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Alternative Weeklies: Rethinking Strategy in the Digital Age

By Monica Anderson, Emily Guskin, and Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Research Center

For the nation’s alternative weekly newspapers, 2012 proved to be another year of contraction and churn as the industry sought new ways to build better revenue models.

Some papers engaged in substantial experimentation on the digital side in 2012, but at this point, monetizing the online business remains largely an elusive goal. There were other efforts to generate new revenue as well.

In March 2013, one of the largest papers, The Boston Phoenix, announced it was ceasing publication after nearly a half century. This followed a recent move to shift the alt weekly  from traditional newsprint to a glossy magazine format. In recent years, nearly a dozen alt weeklies have made the same move, which is designed to make them more attractive to advertisers. 

One interesting trend in 2012 saw having larger legacy newspaper companies buying alternative weeklies. The Chicago Reader, SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian were all sold to parent companies of such papers in 2012. While this could be viewed as a positive development, it did not work well for one alt weekly. That was The Other Paper, a Columbus weekly that was bought by the company that owns that city’s mainstream daily, which closed it in early 2013.

There were significant changes at the Village Voice, the country’s best known and oldest alt weekly. Its circulation dropped substantially, several staff writers were laid off, its editor resigned and its parent company was sold.

Circulation

The combined circulation of the top 20 alt weeklies, free publications that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the largest trade organization for alt weeklies, declined by 8% in 2012. While significant, that drop was less severe than in 2011, when circulation fell by 14%. The association’s executive director, Tiffany Shackelford, attributed the circulation loss in larger papers, in part, to increased competition and asserted that papers in smaller markets are faring better.1

Top 20 American Alternative Weekly Newspapers

Long the largest alt weekly, New York’s Village Voice no longer claims that title. The Voice’s circulation dropped by 15% to 157,050 in 2012 from 184,377 in 2011. Now LA Weekly  has the largest circulation in the alt weekly genre. The Weekly’s circulation (160,128) was flat in 2012.

The paper that experienced the largest percentage drop in circulation amongst the top 20 alt weeklies was The Boston Phoenix. That paper’s circulation fell by 29% to 103,629 for the six-month period ending September 2012 compared to the same period in 2011. That decrease comes after a 22% increase in circulation in 2011.

Another publication suffering a readership plunge was the Baltimore City Paper, which lost 24% of its circulation in 2012, dropping it out of the top 20 most circulated papers. Circulation fell to 59,297 down from 77,354 in 2011.

Of the largest alternative weeklies, only the Phoenix New Times (91,355) experienced any increase in circulation in 2012 and that gain was minuscule at 0.14%.

Industry Changes 

Village Voice Media

There were a number of changes and some downsizing at the nation’s largest chain of alternative weeklies, Village Voice Media.

In September 2012, Voice Media Group, a holding company comprising Village Voice management, purchased the company from its founding owners, James Larkin and Michael Lacey.2 The controversial backpage.com—a classified ads website that has been criticized for running ads linked to sex trafficking—was not sold in the deal. The negotiations were lead by Scott Tobias, who was named the chief executive of Voice Media and had previously served as chief operating officer of Village Voice Media.3

Several months later, in January 2013, Village Voice Media Group’s SF Weekly was sold to the San Francisco Newspaper Company and its Seattle Weekly was sold to Sound Publishing, which is based in Washington State, bringing its holdings down to 11 weeklies, from 13 in 2011.4

The company’s flagship paper, the Village Voice, experienced some significant personnel departures in 2012. Three staff writers—Camille Dodero, Steven Thrasher and Victoria Bekiempis—were laid off in August and a month later, music editor Maura Johnston was let go.5 Also in September, Tony Ortega, the editor-in-chief, resigned after five years at The Voice.6 Will Bourne, replaced Ortega in November 2012.7

In June, citing the recession as the reason, Village Voice Media announced that the editorial staff for the New Times-Broward Palm Beach would relocate to the Miami New Times offices.8 The two papers remain independent and produce separate content, but they now share the Miami New Times editor, Chuck Strouse.9 The New Times Broward’s editor, Eric Barton, was let go after 10 years.

In January 2013, the Miami New Times broke a story that rocked the baseball world. It linked several players, including superstar Alex Rodriguez to a Miami anti-aging clinic that allegedly provided performance-enhancing drugs.10 In February, baseball executives asked Strouse to share the paper’s documents in order to aid Major League Baseball’s investigation into illegal doping, but the editor’s decision to hand over documents had not been finalized.11

Creative Loafing

Once one of the largest alt weekly chains, Creative Loafing went out of business in 2012.

