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Alternative Press

Alternative Press

In terms of growth, the only sector that may match the explosive numbers of the ethnic media is the alternative press. In the booming economy of the 1990s, the number of alternative weeklies grew rapidly, drawing national advertising. In recent years the sector’s growth has slowed, but not stopped.

The scattered data available on the alternative presses suggest a handful of broad trends:

The label alternative weekly, while convenient, does not give due respect to the variances of the publications here. From city to city and even within cities they can look very different.

Is it Still an Alternative Press?

To be clear, the alternative press as defined here has little to do with what many might describe as “alternative.” The term is mostly a catchall phrase used by the mainstream media, but these publications are not what some call the “dissident” press in America (see sidebar). Rather, while they may share some traits with the dissident press, a political mission is not their defining characteristic. There are dissenting views in these papers, but they are not necessarily grounded in politics. Many are not particularly interested in politics at all.

In fact, scanning the realm of what a usually called alternative weeklies across the country, it sometimes seems there are few things that hold them together as a genre beyond their tabloid format (an almost universal trait) and their advertising-driven revenue model (they are usually given away free). Often, again depending on the publication, they are mostly treasured by their readers for their ads. Editorial content can be quite thin in some, particularly when compared to the ads. But, as in the ethnic media, there is much variety from city to city.

Alternative Press Audiences

Perhaps the biggest myth about the alternative press is that it is read by and focused on young, pierced and tattooed 20-somethings. In fact in many of the nation’s larger cities, alternative weeklies have an audience primarily in their 30s and even their 40s, according to surveys by media research companies.1 Their readers are relatively well educated and many have high incomes. In Texas, The Austin Chronicle’s readership has a median age of 38. More than 67 percent of the readers have graduated from college and the median annual household income is $55,000, the data show. The Miami New Times’ readership has a median age of 41 and a median household income of more than $47,000.2 Below, the 10 largest cities in America and demographic statistics on their alternative weeklies:

Alternative Weeklies and Demographics for Select U.S. Cities

City Publication Median Age Median Income College Graduate Rate
New York Village Voice 35 $50,000 57%
New York Press 37 64,079 51
Los Angeles LA Weekly 38 66,000 31
OC Weekly 37 73,000 35
Chicago Chicago Reader N/A 57,000 71
Chicago Newcity N/A 51,241 57
Houston Houston Press 39 72,000 41
Philadelphia Philadelphia Weekly 35 61,444 42
Philadelphia City Paper 36 52,000 46
Phoenix Phoenix New Times 37 56,375 35
San Diego San Diego City Beat 42 53,725 27
San Diego Reader 41 59,586 29
Dallas Dallas Observer 41 45,090 32
San Antonio San Antonio Current 37 55,858 30
Detroit Metro Times 36 55,964 38

Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, directory pages, www.aan.org

Why are these readers attracted to alternative weeklies, other than their being free? First, the publications generally offer a more comprehensive section of event listings than their mainstream competitors. And the advertising in the alternative weeklies often serves as a second type of events listing. Local clubs, theaters and galleries advertise in the weeklies about events because the alternative weeklies offer a cheaper advertising medium than metro dailies. Not to mention the personal listings that appear in these publications, which are often more eccentric than those that appear in the mainstream press.

Second, the content of the weeklies often delves into areas that the mainstream dailies avoid or do not cover extensively – from city politics to government to entertainment. In Washington, for example, the City Paper devotes a lengthy weekly column, “Loose Lips,” to the city’s vibrant local political scene. A column in December looked at a behind-the-scenes battle over a city smoking ban, a dispute between the mayor and a former City Council member over waterfront development and the amount a fired city employee received in a settlement.

But why specific readers pick up their weekly alternative paper varies with the style of the tabloid. And there are many styles.

