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Alternative Weeklies: Seeking to Stay Relevant

By Emily Guskin, Paul Moore and Amy Mitchell of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Alternative weeklies went through a year of signs of business improvement, some cases of personnel turmoil and modest but noticeable efforts to move toward a digital future.

The combined circulation of the top-25 U.S. weekly papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, all free publications, declined only 0.59% in 2010 compared with a 9.92% decrease the year before. This compares to a 2.5% decrease for the top-circulating mainstream daily newspapers.1

One of the largest declines, 12.45% occurred at the Seattle Weekly, a paper that has been losing circulation since 2007.

The biggest winner among the largest alt weeklies was Creative Loafing (Atlanta), whose circulation sales rose 3.9% to 100,384 in 2010 from 96,654 the year before.

The largest alternative weekly in circulation, New York’s Village Voice, saw circulation fall 3.6%, to 190,053 for the 12 months ending June 2010.

The Voice also went through turmoil inside the newsroom early in 2011.  Publisher Michael Cohen announced he would leave in April, to be replaced by the current publisher of SF Weekly, Josh Fromson (SF Weekly’s advertising director, Gil Padia, will replace Fromson at SF Weekly.)2 And two long-time icons of muckraking exposés at the Village Voice also left amid controversy. Wayne Barrett, who had been at the Voice since 1973, was laid off, and reporter Tom Robbins quit in protest over Barrett’s firing.3

Another alternative weekly witnessed newsroom controversy as well. In June 2010, Chicago Reader publisher Alison Draper and parent company CEO Marty Petty fired long-term editor Alison True.4 Draper said she and Petty fired True because of “nothing short of a leadership issue,” explaining to the paper’s senior editor Michael Miner that True was “highly successful leading the paper,” but that she was not the best person to lead the Reader in the future.5 Miner described True’s firing as a “tragic misjudgment” in a blog post the day she was fired.6 True had been at the paper for 26 years and was its editor for 16 years.7 Then in November, after four months in the editor’s position, True’s replacement, Kiki Yablon, unexpectedly announced her resignation. Associate publisher Geoff Dougherty took over as interim editor, but in January, also departed, citing personal reasons.8 Subsequently, in February, Mara Shalhoup, the editor of Creative Loafing (Atlanta) was hired as editor, with a start date in early March. 9

Another paper lost a long-term employee in 2010 when Paul Curci, the publisher of Philadelphia City Paper, stepped down after 27 years, 14 of those as publisher. Associate publisher Nancy Stuski replaced Curci on Dec. 31, 2010.10

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., another publisher left. In February 2011, City Pages publisher Mark Bartel stepped down from the paper after 13 years.11

There was also a change in ownership for at least one alt weekly in 2010. In April, Syracuse New Times owner Art Zimmer sold the alt weekly to William Brod, a local entrepreneur.  The 71-year-old Zimmer said the need for new and younger leadership prompted the sale.12

Digital and design

For a medium that has survived over the last several decades as a source of information about culture and personnel connection, alternative weeklies have a slightly different potential with digital media than some other forms of journalism. Information about where to eat, and where to see concerts and movies are central to the publications’ revenue and readership. Accordingly, several alt weeklies launched free smartphone apps in 2010, with many focusing on helping users better navigate the social scene.  “Some media outlets are doomed if they don’t read the cultural trends,” author and media specialist Patricia Martin said, “But independents have a secret weapon, they just need to optimize it.”13

Other alt weeklies got face-lifts. During the spring, Village Voice Media announced its plans to replace the traditional covers of all 14 of its publications with glossy ones by 2012.18

Some conversions have already taken place, including at the Houston Press and SF Weekly, which switched over in 2010. 19

Other papers that undertook design changes in 2010 included Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Texas Observer and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.20

Legal issues

One other front worth mentioning involving alternative weeklies during the year was in the courtroom. The long-running alt weekly legal debacle between SF Weekly and Bay Guardian continued in 2010.  In 2008, a jury found the Weekly guilty of selling ads below cost in an effort to drive Bay Guardian out of business. The court ordered the newspaper to pay its competitor $21 million in damages. In an effort to help Bay Guardian collect its award, a Superior Court commissioner ruled in April 2010 that the plaintiff was entitled to half of SF Weekly’s ad revenue. SF Weekly immediately appealed the decision, but the ruling was upheld in August in California’s First District Court of Appeals.21 The following month, SF Weekly and Village Voice Media petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the decision.22

Other alternative weeklies also found themselves under legal attack.  A Virginia state delegate, Joseph D. Morrissey, sued Richmond’s Style Weekly for libel because a 2008 article in the paper stated that the state delegate committed illegal acts and unethical behavior. The case was settled out of court for “a significant cash settlement,” Morrissey’s lawyer told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.23

Elsewhere, a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of a defamation suit against the Cleveland Scene brought on by an Ohio doctor.24 And in Baltimore, a jury sided in favor of the plaintiff in a defamation suit against the Baltimore City Paper, ordering it to pay $350,000 in damages after the paper reported that a Florida man was a federal fugitive when he was not.25 In Washington, D.C., the owner of the Redskins football team, Dan Snyder filed a lawsuit against the City Paper in February 2011, claiming the paper libeled and defamed him in a series of articles, seeking $2 million plus unspecified punitive damages.26

Gay Newspapers

There was news involving another set of newspapers not traditionally defined as alternative weeklies — papers targeted at gay audiences. One of these papers, The Washington Blade, experienced a revival in 2010.

