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Alternative Weeklies: At Long Last, a Move Toward Digital

By Monica Anderson, Emily Guskin and Tom Rosenstiel  of PEJ

Alternative weeklies experienced a number of changes this year, from shifts within the main trade organization, to major staff upheavals at popular papers, and an ever-increasing focus on digital media and revenue.

Unfortunately, it was also a year that saw a double-digit decline in circulation at key papers. After only a modest decline of 0.59% in 2010, 2011 had a 13.8% dropoff in the circulation of the top 20 papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

The paper that had the largest decline in circulation was SF Weekly, an alt weekly owned by Village Voice Media. Circulation at the San Francisco newspaper dropped by 23.57%, and it no longer ranks within the top 20 U.S. weeklies. Another top-tier paper that faced dwindling circulation was Creative Loafing Atlanta. Although it had a nearly 4% increase in circulation in 2010, it declined by 14.57% in 2011.

There were some bright spots. Boston Phoenix, which already had a sizable audience, saw its numbers grow by 21.69% to 130,280. Phoenix New Times, Philadelphia City Paper, and Westword all experienced modest circulation growth between 0.20% and 0.63%.

Industry Changes

The sluggish economy has had an effect on staffing at alternative weeklies. In September, Village Voice Media, which owns several publications, announced numerous layoffs at its top weeklies, including at the New York flagship.

Film critic Jim Hoberman was laid off in early 2012 after 29 years at the paper, and a long-time senior editor, Ward Harkavy, and columnist Harry Siegel were let go in October.1 The paper also lost popular blogger Jen Doll to the Atlantic Wire in January 2012.2

The company also saw two prominent figures at its City Pages paper in Minneapolis/St. Paul leave. The paper laid off food writer Rachel Hutton and it chose not to replace veteran Erin Caryle after she resigned.3 This leaves the paper with just four staff writers.4

SF Weekly was hit hard by the downsizing, losing four editorial staff members, including one veteran, Matt Smith, who had been with the paper for over a decade.5

Village Voice Media also announced that OC Weekly staff writer Chasen Marshall had been laid off, leaving the paper with only three staff writers.6

Other papers saw significant changes as well:

In October, SouthComm Inc., an alt weekly chain based in Nashville, purchased Creative Loafing’s Charlotte and Tampa papers from parent company Creative Loafing Inc. And in March 2012 the chain purchased Cincinnati City Beat.11 SouthComm also owns the Nashville Scene, as well as Leo in Louisville, Ken., and  Pitch in Kansas City, Mo.

Creative Loafing Inc. revealed in March 2012, that it would be selling the Washington City Paper, Chicago Reader, and Creative Loafing Atlanta.12 The alt weekly group also announced a company-wide 5% pay cut, and laid off four staff members at its Atlanta weekly.13

One alternative weekly closed this year and another nearly did.

Metro Spirit, a weekly based in Augusta, Ga., closed in March due to financial problems, but was sold and reopened a month later.14 Another troubled weekly, The New York Press, which was once a chief competitor of the Village Voice, was shut down in August. Rumors of the closing first surfaced in July after two top editors resigned and its owner, Manhattan Media, began negotiations to sell the paper.15

Digital

As print shrinks, alternative weeklies have been slower to transition to digital, but 2011 saw the industry make more progress in this direction. Many papers have added another layer to its digital presence, not only through static sites, but also engaging readers through blogs, social media and mobile platforms.

Mobile and social media could play to the strengths of alternative weeklies. The sector has long distinguished itself by the voice and point of view of its writers, something that fits well with new media.

In addition, many of the publications see themselves as a “go to” source for information on restaurants, concerts and other local events. Providing this kind of information on mobile devices is a natural opportunity for these brands.

The growing importance of digital media was illustrated by major changes to the biggest trade group for the sector. Prior to 2011, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies was limited to print publications only. At its annual meeting, it reversed this policy and admitted its first online-only publication, The American Independent News Network.16

The organization also announced that it was changing its name to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia to reflect the growing role that digital media and the web has on weeklies. The organization’s president, Fran Zankowski, said that with the “increasing number of apps, digital, mobile and web platforms our companies use, it was time to reflect those in our name.”17

The move follows those of other press trade groups. Previously, the American Society of Newspaper Editors became the American Society of News Editors. And the Radio & Television News Directors Association became the Radio, Television & Digital News Association.

The Association of Alternative Newsmedia  launched an online wire service, as well,  to allow its members to share stories, videos and multimedia content. This move could help generate revenue from outside news organizations willing to buy content.18

In the alternative landscape, two papers that reflect these transitions are Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, and The Portland Mercury in Oregon. These two papers share the same publisher, Tim Keck.19

Keck said in an interview with Net News Check, a site that analyzes digital media industries, that although his publications were slow to transition online, the journalists have built an online following by intensely covering local stories and developing a relationship with their readers through their blogs.20

This type of online success brings more opportunities for revenue, as is the case with Arkansas Times.

According to its publisher, Alan Leveritt, the paper’s left-leaning blog written by Max Brantley “gets higher traffic than the paper’s home page and is a huge driver for online display ads.” Subsequently, its online ads have provided much needed revenue for the weekly publication.21

Despite these successes, many alternative weeklies continue to struggle to branch out into the digital marketplace. According to an alt weekly advertising group, Alternative Weekly Network, most weeklies are only receiving 5% of their revenue from digital.22 That is roughly one-third of the 14% that mainstream dailies make from digital, which suggests how far the alternative world has yet to go in the transition.