Economics

The 1990s were very good to the nation’s alternative weeklies. Circulation grew rapidly, as did revenues. The member publications in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies nearly doubled in the 1990s to 123 today.3 Circulation more than doubled, rising from 3 million in 1990 to 7.5 million in 2002.4

Growth in Alternative News Weeklies
Association of Alternative Newsweelies Member Publications, 1990 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data

While the recession of 2001-2002 hit the papers, it was moderate compared to the economy as whole and was felt in the form of reduction in ad revenues. Circulation was not effected as seriously because these publications are free.

Revenues, which had increased every year since 1992, took a dip in 2001, but began to climb back up in 2002. In 1992, alternative weeklies took in $174 million in revenues. By 1997, that number had more than doubled to $383 million. It peaked in 2000, with revenues of $511 million. Though the numbers dropped sharply in 2001, back to $483 million, they bounced back up to $501 million in 2002.5

Revenue of Alternative Weeklies
1992 – 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data
* Based on AAN member figures

Still the weeklies took a big hit in the form of falling national advertising. At the height of this segment’s success and growth, national ads – for things like cigarettes and alcohol, accounted for $35 million to $50 million per year.6 When the economy fell into recession, those ads dried up almost completely, taking a huge bite from the industry. And that loss in revenue led some of the papers launched during the economic boom to close their doors. In 2002, for example, New Times Inc. folded its Los Angeles New Times. At the same time Village Voice Media closed its Free Times in Cleveland.7 But by 2002 the revenue trend was going up again.

Change in Revenue at Alternative Weeklies
Design Your Own Chart
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data
* Based on AAN member figures

In terms of economics, the alternative weeklies are arguably the most dynamic of all the media we study. Because of its local nature, grassroots readership and reliance on advertising for most if not all of its revenues, the alternative press is highly flexible. This media sector can more easily add and subtract publications as the market will bear them. But it is also the most likely to lose publications in market dips. As of 2002, circulation was sitting stable as the economy remained sluggish, but if it improves one might expect new alternative papers will again be founded.

Alternative Press Ownership

Alternative weeklies were not spared from the large-scale consolidation that hit the media in general in the 1990s. While the alternative press has historically been among the most local of media, a series of small-time publications aimed at getting dollars from local advertisers and covering local stories the big media miss, this image has changed. Today alternative weeklies, particularly in the big cities are controlled by a small group of companies. The biggest owners are New Times (which owns papers in Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami and Denver) and Village Voice Media (which owns The Village Voice in New York City and papers in Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville and Orange County).
Newsweeklies Owned by New Times and Village Voice

New Times Village Voice Media
Cleveland Scene
Dallas Observer
East Bay Express (Oakland, Calif.)
Houston Press
Miami New Times
New Times Broward-Palm Beach
Phoenix New Times
The Pitch (Kansas City)
Riverfront Times (St. Louis)
SF Weekly
Westword (Denver)
City Pages (Twin Cities)
LA Weekly
Nashville Scene
OC Weekly (Orange County, Calif.)
Seattle Weekly
The Village Voice

Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, directory pages, www.aan.org

How Alternative Are They?

In fact, increasingly there are concerns that the alternative weeklies are becoming more like their daily newspaper counterparts than some would like. Case in point was the deal in 2002 between New Times and Village Voice Media, in which the two agreed to close papers in markets where the other company has the stronger paper. New Times closed its Los Angeles News Times to save money from competing with Village Voice Media’s LA Weekly. At the same time Village Voice closed the Cleveland Free Times, ceding the city to the New Times’ Cleveland Scene.8

In five of the nation’s 10 largest cities, New Times or Village Voice controls the main alternative weekly. If one adds in a third company, Times Shamrock, then three companies control the primary alternative weekly in seven of the 10 largest cities. These numbers belie the old image of the idea-driven small alternative weekly and instead create an image of an increasingly corporatized world of money-making free tabloids. But, as mentioned above, if there is a medium that seems to have the ability to change with the economic times, it is this one. If and when the economy improves and the advertising environment booms again, the question is whether smaller, more independent weeklies will appear. This possibility bears watching in the coming years.

Click here to view footnotes for this section.