Even after its parent company, Windows and Unite Media, closed in November 2009 the Blade successfully rematerialized in 2010.

Staff members of the Blade continued publishing the paper under the name DC Agenda until April 2010, when they acquired the assets of the Washington Blade in bankruptcy court and brought the Blade name back.27

Other papers formally owned by Windows and Unite Media closed, including the Houston Voice, the South Florida Blade, and 411 Magazine.

At least one gay newspaper grew. Since the New England Blade closed in 2008, the free Bay Windows in Boston increased its circulation ten-fold to 20,000 in 2010, from 2,000 in 2008.28 It also absorbed a monthly newspaper aimed at gay and lesbian seniors in February 2011.29

Endnotes

  1. Last year we examined the entire directory of newspapers belonging to the Association of Alternative Newspapers, but circulation figures were not available for all of them in 2010. Thus, we narrowed the focus to the larger American weeklies.
  2. Zaragoza, Jason. “Village Voice, SF Weekly Change Publishers.”AAN. Jan. 26, 2011.
  3. Peters, Jeremy W. “Barrett and Robbins Out at Village Voice.” The New York Times. Jan. 4, 2011.
  4. Miner, Michael. “Alison Draper on Alison True.” Chicago Reader. June 29, 2010. Creative Loafing owns Chicago Reader.
  5. Miner, Michael. “Alison Draper on Alison True.” Chicago Reader. June 29, 2010. Creative Loafing owns Chicago Reader.
  6. Miner, Michael. “Alison True Fired as Reader Editor.” Chicago Reader. June 25, 2010.
  7. Miner, Michael. “Alison Draper on Alison True.” Chicago Reader. June 29, 2010.
  8. Zaragoza, Jason. “Chicago Reader Editor Announces Resignation.” AAN. Nov. 22, 2010.
  9. Miner, Michael. “Reader Names Mara Shalhoup Editor.” Chicago Reader. Feb. 7, 2011.
  10. Zaragoza, Jason. “Philadelphia City Paper Publisher Paul Curci Announces Departure.” AAN. Oct. 14, 2010.
  11. Shaffer, David. “City Pages Publisher Leaves.” Star-Tribune. Feb. 16, 2011.
  12. Longtime Owner Sells Syracuse New Times.” AAN. April 9, 2010.
  13. What is the ‘Secret Weapon’ of Alt-Weeklies?” AAN. June 21, 2010.
  14. Announcing the Free SF Weekly iPhone App, The Definitive Guide to S.F. – You’re Welcome.” SF Weekly. June 4, 2010.
  15. VVM Releases Five Free iPhone Apps.” AAN. July 29, 2010.
  16. Curry, Joshua. “City Paper Launches Free iPhone App to Find Local Happy Hours.” Charleston City Paper. Jan.14, 2010. And “Philadelphia Weekly Re-Launches Happy Hour Guide as Free iPhone App.” Press Release. Jan. 12, 2010. And “Pittsburgh City Paper Launches Cocktail Compass Happy Hour iPhone App.” Press Release. July 13, 2010.
  17. ’JFP Mobile’ App Live in the Apple Store.” Press Release. May 13, 2010. And “Palo Alto Weekly Launches Apps for iPhone, Android.” Press Release. July 22, 2010.
  18. VVMH Plans to Roll Out Glossy Covers for All its Publications.” Press Release. March 5, 2010.
  19. Connelly, Richard. “Houston Press Goes All Glossy.” Houston Press. Oct. 7, 2010; “SF Weekly Goes Glossy.” Press Release. March 4, 2010.
  20. A New START for Atlanta’s Alt Weekly.” June 10, 2010. And “The Redesign of the Texas Observer.” Feb. 1, 2010. And “San Francisco Bay Guardian Redesigns Website.” AAN. Feb. 12, 2010.
  21. Lee, Henry. “Appellate Court Upholds Bay Guardian Damages.” SF Gate. Aug. 21, 2010.
  22. Zaragoza, Jason. “Bay Guardian’s Battle with SF Weekly Shifts to Calif. Supreme Court.” AAN. Nov. 4, 2010.
  23. Morrissey, Style Weekly Settle $10 Million Libel Lawsuit.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. April 13, 2010.
  24. Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal of Suit Against Cleveland Scene.” AAN. Jan. 7, 2010.
  25. Kearney, Brendan. “Defamation Costs.” On the Record. Sept. 24, 2010.
  26. Coach vs. Reporter.” Washington Post. Feb. 4, 2011.
  27. Zak, Dan. “Gay Weekly D.C. Agenda Sets a Memorable Date: The Return of the Washington Blade.” Washington Post. April 27, 2010.
  28. Diaz, Johnny. “Standing Proud, Still.” Boston Globe. Dec. 5, 2010.
  29. Diaz, Johnny. “Bay Windows Acquires Monthly Paper.” Boston Globe. Jan. 26, 2011.