and at a rate I still can’t quite fathom. I’ll refer again to his greatest-hits list, which only captures a tiny fraction of the stories this man wrote. With Andy at the helm, we knew we had to bring our A-game every week.

I loved sinking my teeth into big cover stories. I tried to figure out what happened to Joey Labute, who left a Short North bar one night and was found dead in the Scioto River a few weeks later. I told the story of Dale Johnston, who was falsely accused of murder but never got a penny for his years in prison. I got obsessed with affordable housing, looking into Franklin County evictions, the Move to Prosper program and the ejection of low-income seniors from the former Bollinger Tower in the Short North. I tried to restore the dignity of Donna Dalton, who was killed by police.

Andy and I worked together on a deep dive into the past of Andrew Anglin, a Worthington kid who later founded white supremacist website the Daily Stormer. A couple of things happened after that 2017 story: We got death threats, and people who’d been ignoring Alive began to pay attention. (Since that Anglin piece, the Daily Stormer has been deplatformed over and over again.)

We balanced those hard news stories with tons of arts coverage, a focus of Alive since its inception. Sometimes we ran those features on the cover, too: the Beatles Marathon, Saintseneca, Anyway Records, Don Coulter, Jovan Karcic. I wrote a profile/obituary of Jenny Mae and went to Southeast Ohio to listen to the forest with Brian Harnetty. I spent a lot of time with one of our city’s best musicians, Joe Camerlengo, writing about all his various projects. We interviewed countless touring bands, too, some of whom I spoke with so many times it felt like one long conversation (David Bazan, for instance).

And we had fun. We found quirky stories, like the Wagner-Hagans Auto Museum, which had somehow become the top-rated Columbus tourist attraction on TripAdvisor. I wrote personal essays on Bon Iver and yo-yos. And every week we ran The List. We all contributed, but Andy was the undisputed king of The List, using it to rank utterly asinine things or harnessing it as a tool to needle a person or business or institution that needed some needling. I grumbled about The List, but I managed to make myself laugh a few times. (My ranking of Girl Scout cookies remains the most controversial piece I wrote.)

The Color Divide cover story forever changed the way I see this city, and the way I approached future stories. I wanted to know how and why Columbus became so racially segregated – a daunting endeavor. You could tell that story in all sorts of ways, but I looked at it mostly through racist real estate practices like redlining. It’s a story that asked a lot of readers. There’s no “nut graf” to sum it all up, no telegraphing of where I was going with it. You just had to come along with me. Most editors don’t let you do that, but Andy did.

***

GateHouse killed Alive’s print edition in July of 2019. Losing the tangible product was tough, but it was tougher to lose Jim and Erica (who is now doing great work at the Dispatch). This was the beginning of the Andy-Joel era of Alive, when two guys were supposed to do everything Alive did previously, but with half the staff. And now, instead of a weekly paper, we were tasked with issuing a daily email newsletter, which meant we had to populate that newsletter with stories. Every. Single. Weekday.

The GIF of two kids paddling a sinking kayak became our mascot/inspiration/spirit animal as we attempted something that, in retrospect, we should have never been asked to do. But we did it, along the way developing a level of communicative shorthand usually reserved for married couples. Then, just as we started to get into a routine, the pandemic hit. No more concerts. No gallery exhibitions. Nothing. We each got furloughed. We briefly panicked, then pivoted and wrote about how artists and musicians and restaurants and everyone else were weathering the new, awful normal.

When the George Floyd protests hit, we spoke with Black artists and activists in the community, many of whom we’d already been speaking with for years. That period yielded my one viral Alive story: A converted school bus named Buttercup that housed hippie circus performers who were stopped by Columbus police and accused of rioting during Downtown protests.

As a duo, we still managed some in-depth stories from time to time. I dove into the relationship between the city and the FOP, and more recently I told the history of ACE Gallery, Kojo Kamau’s art space that became an incubator for many of the city’s best-known Black artists. But it became harder and harder to find time for those types of stories. Mostly, we did our best to write one or two interview features and a couple of blogs each day to fill out the site. And we tried not to look at the web stats too often (easier said than done). Working all day on a story that no one reads is tough, especially when the blog you crapped out in five minutes gets 10 times the traffic.