But Tiffany Shackelford, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, argued that weeklies are receiving relatively more digital revenue than what the Alternative Weekly Network cited. She said that some papers are “seeing double digit returns and that many weeklies are increasing investment significantly each month.”

Legal Battles

For some alternative weeklies, 2011 brought legal victories, while others saw courtroom dramas heat up.

Phoenix New Times successfully appealed its case against Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Arpaio wrongly arrested New Times staff members in retaliation for its having published an unflattering investigation into Arpaio’s real estate dealings.23

Two other papers saw defamation lawsuits against them dropped or thrown out of court. The Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, dropped his defamation suit against Washington City Paper.24 Snyder filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the City Paper, claiming the paper libeled and defamed him in a series of articles. And a Michigan judge ruled in favor of City Pulse, after a local businessman filed a libel suit against the paper after a cover story alleged that he was severely delinquent on his taxes. 25

Despite the good news for some, others are still facing legal issues.

The Santa Barbara Independent’s legal battle continued in 2011. The dispute began in 2009 after the paper’s editor-in-chief, Marianne Partridge, accused its publisher, Randy Campbell, of violating the Independent’s buy-sell agreement, by showing interest in Southland Publishing’s proposal to buy the paper.26 Since then, Partridge and Campbell have been waging a bitter fight to obtain majority control of the weekly.

While the legal drama at the Independent has gone on for years, a recent lawsuit against The San Diego Reader had just begun.

In October, three former sales representatives for The San Diego Reader filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the weekly. The former employees alleged that The Reader’s publisher, Jim Holman, was more favorable toward male employees, withheld sales promotions from women and created a hostile work environment for female employees.27

Both The Santa Barbara Independent and The San Diego Reader lawsuits are expected to continue well into 2012.

Endnotes

  1. Zaragoza, Jason. “Village Voice Lays Off Longtime Film Critic Jim Hoberman.” AAN. Jan. 5, 2012. And Stoeffel, Kat. “Village Voice Lays Off the Best of New York.” New York Observer. Oct. 26, 2011.
  2. Pompeo, Joe. “At Atlantic digital, a series of new hires.” Capital New York. Jan. 18, 2012.
  3. Brauer, David. “City Pages cuts two of six staff writer positions.” MinnPost. Sept. 27, 2012.
  4. City Pages Website. Feb. 28, 2012.
  5. Fleischer, Matthew. “OC Weekly, SF Weekly Hit With Layoffs.” FishBowlLA. Sept. 28, 2011.
  6. Fleischer, Matthew. “OC Weekly, SF Weekly Hit With Layoffs.” FishBowlLA. Sept. 28, 2011.
  7. Zaragoza, Jason. “Longtime Arkansas Times Editor Max Brantley Steps Down.” AAN. June 29, 2011.
  8. Kane, Will. “Layoffs at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.” San Francisco Chronicle. July 27, 2011.
  9. Drayer, Jacqueline. “The Shuffle: Summer Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes.” AAN. Sept. 30, 2011. And Zaragoza, Jason. “Mara Shalhoup Named Editor of Chicago Reader.” AAN. Feb. 7, 2011.
  10. Zaragoza, Jason. “Sarah Fenske To replace Heikes as editor of LA Weekly.” AAN. Oct. 24, 2011.
  11. SouthComm Inc.Website. March 5, 2012.
  12. Beaujon, Andrew. “Alt-weeklies in Atlanta, Chicago, D.C. to be sold, but first pay cuts.” Poynter. Mar. 14, 2012.
  13. Beaujon, Andrew. “Alt-weeklies in Atlanta, Chicago, D.C. to be sold, but first pay cuts.” Poynter. Mar. 14, 2012.
  14. Whiten, Jon. “Metro Spirit Returns.” AAN. April 15, 2011.
  15. Coscarelli, Joe. “New York Press to Close? Manhattan Media Publisher Tom Allon Makes No Promises Beyond Labor Day.” Village Voice. July 22, 2011.
  16. Zaragoza, Jason. “AAN Members Approve Name Change, Elect Zankowski as President.” AAN. July 26, 2011.
  17. Zaragoza, Jason. “AAN Members Approve Name Change, Elect Zankowski As President.” AAN. July 26, 2011.
  18. Ellis, Justin. “Alt weeklies eye an AP of their own with content exchange.” Nieman Journalism Lab. Mar. 5, 2012.
  19. Depp, Michael. “Alt Weeklies Mine Roots to Drive Web Rev.” NetNewsCheck. Jan. 30, 2012.
  20. Depp, Michael. “Alt Weeklies Mine Roots to Drive Web Rev.” NetNewsCheck. Jan. 30, 2012.
  21. Depp, Michael. “Agile Alt Media Adapting to Digital Challenges.” NetNewsCheck. Jan. 31, 2012.
  22. Depp, Michael. “Agile Alt Media Adapting to Digital Challenges.” NetNewsCheck. Jan. 31, 2012.
  23. King, James. “New Times Wins Appeal; Lawsuit Against Joe Arpaio Et Al to Be Heard by Full Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.” Phoenix New Times. Nov. 10, 2011.
  24. Zaragoza, Jason. “Dan Snyder Drops Lawsuit Against Washington City Paper.” AAN. Sept. 20, 2011.
  25. City Pulse Staff. “City Pulse wins libel suit.” City Pulse. Nov. 17, 2011.
  26. Zaragoza, Jason. “Legal Dispute Over Control of the Santa Barbara Independent Continues.” AAN. Dec. 1, 2011.
  27. Maass, Dave. “Former employees accuse San Diego Reader of gender discrimination.” San Diego City Beat. Nov. 8, 2011.