Alt-Weeklies Are Dead; Long Live Alt-Weeklies

march 26, 2013  08:00 am
Yes, the alternative weekly of yesterday is toast. At least it should be if the alt-weekly business is going to survive.
2012 was the year the country's largest chain of alt-weeklies, Village Voice Media, became Voice Media Group, making structural changes within the company, losing key staff at its flagship paper, Village Voice, and selling off holdings in Seattle and San Francisco. It was the year Boston Phoenix relaunched as a magazine and became simply The Phoenix. It was also the year the Creative Loafing chain ceased to exist and the 21-year-old Birmingham, Ala., Black and White suspended its operation.

"2012 was a big year. We saw a lot of shakeup, and thus far, 2013 has already provided one unpleasant surprise — the closure of Boston Phoenix," said Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, referring to the March announcement that one of the country's longest running alt-weeklies will fold. "And while the industry will miss a storied brand responsible for excellent journalism, our papers are nimble and responding to the changes in the industry in the best possible way."

But what that response looks like and whether it will ultimately save the industry is the question mainstream media is asking of its alt counterparts with headlines like "The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies" from Jack Shafer, an alt-weekly alum himself, and the question posed by New York Times reporter David Carr, also a former alt-weekly editor, as to whether alt-weeklies are "toast"?

"The alts are both gone and here to stay," said Jeff Lawrence, publisher of Dig Boston. He says the alts that are willing to adapt and change are poised for success. "Those that are dying are the ones who are refusing to change or don't have the capacity to do so."

So, yes, says the industry to David Carr, the alternative weekly of yesterday is toast. Or, at least it should be if the alt-weekly business is going to survive. As print media collectively emerges from an existential crisis that has forever altered the business model, alt-weeklies are coming out on the other side as more than just newspapers. And in spite of a 2012 with as many lows as highs, industry leaders are confident in the future.

The Real Industry Barometer

Though media critics tend to gauge the health of the alt-weekly industry by looking at the largest and oldest papers in the country — many of whom have seen circulation drops in the last year — industry insiders take a different tack, in part because they know that in places like Syracuse and Colorado Springs, circulation and readership is up. And in places like Little Rock, digital sales are booming.

Blair Barna, co-owner and advertising director of Charleston City Paper, said he looks at the large national groups but that it's important to look at smaller, independent newspapers as well — papers that don't often make national headlines like Arkansas Times, Boise Weekly and Seven Days.

Mark Zusman, the longtime editor of Willamette Week, points out that smaller market papers have recently fared better for a few reasons.

"First, they never got that much national advertising, which the big market papers got," he said. "When the recession hit and those ads evaporated, big market papers suffered disproportionately. Second, big market papers have more competition and the readers in those markets moved to digital faster than readers in small markets. And lastly, some of the big market papers suffered from the fact that they were highly leveraged properties — not a good thing to be when heading into a recession."

Abe Peck, media consultant and senior director of Northwestern University's Media Management Center, agreed, saying some of the biggest papers have the biggest problems because they are in mature markets and some of them have had to face the consequences of over-expansion.

"There are no panaceas. The papers face media-wide issues of reaching audiences when and where they want information without going broke trying," said Peck. "Alternative papers started out as the fresh alternative. Now they have to recreate interest as they go. Even as they break stories, they need to become more collaborative with their audiences, building on pieces over time through social media feedback. That will take a rethink of editorial operations. This may actually be an advantage for smaller-area newspapers."

Larger-market papers have been loudly criticized by media critics for not being invested in their communities the way they once were thanks to out-of-town ownership with the rise of the alt-weekly chain. Paula Routly, the founder and publisher of Seven Days in Burlington, Vt., said in a recent speech at Champlain College that she thinks part of her success is the fact that she and her business partner have lived in Burlington for many decades.

In Idaho, owner and publisher Sally Freeman repositioned Boise Weekly in 2009 to function less like a traditional alt-weekly and more like a hybrid of an alt-weekly and a daily, multimedia news source. She believes her status as an independent gave her an advantage to act quickly to make the changes. Additionally, she says being in a smaller market gives her an advantage in creating authenticity with her brand among her audience and, in a sense, also allows her to worry less about her bottom line.

"What we do at a personal level takes a lot of passion and a lot of perseverance," said Freeman. "And everyone here that works at Boise Weekly, we're all in. It's beyond a job and it's a very, very personal endeavor. It's like we're fighting the good fight together, and I think that's really the difference.When you turn that into just a job and people are just going to work, it turns into more of a corporate enterprise and it's about bottom line and earning a profit and that's your driver rather than producing really good journalism and fighting this cause."

