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Alternative Weeklies

Newspapers
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Alternative Weeklies

The year past was a difficult one for alternative weekly papers. The decline in circulation seen in recent years accelerated. One of the biggest players, Creative Loafing Inc., completed a financial reorganization and emerged from bankruptcy. Village Voice Media, on the other hand, was threatened with involuntary bankruptcy over an uncollected court judgment.

Two alternatives stopped publishing: Los Angeles CityBeat, founded in 2003, folded in March 2009, and Port Folio Weekly, in Hampton Roads, Va., published its last print edition in February 2009, becoming an online-only publication.1

Additionally, a major chain of gay publications shut down.

“There’s no doubt that the economy was just as hard on alternative weeklies as it was on the dailies,” said Tony Ortega, the editor of the Village Voice. “But it’s also obvious that some alt weeklies have come through the tough times in better shape than others.”

Ortega argued that the alternative weeklies had some intrinsic advantages that had helped them: a more flexible business model than daily newspapers, increased reader accessibility on the Web and the fact that many publications were already free to readers.2

Audience

The combined circulation of the weekly papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies dropped by nearly 7% in 2009. That came after a drop of 5% the year before.

The association, which underwent a management change in 2009, had not calculated absolute circulation figures as of the completion of this study. But Jason Zaragoza, the advertising and awards director of the association, said the declines tended to hit  publications in large markets most severely.3 While some large-market alt-weeklies were holding steady at the end of 2009 – namely the San Diego Reader and the Boston Phoenix – Zaragoza said a number of elements added to the overall decline in large-markets.4

Internet usage, the quality of the mainstream press and other factors may play roles, Zaragoza said.

“I don’t know if there is any one factor that is driving down the circulation numbers in the larger markets” Zaragoza said.5

In the biggest market, New York, the Village Voice’s circulation averaged 213,358 for the 12 months ending June 2009, down 11% from 240,265 during for the same period in 2008.  Ortega said the paper reduced the number of copies printed to save money. Saving money by printing fewer copies of the paper was a “better way to stanch the bleeding” than laying off employees, he said.

Although Village Voice does not publicly release figures, Ortega said ad revenue declines for the paper were consistent with the rest of the industry. He said the company was seeing fast growth in Web revenue and expected print revenue to increase in 2010.

The Village Voice increased its online content in 2009 and is expanding that presence further in 2010, with plans to hire more staff.6

Other large-market publications also experienced severe declines:

By contrast, some small-market alt-weeklies stayed fairly constant and some grew, including:

Ownership

Creative Loafing, publisher of the Chicago Reader and Washington City Paper, emerged inform bankruptcy in fall 2009 under the ownership of Atalaya Capital Management, a hedge fund that was Creative Loafing’s primary creditor.13

In November 2009, Creative Loafing hired a new chief executive, Marty Petty, the former publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and the Hartford (Conn.) Courant. Creative Loafing publishes six alternative newsweeklies: The Chicago Reader, Washington City Paper and Creative Loafing Atlanta, Tampa, Charlotte and Sarasota.14 In January 2010, the company hired a new chief marketing officer, Henry E. Scott.15 Also in January, Creative Loafing Atlanta promoted senior editor Mara Shalhoup to editor in chief.16

Washington City Paper reported that its full-time editorial staff numbered 10 in January 2010, down from 22 in 2006.17 In February 2010, Erik Wemple, the paper’s editor, left to take over editorial operations for an unnamed local news website owned by Allbritton Communications.18

Another large publisher, Village Voice Media Holdings began 2010 still enmeshed in a messy legal dispute. The company owns 14 alternative weeklies throughout the country, including the venerable Village Voice.

Its legal troubles stem from a 2004 case between Village Voice Media’s San Francisco Weekly and its rival, San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Guardian alleged that the Weekly had engaged in predatory pricing, cutting the price of its ads in order to drive its rival out of business. A jury agreed and in 2008 awarded the Guardian more than $6 million, which grew to $21 million with interest and penalties.19

In January 2010, the San Francisco Superior Court placed a lien on Village Voice Media as the Bay Guardian attempted to collect the $21 million judgment.20 Bloomberg News reported that the Guardian was considering asking the court to force Village Voice Media into involuntary bankruptcy to collect the debt.21

SF Weekly dropped 15% to 85,046 for the six months ending June 30, 2009 from 100,124 for the same period in 2008.22

Other Village Voice alt-weeklies had a tough year as well:

Gay Publications

Gay publications, not traditionally defined as alt-weeklies, had a particularly difficult year in 2009.

Window Media and Unite Media, the parent companies of several gay publications closed in November 2009. The companies, both owned by the Avalon Equity Fund, did not meet capital requirements required by a loan from the Small Business Administration.