The company was founded in 1972 and at one time owned as many as six papers, but in 2008 Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy.12 In 2009, the chain was sold for $5 million to Atalaya Capital Management, a private equity fund and the paper’s largest creditor.13

When Atalaya bought the chain, it promised it would keep Creative Loafing’s papers running, but only a few years later, Atalaya sold all but one: Creative Loafing Sarasota, which it shut down in 2010.14 After it closed, Creative Loafing Sarasota’s name and some of its content were sold to a legacy newspaper company, the Herald-Tribune Media Group.15

The chain’s last remaining publications, The Washington City Paper and Creative Loafing Atlanta, were sold to SouthComm Inc. in July 2012.16 SouthComm is a Nashville-based chain that also purchased Creative Loafing’s Charlotte and Tampa papers in 2011.17 The company now owns eight alternative weeklies, even more than the six that Creative Loafing once owned,  making it the second-biggest chain only behind Voice Media Group.  

Other Alt Weekly Companies

Ownership moves and corporate restructuring were not limited to the large alt weekly companies. Changes abounded at smaller operations as well in 2012:

  • In December 2012, publishers for the Long Island Press, in the suburbs of New York City, announced that the paper would switch from a weekly to a monthly. The staff continued to update the paper’s website on a daily basis.18
  • Black & White, an alt weekly in Birmingham, Ala., for 21 years, suspended publication in January 2013 “pending a redesign of its print product and a retooling of its business model.”19 The publishers have not given a timetable of when the weekly would return.

There were some significant staff changes in the alt weekly world in 2012:

  • Baltimore City Paper’s editor, Lee Gardner, left in April after 17 years with the weekly.22
  • Editor Michael Schaffer left the Washington City Paper in June after two years on the job.23
  • Creative Loafing Atlanta’s editor-in-chief, Eric Celeste, resigned in October after one year. The paper’s senior editor, Debbie Michaud, replaced him.24
  • Mike Seely, Seattle Weekly’s editor-in-chief, stepped down in January 2013. Seely had worked at the paper since 2006.25

Trends to Watch

Alternative weeklies looked for new ways to survive in 2012. In September, the Phoenix Media Group announced the company would merge The Boston Phoenix, a 47–year-old weekly, with another one of its publications, the lifestyle magazine Stuff. The result was a new format and a new name, a glossy magazine called The Phoenix. With those changes, five Boston Phoenix staff members were laid off.26 Only six months later, the paper folded.

The Phoenix decision to go glossy is part of a larger trend that has emerged in recent years. The Chicago Reader switched to this format in 2011 and the San Diego Reader did so in 2010.27 Also, several papers belonging to Village Voice Media, including Phoenix New Times, Houston Press, Denver’s Westword, Miami New Times and New Times Broward-Palm Beach, and what was then a Voice publication, SF Weekly, have all transitioned to glossy covers in the past few years.28

Glossy papers can help increase ad revenue and attract larger brands to advertise, according to Tiffany Shackelford, the executive director for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.29

Additionally, The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal wrote that the goal for alt publishers was to make glossies “seem less disposable, more indispensable and more distinct in a crowded media marketplace.”30

Another development saw legacy media companies buying alternative weeklies in 2012, an interesting phenomenon because in many markets, the alternative press was often highly critical—in media columns and elsewhere—of their mainstream brethren.

In May, the parent company of The Chicago Sun-Times bought the 41-year-old Chicago Reader for $3 million from Creative Loafing, Inc.31 The Reader’s media writer, Michael Miner, explained the appeal of alt weeklies by stating “we offered advertisers, readers that none of their other papers were reaching and content—listings mainly—that could be shared with those papers.”32

The Chicago Reader is the largest alt weekly in circulation to share an owner with a daily paper in the same city.

Two long-time alt rivals, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and SF Weekly, were sold to the San Francisco Newspaper Company, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, a daily founded in 1865.33 The Bay Guardian was sold in April 2012, followed by SF Weekly in January 2013. The company’s co-owner, Todd Vogt, told the online news site SF Appeal that those acquisitions would give his business “greater readership, reach, and audience in the Bay Area.”34

Other alt weeklies that share ownership with a legacy paper include Las Vegas Weekly (sold in 1998), The Hartford (Conn.) Advocate (1999), The Times of Acadiana in Louisiana (2000), and Las Vegas CityLife (2005).35

But being purchased by a traditional newspaper may not always benefit an alt weekly.