Freeman says that while she is certainly running a business and trying to keep growing her company, it's not her main focus: bettering her community is.

SouthComm CEO Chris Ferrell has a similar mission, however, he says what he is trying to do is grow a vibrant chain of alt-weeklies that are truly local.

Ferrell, who was the publisher of the Nashville Scene and worked for Voice Media Group when it was Village Voice Media, founded SouthComm in 2007. After finding an investment company willing to help him buy alt-weeklies, SouthComm acquired LEO Weekly in Louisville, Ky. in 2008 and the Nashville Scene in 2009. SouthComm is now the second largest alt-weekly chain in the country with eight papers, including two of the industry's biggest: Washington City Paper and Creative Loafing Atlanta.

"The same old business model isn't going to keep working as times change but there is a business model there," said Ferrell. "I think we, as an industry, just have to figure out what the right mix is and maybe it's not the same in every town. Different size cities may require slightly different models of this thing that we call an alt-weekly."

The key to doing that, everyone agrees, is knowing the market and responding to it timely and correctly. It's what successful publishers have done thus far, it's what Shackelford is doing on a national level and it's what those who have fallen by the wayside failed to do, according to some.

The Media Company Brand

In 2011 the members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies became the Association of Alternative Newsmedia to reflect its newly-adopted bylaws allowing digital-only members. While the name change was a practical move, philosophically it meant an industry-wide acceptance of evolution that had been occurring in local markets at member papers across the country for several years.

"We no longer look at ourselves as a weekly or a newspaper in that what we are providing to our readers and advertisers is delivered in many different forms and at all times of the day, every day," said Barna, who serves on the association's board of directors. He described Charleston City Paper as a media company.

It's a label publishers from Boise to Burlington have embraced, both on the business side and editorially. But readers — and media critics — may thumb through the pages of their local alt-weekly and not even notice the evolution that's happened behind the scenes to ensure the paper itself still exists.

City of Roses Newspaper Company, which is co-owned by Zusman, also owns Santa Fe Reporter and in 2012 purchased Indy Week in North Carolina. The mini-chain's success has not been without large-scale change. Zusman, who also once served as the association's president, said his company is much different business-wise than it was just a few years ago, now selling across platforms, generating significant revenue from events, and being far more entrepreneurial than it once was.

"We are all engaged in a huge pivot, one in which we are seeking to remake the business model in a way that supports our brand of journalism," said Zusman. "And it will be several years before we know if it will succeed."

SouthComm's Ferrell also describes the alts as an industry that is in transition. He is not only betting on the future success of the alts but doubling down with investments in some of country's largest, most financially troubled papers with a mission to rehab them alongside SouthComm's smaller market papers. And Ferrell is well aware of the attention he is drawing from his colleagues.

"I think people are looking us to see if we can take these papers and really revitalize them and turn them into next generation, vibrant alt-weeklies. I think we can," said Ferrell. "These papers, in my mind, they have the opportunity to be even more influential going forward than they were in the past. Alternative doesn't mean the same thing today that it did 20 or 30 years ago."

However, SouthComm's business model does not rely on the deep pockets of investors. Ferrell is also looking to creative digital solutions to diversify revenue streams. He also operates SouthComm Digital, which offers clients digital ad buys beyond SouthComm media properties. Essentially, SouthComm Digital helps clients advertise across the internet through behavioral or content targeting of ads on sites that are not SouthComm products.

"We can be the digital agency for our clients and so it just gives us another product to offer to our advertisers," said Ferrell. "They already are setting aside budgets for digital. We can help them, and they know who we are. In some cases they've been working with our reps for years or decades and so we can be a trusted advisor and help them with that."

The Memphis Flyer's parent company, Contemporary Media, is moving in a similar direction with its recently created subdivision Creative Content. According to Molly Willmott, director of digital/operations for Contemporary Media and the AAN board of directors electronic publishing chair, the mission of Creative Content will be to bring up digital revenues in a non-traditional way by selling the editorial, photography and video services of its current staff to help clients create and improve marketing materials, websites and social media strategies.

Dig Boston's Lawrence has long touted what were once seen as non-traditional revenue models, including monetizing social media and events, as well as custom publishing. In fact he says social media and events are "hands down" the most positive things happening on the money-making end of the industry and papers that don't know that are in trouble.

While forays into digital entrepreneurship are bolstering some weeklies, even more are leveraging their brand loyalty in their communities with events.

