I first learned about The Drunken Canal — Lower Manhattan’s latest, print-only news source — on Instagram. I was staying at my mother’s house in Seattle at the time, one week into a months-long hiatus from New York — a place which, by the end of 2020, I had begun to question my attachment to. For the first time, I doubted what the city had to offer me and in turn, what I had to contribute to it. I told my friends I just needed to “zoom out” for a bit, to see my family, breathe cleaner air, and most importantly, get offline.
But as it turned out, The Doomscroll was geographically indiscriminate: Here I was, 3,000 miles away, sunken into my mother’s cheetah-print arm chair in a full-blown social media vortex, absolutely furious to be missing out on one of New York’s only in-person culture-making moments in nearly a year. How could I recover my It Girl-groupie persona if I wasn’t even in the city for the latest literary market disruption? I’d have to glean what I could from the internet.
Twenty-three year-olds Claire Banse and Gutes Guterman had founded The Drunken Canal last summer. From the get-go — well before they’d actually published any content — the girls had differentiated their newspaper from the “zine” (though, paper quality aside, it seemed to function much the same as the totemic DIY arts format of the last decade). Still, The Drunken Canal was less of a journalistic effort than a hyper-local gossip rag, but the main selling point — indeed, the whole point — was that the girls promised never to publish a single word online.
While Claire and Gutes hadn’t articulated a formal “ideology” around their publication, I jumped at the opportunity to project upon The Drunken Canal all my anxieties and hopes about the state of the written word. Most critically, the publication seemed to embody a real sense of place: It was only distributed in and around the cig-littered, post-skate clout corner of Dimes Square, in default haunts and stolen newsstands. I was grateful for this approach — the pandemic had only exacerbated and further rewarded our tendencies toward atomization, and I felt sick of the everywhere/nowhere aesthetic of the internet. A shitty, pulp-printed tabloid with a microscopic audience was just what this censorious, receipt-obsessed world needed.
And so, before I had even read a single word printed in The Drunken Canal, I decided that it was The Village Voice of our generation (a correlation that felt particularly apt to my own sense-making of the world, as, incidentally, the latter had folded the very month I’d moved to New York to study writing on the Bowery, just two doors down from the Voice’s old office).
And then, within weeks of my discovery of The Drunken Canal, Claire and Gutes gave an interview to The Cut. In it, they extolled the virtues of print-only media, particularly as an alternative to the online “echo chamber content that becomes boring and honestly dangerous” precisely for its re-shareability. I agreed wholeheartedly with this concept. It wasn’t just the big-wig gatekeepers of legacy media companies diluting writing’s bite (if that were the case, the content on Substack would be less disclaimer-laden), but rather an issue inherent to the design of modern communication channels. Maybe, the demands of a virality-oriented model (as well as an ever-present fear of cancellation) discouraged people from honestly articulating themselves on sensitive issues, even when framed as an "opinion." Print-only media, then, seemed like a plausible antidote to the staling of writing as a sophisticated, provocative form of expression.
And yet, as excited as I was about The Drunken Canal in theory, I simultaneously felt depressed that something with so much potential had already been punctured by the fucking Cut.
I started to spiral: Was this just an unprincipled execution of the Awesome Thing, or was the Awesome Thing always destined to be destroyed by the very forces it aimed to circumvent? Were we doomed to remain beholden to the same mass-market sites that were responsible for the cheapening of craft, even if only to build momentum for our no-budget, idealistic endeavors? It wasn’t that the Cut interview necessarily tainted the validity of Claire and Gutes’ ambitions, but rather that, to use The Drunken Canal as a case study, it revealed something about the demands of promotion that I hadn’t yet fully considered.
It’d be one thing if exposure was simply still too important (whether for actual money-making or sheer demand generation) to move fully offline. But it was something else entirely when the fruits of one’s promotional activities (followers, tags, and re-shares — the very things Claire and Gutes had dunked on in the interview) threatened to eclipse the work itself. How could digital impressions possibly be the noteworthy measure of success for an analog outlet? Of course, there was no way to know whether the girls were pursuing the paper to create an item of value or as a means to the end of increasing their own popularity (at least in this tiny corner of the Scene). But there was something skeezy, if perhaps unavoidable, about the whole thing. That I felt this skeeziness so viscerally, I realized, was not because I thought I was above the behavior but because I recognized it — albeit on a much smaller scale — in myself.
Whether or not “fame” is a conscious driving force in entering the arts, there is a certain level of persona-creation — as well as a sense of stage — inherent to the lifecycle of any piece of work (and by extension, to its creator). To me, a piece feels “finished” not when I arrive at final copy or even receive the URL, but when I get to drum up a little caption and share it to my Instagram Story, crack open a Diet Coke, and watch the reacts roll in. If the pay-per-click advertising model has intensified our dependence on visibility as a metric (and for the worse), it has also perhaps served as a convenient cover for the real emotional “perks” we get from promoting our own work, now that we can chalk up such self-promotion to a gross-but-necessary part of the job.
Even so, this dynamic obviously has negative — if inescapable — consequences, namely that writers end up furthering the grossly symbiotic relationship of publications borrowing clout (read: earning dollars) from the social followings of their contributors. It’s not so much about the words as it is the quantifiable nature of individualized followings, it seems, that is a chief merit in the commissioning and publication of today’s language.
Really, though, I was less invested in sniffing out hypocrisy around the money-making side of artistic pursuits than I was interested in how to best protect (and improve) writing as a craft. It’s a question that seems to be continually asked (and too-easily answered) of other mediums by a simple technological regression (vinyl, film photography, etc.). But the same question feels more complicated for writing, as we so often fail to view language as a tool (just like a musical instrument or camera) that simply aids in the expression of ideas, and instead mis-equate words with ideas themselves. Given this, it makes sense that, in order to up-level our writing, the impulse is to change the venue for our words, rather than discipline ourselves to sharpen the language itself.
This, too, may be misguided — a return to older technologies in any medium does not necessarily improve the form so much as create a cottage industry of nostalgia. But if we were going to try on the idea for size, we at least had to understand what cultural mileage print media even had left. I asked myself: Was it possible for print to garner the same level of following as other types of analog media, without importing the diluted quality that’s been necessitated by the finances of ad-dependent digital writing? And, if so, would an offline distribution system actually help us to re-prioritize technique over potential for engagement?
Ultimately, it was a simple question: Without the boon of attention, would I still write? I wasn’t totally sure (then or now), but it seemed worthwhile to test my own valuation of process over outcome, to re-acquaint myself with my love of language not as a means to an end, but simply for the practice itself.
In January, I returned to New York as refreshed as I could be. I hadn’t written much at home, but at least I’d spent time honing some intentions for my writing: I wanted it to be lucid, piercing, and faithful to what I actually felt. I was energized to find these same principles reflected in The Drunken Canal’s taglines: “all feelings, no facts,” and “a biased news source.” I counted down the dark, freezing days until the next issue was set to hit the stands, eager to finally participate in this weird little part of my vague, amorphous community.
But, when the day arrived for me to venture to East Broadway and procure myself a paper, it was 23 degrees outside and the F train wasn’t running. And so, in the end, I found that I could not actually make the physical journey, and instead saw a friend for tea, as I knew she had an extra copy and was, on the whole, very inclined to share.