By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
After years of essentially owning the weekly news and arts market and seeing rising readership and revenue, the nation’s alternative-weekly publishers are finding a different world in the beginning of the 21st century. Competition has come to the field from a variety of sources. Daily newspapers in major cities have launched free commuter tabloids that are available at mass-transit stops. Big chains like Gannett have launched free weeklies that compete directly with the smaller alternatives. Online services like Craigslist, serve as everything from classified-ad pages to community news centers, are drawing away classified advertising dollars.
Those changes have all hit the alternative weeklies where they are most vulnerable: in advertising revenue, where the weeklies get all their money for operation. Yet the new competition, while potentially threatening, has not yet dented in any real way the bottom line of the alternative weeklies. After two or three soft years, industry revenues have begun to climb again, albeit not at the torrid pace of the 90’s. The question is whether the weeklies are simply more resilient than other media that have suffered against new competition – like newspapers that have suffered with the Internet’s growth – or whether these alternative weeklies challengers are still relatively immature.
The weeklies’ new competitors for revenue bring some distinct advantages to the table. The commuter dailies and chain-owned free weeklies have more extensive distribution networks in place. They can sell ads at special rates for both the daily paper and the free paper. Their local marketing muscle can overwhelm smaller competitors. And the fact that they are affiliated with or owned by the local daily newspapers means they often have the advantage of lower printing costs. Where classifieds are concerned, Internet services can offer search engines that make the task easier for those seeking goods and services, along with the ability to update with new listings regularly. Most alternative weeklies have their own Web classifieds, and many of them have been quite successful in generating revenues. But services like Craigslist are free, and that is hard for any pay-for-ads Web site to compete with.
Despite the new competition in advertising, the content of alternative weeklies is still distinct. Their mission, to provide a pugnacious counterpoint in news and arts coverage, is not matched by their competitors, which are chasing the revenue model more than the content model. The question is whether their specialized content will override the advantages of newer outlets and convince enough advertisers to stick where they are.
Alternative weeklies are still relatively strong, especially considering the troubles many print outlets have had in recent years, but the competition has grown.
In 2004, after two years of decline, circulation of alternative weeklies gained momentum. According to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), a trade organization, circulation rose to 7.5 million, up from 7.3 million in 2003, an increase of about 3%. The audience is still down from the all-time high of nearly 8 million in 2001, but on the current track, it may get back there soon.1 Most in the industry attributed the drop to the recession, which dried up advertising money and, in turn, led to the closing of some weeklies in competitive markets.2
Besides the recession and the closing of a few papers, some reasons for the declines in circulation were a slide in both sales and traffic in record stores, where most weeklies are distributed; the replacement of locally owned stores with chains that are less likely to allow free publications to distribute; a proliferation in the number of free-circulation publications in general (e.g., shoppers, real estate guides, auto traders), which has led to restrictive news-rack ordinances in many cities and markedly increased the competition for retail distribution space; and the growth of alt-weekly Web sites, which allow a portion of the papers’ audience (especially those who read solely for the listings or classifieds) to get the content without picking up the papers.
Association of Alternative Newsweelies Member Publications, 1989 – 2004
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data
Over time the readership of these publications has changed, growing slightly grayer and wealthier along with the overall American population.
- The median age of alternative-weekly readers increased from 38.4 in 1997 to 40.0 in 2003.3
- The average household income of readers increased from $50,583 in 1995 to $64,120 in 2003.4
1995 – 2004
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, unpublished data
*The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies did not gather data in 2000
Readership among all groups grew over the period examined in the chart above, but older audiences grew as a percentage of the readership.5 Consider, for example, how the oldest age group has increased as a percentage of the papers’ total readership – an 8% rise in readers 50 and older since 1995 – while the percentage of readers in other age groups is slowly declining.6
The readership has also become more family-oriented. A higher percentage was married in 2003 than in 1992-1994 (a period for which the organization aggregated data) – 46.9% in 2003 compared to 36.4% in 1992-94. The number of readers with children at home grew even more sharply, from 28.4% in 1992-94 to 40% in 2003.7
What’s more, those trends are the opposite of what the nation at large is experiencing. For that same period, 1992 to 2003, nationwide Census figures show the percentage of married households falling from 55% to 51%.8 The percentage of families with children under 18 at home declined from 49% to 48%.9
What accounts for the differences between the demographics for alternative weekly readers and those for the general population? One possibility is that the same issues that appeared to skew polling in the last presidential election are at play. The demographic data are gathered by interviews that require respondents to spend more than half an hour on the phone, which may tend to capture more married-with-children respondents; young people are less likely to be home or to take the time for the survey. Such polls also don’t include people who rely on cell phones for communication and may not even have land-line phones in their homes. Again, such people tend to be younger. Still, there seems to be little question that alternative weekly readers are more likely to be married with children as they age.