Scott Tobias, the CEO of Voice Media Group, points to the power of events as significant money makers for alt-weeklies that cannot be overlooked.

"I think Voice Media Group does this better than anybody," he said. "We have significant music events, significant food events, our arts events are amazing. We now have a real cash flow machine built around these events, which I think is really unique."

Among the events VMG puts on are the Westword Music Showcase in Denver, which will host 15,000 people, 4 Knots in New York, which will draw about 30,000, and this year, VMG will bring back Detour Music Festival in L.A. for a crowd of about 15,000.

Zusman's Willamette Week puts on the immensely popular and irreverent political debate Candidates Gone Wild. In Washington, D.C., City Paper hosts the annual Crafty Bastards arts and crafts fair, which will expand to two days in 2013. In Burlington, Seven Days has the hundred-restaurant strong Vermont Restaurant Week. And in Nashville it's Sugar Rush, a dessert event so popular that SouthComm replicated it in Louisville and Kansas City.

The idea, said Ferrell, is to look at what works well in one market — be it digital tools or events — and adapt it for another, so as to bolster the core product. Sharing those ancillary product successes is not only good for fellow alts, but it's often good for the company that has done the development legwork, as they sell their new products to industry members.

The Stranger, for example, developed a happy hour mobile app that a handful of alt-weeklies have adapted for their own market, as well as a soon-to-be-launched white-label event ticketing system that will allow papers to not just list events happening in their cities, but to sell tickets to those events. Salt Lake City Weekly in Utah offers members its Kostizi platform, a nationwide discount gift card and ticket program. And the newly launched LocalOn Adlets from East Bay Express, which publishes "adlets" for local merchants in real time across multiple platforms.

While industry members are individually enhancing the financial ecosystem of the alts, the association is hard at work leveraging their collective buying power to create a content sharing platform with a multimedia focus. AAN executive director Shackelford says hyperlocal news has a national audience and she is developing a way for alts to license their content — with significant profit — to national media outlets.

"Next, we are setting up a recommendation engine network with organizations including the Investigative News Network, Media Consortium and public media partners," said Shackelford. "This will allow great verticals of content and monetization opportunities with interstitial ads."

What it all comes down to is brand — the brand of alts as an industry and the brand each newspaper, or media company, has built in its own community.

In her speech to Champlain College, Paula Routly quoted Seattle alt-weekly publisher Tim Keck saying, "The publisher of Seattle's The Stranger, who is a very smart guy, has said, 'The media companies that can navigate different mediums are going to be the ones that survive. The thing that really moors them is no longer the medium — a print publication — it's going to be the community and the brand.'"

The Future

In the spirit of the alt-weekly world itself, publishers challenge the notion that their industry is dying.

Lawrence, who now runs the only alt in Boston, was direct in his summation of what recent events may say about the future of alt-weeklies.

"The Boston Phoenix did not fail because the alt media world is dying, quite the opposite. It failed because it refused to adapt and when it ultimately tried to, it did so with a model that no responsible owner should have ever bought into," he said. "I am appalled at the lack of discussion around this fact and that so many, especially inside the BP, want to argue that it was all national advertising dollar declines and/or the demise of the alt model itself. It's an insult to all of those papers that are succeeding and thriving to spout such nonsense."

In Portland, Zusman's response to those who prophesy the end of times for alts was a simple challenge: "Watch. And wait." He pointed to recent changeover at the top of many alt-weeklies mastheads as heartening.

"The generation of those who founded these papers are passing them on (albeit at a much lower price than they would have liked) to a new generation of journalists and entrepreneurs who have concluded, correctly, that alts offer perhaps the best hope of providing good local journalism in a sustainable business model."

Routly and her business partner have put in a succession team of three to plan for the future success of Seven Days. VMG's Tobias has been in the industry since his days in a cubicle at Westword in 1993, but he's also among the younger leaders at the top of the industry. As are Ferrell and Shackelford.

"People who've been doing this for decades [are] deciding it's time to do something else or deciding to turn leadership over to somebody else," said Ferrell. "I think that's one indication that we're in a transitional time."

Will a younger generation of leaders with some out-of-the-box financial solutions be able to create and sustain the new alt media company? In the same way that their predecessors who founded the industry with borrowed cash and a passion for journalism said yes, so do the industry leaders of today. And to their skeptics, they say: Watch. And wait.
Rachael Daigle is a Virginia-based writer and editor and a former alt-weekly editor.