The papers that closed included the 40-year-old Washington Blade, as well as Southern Voice (Atlanta), the Houston Voice, the South Florida Blade, David Atlanta magazine and 411 Magazine.25 Some of the newspapers have plans to reorganize under new owners.26

Other gay publications that closed in 2009 include the New Mexico Voice, the New York Blade, HX Magazine, Genre Magazine, the New England Blade and the Houston Voice.27

Digital

Alternative weeklies, like more traditional papers, are trying to move to digital platforms. In 2009 those efforts seemed to gather particular focus on introducing mobile apps designed to take advantage of the popularity of smartphones and other mobile devices.

In October 2009, LA Weekly released an iPhone app that provides concert, restaurant and event listings and recommendations from the magazine.28

In January 2010, Philadelphia Weekly launched a Happy Hour Guide app for the iPhone, based its online version. The app helps users to find bars, use Twitter to notify friends and call a cab.29

Charleston (S.C.) City Paper launched a similar app in January 2010, the Cocktail Compass that shows nearly happy hours based on a person’s current location.30

The Village Voice newspapers  did the same in March 2010, releasing a happy hour app in partnership with GoTime. The app works in 30 U.S. cities.31

The Monterey County Weekly launched a redesigned website and a corresponding mobile app in October 2009. The California alternative newspaper’s website has more content as well as a restaurant and wine search.32

Other alt-weeklies focused on improving their websites.


Footnotes

1. Jason Zaragoza, e-mail to PEJ, January 25, 2010.

2. Tony Ortega, e-mail to PEJ, February 18, 2010.

3. Jason Zaragoza, interview with PEJ. January 22, 2010.

4. San Diego Reader reported a circulation of 149,687 for the 12 months ending June 2009, slightly less than the 149,912 reported for the same period a year before. Boston Phoenix dipped slightly to an average circulation of 98,460 for the six months ending September 2009 from an average of 98,536 for the same period in 2008.

5. E-mail from Jason Saragoza, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, February 2, 2010.

6. Tony Ortega, e-mail to PEJ, February 18, 2010.

7. Audit Bureau of Circulations. Audit Report: New York Press.

8. Audit Bureau of Circulations. Audit Report.

9. Verified Audit Circulation Publisher’s Statement.

10. Audit Bureau of Circulations Audit Report.

11. Verified Audit Circulation Publisher’s Statement.

12. Verified Audit Circulation Audit Report.

13. Mark Segraves, “Longtime Gay Publication Shutting Its Doors,” WTOP.com, November 16, 2009.

14. Creative Loafing Press Release, “Marty Petty Named New CEO of Creative Loafing, Inc.,” November 16, 2009.

15. “Henry Scott Joins Creative Loafing as New Chief Marketer,” Tampa Bay Business Journal, January 5, 2010.

16. Andrew Beaujon, “Forget About Whether City Paper Staffers Are White: How Many of Us Still Consider Ourselves Gentrifiers?” Washington City Paper City Desk Blog, January 13, 2010.

17. Andrew Beaujon, “Forget About Whether City Paper Staffers Are White: How Many of Us Still Consider Ourselves Gentrifiers?” Washington City Paper City Desk Blog, January 13, 2010.

18. Paul Farhi, “City Paper’s Wemple to Edit Local News Web Site,” Washington Post, February 24, 2010.

19. Bob Egelko, “Bay Guardian Goes After SF Weekly’s Parent,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 5, 2010.

20. Bob Egelko, “Guardian Lien on SF Weekly Parent’s Assets OKd,” SFGate.com., January 8, 2010.

21. Phil Milford and Greg Bensigner, “Village Voice Affiliate May Face Forced Bankruptcy in Ad Fight,” Bloomberg.com., January 16, 2010.

22. Audit Bureau of Circulations, publisher’s statement.

23. Lisa Rab, “Speaking of Fish Wrappers: An Interview With the President of Village Voice Media,” New Times Broward-Palm Beach, November 19, 2009.

24. Kevin Douglas Grant, “Heikes’ Herculean Task: Save the L.A. Weekly,” Neon Tommy.

25. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Washington Blade Newspaper Closes,” New York Times, November 16, 2009.

26. Bil Browning, “Top 10 LGBT Stories of 2009,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2010.

27. Bil Browning, “Top 10 LGBT Stories of 2009,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2010.

28. Erin Broadley, “LA Weekly iPhone App: Your New Essential Guide to L.A., Download it Now for Free,” October 12, 2009.

29. Philadelphia Weekly Press Release, “Philadelphia Weekly Re-Launches Happy Hour Guide as Free iPhone App,” January 12, 2010.

30. Joshua Curry, “City Paper Launches Free iPhone App to Find Local Happy Hours,” Charleston City Paper, January 14, 2010.

31. Village Voice press release, “VVMH Partners With Go Time to Launch Happy Hours Mobile App,” March 2, 1010.

32. Monterey County Weekly Press Release, “Monterey County Weekly Redesigns Website, Launches Mobile App,” October 23, 2009.

33. “Weekly Announces New Online ‘Virtual Edition,’ ” Palo Alto Online News, November 19, 2009.

34. Pittsburgh City Paper Press Release, “Pittsburgh City Paper Launches CPtv on Its Website,” January 19, 2010.