In Ohio, The Other Paper closed its doors in January 2013 after 23 years in business.36 The alt weekly’s owners, Dispatch Publishing, shut it down after 16 months of ownership. Dispatch Publishing also owns The Columbus Dispatch, a daily newspaper, and one other alt weekly, Columbus Alive.37 Company executives said they decided to focus on their first alternative weekly, Alive, stating that “one publication would better serve our readers and advertisers.”38

Digital

In 2012, mobile technology reached a new threshold, with 50% of Americans reporting that they owned either a smartphone or a tablet, according to an October 2012 Pew Research Center survey. Researchers also found that 64% of tablet owners and 62% of smartphone owners access news on their mobile devices.39

Alt weeklies attempted to benefit from this trend in 2012, although monetizing mobile news and information remains a challenge. One potential advantage for these papers is their ability to leverage their expertise of local events, restaurants and concerts to develop mobile apps. 

Tiffany Shackelford said that she saw “mobile as one of the most important ways that alt media can increase monetization.”40 She believes that weeklies can capitalize on relationships with local merchants and create profitable digital ads.

One Vermont alt weekly, Seven Days, has made a concerted effort to develop its digital and mobile services. “We’re still not generating a large percentage of our revenue online,” the paper’s publisher, Paula Routly, said, “but we’ve found some digital success.” The paper has two mobile apps. One, BurlApp was released in December 2012 and is a mobile listings app for tourists. In mid-2013, the app is to be expanded to give users the ability to order food, book hotel rooms and pay local merchants.41

The other is the Seven Days App which allows users to view the latest print issue and provides digital-only features, like videos and photos.42

Other alt weeklies focused on location-based apps. In January 2013, the Voice Media Group announced a partnership with the social networking site Foursquare that allows users to “check-in” at specific locations and events that Voice publications have featured in its “Best of” sections.43

Some weeklies have created new online business strategies. The Arkansas Times created a social media service for local businesses that manages companies’ Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as providing photos and other digital content. The service has two dedicated staff members and uses the paper’s production staff when needed. It has signed up 23 clients that brought $15,000 a month in revenue to the paper in 2011. Publishers expected those figures to double in 2012, but they have not been reported yet.44

Another example of an alt weekly seeking revenue online is The Stranger in Seattle. The paper’s website has a ticketing service, similar to Ticketmaster, for concerts and events and the paper receives a commission from every ticket sold on its website.45

Elsewhere, Oakland’s East Bay Express launched an online service for local merchants. The service provides free directory listings and charges businesses between $40 and $60 monthly for other services, including ads tailored for social media and website publishing. Michael Depp of Net News Check reported that about 220 businesses had purchased the services, while 5,000 are participating for free.46

Despite these innovations, few papers are seeing the kind of turnaround needed to counter the revenue losses racked up in the last decade. Their predicament was summed up by former Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, who noted in an interview with Net News Check that alt weeklies “are terribly stressed in trying to figure out how to make money either from print or from digital.”47

