By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Alternative weeklies – those scrappy, often intensely local weekly newspapers and magazines that seek to provide an alternative to their mainstream competitors – were hardly immune to the troubles besetting the rest of the media in 2008.
One of the largest chains of alternative weeklies, Creative Loafing, filed for protection from its creditors under bankruptcy law.
Other publications also showed signs of stress, particularly those in big markets where advertisers are finding alternatives to the alternatives. Smaller communities seemed to fare better, and publications such as Seven Days in Burlington, Vt., continued to carve out a niche among younger readers so desirable to advertisers.
One result of a difficult year is that many of the alternatives aggressively pursued the Internet, adding features and beefing up promotions to draw younger readers to the place where many of them are already getting the bulk of their news.
Readership of alternative weeklies fell in 2008, and aged somewhat.
The 130 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies reported a combined weekly circulation of 7.1 million as of June, 2008. That was down about 400,000, or slightly more than 5%, from 2008.
Alternative weeklies once thrived by providing a vehicle for advertisers to reach younger readers who were not consuming traditional media – making their demographics crucial to their success. Over the years, their readership aged with them and remained wealthier than the population at large. And even with that, the alternative press has maintained a somewhat younger demographic.
As the Ruxton Media Group, which sells national advertising in alternative weeklies, puts it on its website: “Constantly on the go, younger urban consumers can be hard to track down. By covering important, often controversial issues that shape readers’ lives, culture and community; the Alternative Press keeps readers awake and aware.”
And that duality can be seen in the latest readership numbers. In 2008, the data show both a slight expansion of readers in the 18-to-24-year-old segment, but also an increase in the much larger group that is 45 and older. According to a survey by the Media Audit, a company that conducts audience surveys, the readership of alternative weeklies that is aged 18 to 24 grew to 14.1% from 13.6%. That remains well under the estimated 42.6% of the readers who are aged 45 or older. That latter figure is up from 41.5%.1
Men continue to be slightly more represented among alternative weekly readers: 52.2% to 47.8% female. In the general population of adults, 48.5% are male and 51.5% female.
Good news for advertisers is that alternative weekly readers are wealthier than the general population. The average household income for alternative weekly readers is $70,109 compared to $66,028 in the general population. In addition, 34.2% of alternative weekly readers have a household income of $75,000 or more, compared to 31% of the general population.
Alternative weekly readers are also more educated than the general population with 41.4% having a college degree compared to 36.7% of the general population.
Alternative weekly readers are, compared to the rest of the population, heavy consumers of radio, newspapers and the Internet..2
According to the Media Audit survey, they are 18% more likely to listen to the radio for 180 minutes or more in a week and 37% more likely to spend 60 minutes or more with a newspaper.3
When reading traditional newspapers, they are most likely to focus on the employment/classified and the movie/entertainment sections and are less likely to regularly pay attention to Sunday advertising inserts.
They spend about the same amount of time watching television as the average person.
And in what is good news for papers making the transition online, alternative weekly readers are 23% more like to be heavy users of the Internet (430 minutes per week, or about an hour a day, or more).
In September 2008, Creative Loafing, which owns six alternative weeklies across the country, filed for projection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy code.
The filing came a year after the firm, which is based in Tampa, purchased two of the biggest and best-known alternative weeklies in the country, the Washington City Paper and the Chicago Reader.
According to the CEO, Ben Eason, the bankruptcy filing had nothing to do with this acquisition and everything to do with hard economic times. “I’m filing because the economy sucks, he said.”4
Nonetheless, Creative Loafing was hit by hard economic times while it was trying to pay off $40 million in debt, part of which was a $15 million loan to help purchase the two papers. 5
A bankruptcy judge is expected to decide in 2009 if one of the largest creditors, Atalaya Administrative, could declare the loan in default and take control of the company.
Revenues for alternative weeklies suffered some of the same pressures as those at their mainstream counterparts, though the impact appeared to vary by market.