But the last three years made me less precious as a writer. Sometimes the piece just had to get written. Typos and commas might get overlooked, which is painful for a guy who started as a copy editor. But sometimes you have to hit publish and be done with it. Other people and other ideas need your attention. Preciousness, I’ve come to learn, is sometimes more about ego than accuracy.

***

We tried to maintain the spirit of an alt-weekly, even though Alive was no longer weekly. And, as the naysayers often reminded us, we weren’t technically “alt.” It’s a little awkward to be in the same ownership group as the daily paper, but I think we succeeded in preserving a personality distinct from the Dispatch. We told different stories, or we approached them in a different way. We tried to truly be an alternative while realizing that no matter how hard you try, some naysayers will never be convinced you’re not the daily wearing a mask. (“You’ll never win,” one local musician told us, and he was right.)

It helped that we were given a lot of freedom. With the little time we had, we wrote what we wanted to write. We didn't have quotas. If something in Columbus seemed interesting, we wrote about it. If it didn’t seem interesting, we didn’t.

We didn’t get everything right. Some of my early stories lacked the context I now have after doing more reporting on underserved communities. And we couldn’t get to everything as a two-man team. Our theater and dance coverage was virtually nonexistent the last three years. (Sorry.) There’s an entire Google doc of ideas we never got around to.

We also weren’t entirely alone. Andy and I knew that we couldn’t do it all – that we shouldn’t do it all – which is why, over time, Andy recruited and retained the best slate of freelance writers I’ve ever seen in Columbus. Scott Woods’ weekly column, The Other Columbus, became essential reading for anyone even halfway paying attention to the city. Craig Calcaterra’s Local Politics column was better than most national politics columns. Joy Ellison’s Rainbow Rant became a crucial part of Alive. Kevin Elliott’s monthly Weekend Wanderlust was the best travel column I’ve seen the city produce. Chris DeVille and former Alive editor Justin McIntosh both translated their Crew fandom into columns that helped turn me into the Crew fan I am today. More recently, Jack Shuler wrote about the overdose crisis, and Brian Williams took me to school on development topics. 

People like Rick Allen, Julia Oller and Kevin Elliott pinch-hit on music pieces when Andy or I couldn’t get to something. Nick Dekker did the same for food coverage. G.A. Benton and Brad Keefe provided weekly restaurant and movie reviews so consistently that we probably took them for granted. And somehow, Andy convinced nationally lauded writers like Hanif Abdurraqib and Maggie Smith to contribute to Alive, which they did for paltry sums.

There were plenty of people helping behind the scenes, too, especially on the Dispatch Magazines digital team: Erin Edwards, Brittany Moseley, Julanne Hohbach and Jack Long all had to deal with building and sending our newsletters every day. Sometimes those links didn’t come until they were undoubtedly done for the day and ready to get on with their lives.

It’s not easy, but hopefully someone will start a new alt-weekly in Columbus. I can’t. I’m too tired. I’m also headed back to Columbus Monthly, where I started my journalism career in 2004, before I had kids and gray hair. Plus, a new alt-weekly probably shouldn’t be kickstarted by white dudes in their 40s. It should be a full, diverse staff, preferably with some young writers from communities all over Central Ohio. It’ll look and feel different from Alive, and that’s OK. As much as I grieve Alive’s loss — for all the former Alive staffers and contributors, sure, but more so for the people of Columbus — I’m convinced the next generation can and will do something even better. Stories are out there, waiting to be told, and I know people still want to tell them. Maybe Alive inspired those writers, and maybe the end of Alive is the nudge they needed to do something.

Which brings me back to impact. I never needed to get my byline into prestigious national publications in order to have impact. I’m now convinced there’s no greater impact in journalism than a local story told well. Sometimes the reach isn’t all that great; no matter. Stories may have low web numbers, but citizens will feel heard. Local politicians and law enforcement will know we’re watching. Artists and entrepreneurs of color will know we’re listening. Women on the street, evicted families and older populations kicked to the curb will be given a voice. That’s impact. That’s what Alive did for Columbus. That’s what is lost when an alt-weekly dies.