Endnotes

  1. Shackelford, Tiffany. Interview with Pew Research Center. Feb. 20, 2013.
  2. Ha, Anthony. "Village Voice Media Execs Acquire The Company’s Famed Alt Weeklies, Form New Holding Company." Tech Crunch. Sept. 23, 2012.
  3. Pankratz, Howard. "Denver Company Buying Village Voice Media Holdings and Westword." Denver Post. Sept. 25, 2012.
  4. Zaragoza, Jason. "Seattle Weekly and SF Weekly Sold in Separate Transactions." AAN. Jan. 9, 2013.  
  5. Coscarelli, Joe. "Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega Quits to Pursue Scientology Book." New York Magazine. Sept. 14, 2012.
  6. Beaujon, Andrew. "Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega Leaves the Alt-Weekly." Poynter. Sept. 15, 2012.
  7. King, James. "The Voice Has a New Editor in Chief: Meet Will Bourne." The Village Voice. Nov. 15, 2012.
  8. "Good-bye, Eric Barton. We’ll Miss Ya." New Times Broward-Palm Beach. June 20, 2012.
  9. Griffin, Justine. "New Times Broward-Palm Beach to move to Miami." Sun Sentinel. June 20, 2012.
  10. Elfrink, Tim. "A Miami Clinic Supplies Drugs to Sports’ Biggest Names." Miami New Times. Jan. 31, 2013.
  11. Schmidt, Michael S. and Steve Eder. "Newspaper Wrestles with M.L.B.’s Request for Documents." New York Times. Feb. 8, 2013.  
  12. Iwan, Christine. "Creative Loafing Founder Sells Company to Her Children." AAN. July 6, 2000. And "More on Creative Loafing’s Bankruptcy Protection Filing." AAN. Sept. 30, 2008.  
  13. Whiten, Jon. "Creditor Gains Control of Creative Loafing." AAN. Aug. 25, 2009.
  14. Whiten, Jon. "Creditor Gains Control of Creative Loafing." AAN. Aug. 25, 2009.
  15. Zaragoza, Jason. "Creative Loafing Sarasota Sold, Will Print Final Issue." AAN. Dec. 15, 2010.
  16. Zaragoza, Jason. "SouthComm Acquires Washington City Paper and Creative Loafing Atlanta." AAN. July 13, 2012.
  17. "The State of the News Media 2012." Pew Research Center.
  18. Morey, Jed. "The Press is Going Monthly. Here’s Why." JedMorey.com. Dec. 6, 2012.
  19. Diel, Stan. "Alternative weekly Black & White suspends publication, plans to re-launch after retooling." Alabama Media Group. Jan. 11, 2013.
  20. Zaragoza, Jason. "Portico Sells Columbia Free Times." AAN. Dec. 20, 2012.
  21. Zaragoza, Jason. "Steve Schewel Announces Sale of Independent Weekly." AAN. Aug. 22, 2012.
  22. Zaragoza, Jason. "Baltimore City Paper Editor Lee Gardner Departs." AAN. March 29, 2012.
  23. Beaujon, Andrew. "Washington City Paper Editor Mike Schaffer Leaves for the New Republic." Poynter. June 14, 2012.
  24. Zaragoza, Jason. "Creative Loafing Atlanta Editor Eric Celeste Signs Off." AAN. Oct. 10, 2012.
  25. Zaragoza, Jason. "Seattle Weekly Editor Mike Seely Stepping Down." AAN. Jan. 15, 2013.
  26. van der Pool, Lisa. "Stuff Magazine folds; Boston Phoenix to Relaunch as a Glossy." Boston Business Journal. Aug. 1, 2012.
  27. Zaragoza, Jason. "Chicago Reader Goes Glossy in Redesign." AAN. April 27, 2012.
  28. "VVMH Plans to Roll Out Glossy Covers for All its Publications." AAN. March 5, 2010.
  29. Shackelford, Tiffany. Interview with the Pew Research Center. Feb. 2, 2013.
  30. Rosenthal, Phil. "Chicago Reader to Unveil Alternative Weekly’s New Design." Chicago Tribune. April 27, 2012.
  31. Miner, Michael. "Wrapports buys the Reader." Chicago Reader. May 23, 2012.
  32. Miner, Michael. Interview with the Pew Research Center. Jan. 22, 2012.
  33. "San Francisco Examiner LinkedIn Page." Feb. 20, 2012.
  34. Batey, Eve. "Management: No Plans to Consolidate SF Weekly, Bay Guardian, Examiner." SF Appeal. Jan. 9, 2012.
  35. Reza, James P. "Go: Where to Go, What to do & Why." Las Vegas Mercury. March 17, 2005. And Zurowski, Cory. "Advocate Chain Bought by a Daily." AAN. April 15, 1999. And Iwan, Christine. "Former AAN Paper Bought By Gannett." AAN News. June 13, 2000. And Las Vegas City Life Website. Feb. 19, 2012.
  36. Wernecke, John. "Central Ohio’s The Other Paper Goes Dark." The Lantern. Jan. 31, 2013.
  37. "In Columbus, Farewell to The Other Paper." Media Life Magazine. Jan. 8, 2013.
  38. "In Columbus, Farewell to The Other Paper." Media Life Magazine. Jan. 8, 2013.
  39. "Future of Mobile News." Pew Research Center. Oct. 1, 2012.
  40. Schackelford, Tiffany. Interview with the Pew Research Center. Feb. 2, 2013.
  41. Routly, Paula. Interview with the Pew Research Center. Feb. 2, 2013.
  42. Routly, Paula. Interview with the Pew Research Center. Feb. 2, 2013.
  43. Wolford, Josh. "Foursquare Partners with Voice Media Group for More Local Data." WebProNews. Jan. 22, 2013.
  44. Powell, Tracie. "How Some Alt-Weeklies are Innovating their Way Out of Crisis." Poynter. May 3, 2012.
  45. Martin, Jonathan. "Seattle’s Tim Keck Forever Remains The Stranger." The Seattle Times. July 4, 2011.
  46. Depp, Michael. "Alt Media Mine New Revenue Alternatives." Net News Check. Jan. 29, 2013.
  47. Depp, Michael. "Kennedy: No Papers Getting It Right In Digital." Net News Check. Jan. 21. 2013.