Revenue for the 130 members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies declined about 5%, to $416 million in 2008, according to the association. A more precise estimate cannot be made due to a change in the way the group calculates revenues for the papers.
While larger, more established alternative weeklies such as the Washington City Paper and the Village Voice are struggling to attract new readers and advertisers, papers in smaller communities fared much better.
Seven Days, an alt weekly published in Burlington, Vt., had a revenue increase of 1% in 2008. It may be a small amount but in a climate in which negative revenue growth has become the norm, any growth is impressive.
Other papers in similarly small and mid-sized communities are faring better as well. Boulder Weekly, published in Boulder, Colo., had a revenue increase of 5% in 2008. Similar to Seven Days and other papers that have seen growth, the increase was attributed to special issues and tailoring its content to its market.6
The Village Voice, one of the grande dames of the alternative press, was not as lucky. It dropped a number of marquee employees in 2008, including the columnist Nat Hentoff, who had worked for the paper since 1958, and Lynn Yaeger, a fashion writer who worked for the paper for 30 years.7
The Village Voice was sold in 2005 to a Phoenix-based publisher that then changed its name to Village Voice Media and had cut its staff size since the acquisition.
“I understand they have serious advertising revenue problems, but they don’t seem to be able to sit there and just talk about them with their own work force to deal with these problems,” the writer Tom Robbins told the New York Times in late 2008.
In early 2009, the publication was reported to have dropped all its syndicated cartoons, also in a cost-cutting move.8
In contrast to their situation in print, alternative weeklies report growth online, both in readership and revenue.
In a poll of its members conducted for PEJ, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies reported that 86% of the 57 papers that responded to the survey said they had an increase in Web traffic in 2008. Of those, a quarter of the papers reported a 1% to 10% increase in Web traffic, and almost half said they had an 11% to 25% increase. Just a small number, about 65 of the papers responding to the survey, reported an increase of 51% to 200% and an additional 6% said they had an increase of over 200%.9
The revenue picture for the Web was positive as well. More than three-quarters, or 77%, of respondents, reported revenue increases from Web advertising in 2008, while the balance, 23%, reported no increase.
Of the papers that reported greater revenue, the largest percentage (28%) said they had increases of 26% to 50% in revenue from the Web. And a good number had a revenue increase of over 51%, a sign that some alternative weeklies are faring better at making money of the Web as their print products lose advertising.
Most of the papers (96%) are producing content for the website that does not appear anywhere in the print edition. But much of this also involves adding to the work of existing employees. A majority of the papers responding, 59%, said they did not have any staff that worked only on the website (while 41% did).
Of the papers that had Web-only staff, the size of the workforce, not surprisingly, is small. More than three quarters (77%) said that their online staff represented 5% or less of their workforce. Only 23% of papers said that they dedicated more than 5% of their staff to the website.10
1. The Media Audit audience survey of 124 publications in 72 markets from January 2007 to March 2008. The survey is conducted by International Demographics of Houston. www.themediaaudit.com
2. The Media Audit audience survey of 124 publications in 72 markets from January 2007 to March 2008. The survey is conducted by International Demographics of Houston. www.themediaaudit.com
3. The Media Audit audience survey of 124 publications in 72 markets from January 2007 to March 2008. The survey is conducted by International Demographics of Houston. www.themediaaudit.com
4. “Creative Loafing files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection”, www.tampabay.com, September 29, 2008
6. Jon Whiten, “Who Says 2008 Was a Washout? Here Are 10 Papers That Bucked the Trends,” Editor & Publisher, January 27, 2009
7. Stephanie Clifford, “Village Voice Lays Off Nat Hentoff and 2 Others,” the New York Times, December 30, 2008
9. Survey done by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for PEJ; 57 of the 130 member papers responded to the questions
10. Survey done by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for PEJ; 57 of the 130 member papers responded to the questions.