The demographic shifts suggest that alternative weeklies are growing into a more serious, or at least a more mature, news source. That’s not to say the best-known and most respected among the weeklies (The Village Voice in New York, Chicago Reader) only recently started taking their commitment to news seriously. They have considered themselves serious news organizations for years. But the alternative weeklies are increasingly perceived as serious news organizations by the mainstream media as their readership grows.10
The shifts in demographics and in perceptions may also have to do with new publications’ joining the field and joining AAN. In 1995, the organization included 52 publications in 46 markets. By 2003 it had 108 weeklies in 72 markets.11
While final numbers weren’t available when this report was finished, estimates for 2004 revenues among the weeklies put the total at $550 million. That would be a record for the weeklies and a substantial increase – $21 million or almost 4% – over 2003 figures.12
1992 – 2004
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data
* Based on AAN member figures
AAN internal surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that the growth came primarily in three areas: Local retail, real estate classifieds and national advertising.
National advertising is still a relatively small part of alternative weekly business, about 6% to 7% industry-wide. Small-market papers get no national advertising, and the largest papers top out at approximately 15% of total revenue. Still, the early national ad numbers for 2004 look good. The Alternative Weekly Network, which coordinates national ad sales for 100 papers, had not posted final 2004 data at the time of this report, but a preliminary accounting showed an increase of 20%, to $14 million, for national ads.13 That’s dramatic, particularly since the 2003 ad dollar figures were up roughly 7% from the previous year.14 As the economy recovers it is often those big advertisers who are looking to spend money first. National ad sales for the weeklies historically involved tobacco or alcohol products, according to Alternative Weekly Network. National sales on the whole have been growing in recent years, though tobacco ad dollars have been declining and replaced primarily by financial, automotive, high-tech, and telecommunications ads. Some of the changes undoubtedly reflect the graying and greening – growing wealth – of alternative-weekly audiences. National dollars may have presaged the larger overall ad-dollar increase the weeklies apparently experienced in 2004, as smaller local advertisers also began to advertise more.
The alternative weeklies are arguably the most sensitive to economic problems. The vast majority rely solely on advertising, and don’t get any boost from subscription dollars. The revenue boost in 2004, following an increase of less than 1% in 2003 and small declines in 2002 and 2001, may be a sign that the economy has turned a corner. It also suggests that so far anyway, the weeklies have not lost advertisers to the new competition in any large measure.15
But there may be problems lying in wait for these publications. First, the struggles of small local retailers, which are increasingly being challenged by superstore “category killers,” hurt weeklies as well, since many local ad dollars come from those small stores. Second, the continued rise of Internet and Web-based classified advertising [see Online Economics] will probably divert more money from the revenue stream. We’ll discuss those changes more fully in the next section. Suffice it to say the revenue numbers for the alternative weeklies, while good, don’t necessarily point to a bonanza ahead.
Ownership among the biggest players remained stable in 2004, with no major openings or closings. New Times, the largest owner, held on to its eleven weeklies, while Village Voice media kept its six.16
There was activity in specific markets around the country, often involving battles between large companies and independent owners.
In San Francisco in October, the family-owned Bay Guardian filed suit against two New Times weeklies in the area, charging that New Times and the weeklies had sold ads below cost to put the Guardian out of business. The Guardian said New Times was “breaking the law and using its considerable national resources in an effort to destroy a locally owned competitor so it will have the San Francisco alternative market to itself.”17
In Boston there was a new owner when Metrocorp, the publisher of Boston Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine, purchased a majority ownership of Boston’s Weekly Dig. The Dig, with a light approach to the news and a lad-magazine sensibility (think Maxim) is the self-proclaimed fastest-growing alternative weekly in the area with an unaudited circulation of 50,000.18 That number still places it far behind the long-time leader, the Boston Phoenix, which has an unaudited readership of 109,000.19 But the influx of dollars and resources Metrocorp could put into the Dig may make it more of a competitor.
The changes in San Francisco and Boston show how quickly the world of alternative weeklies is evolving. The increasing revenue numbers and desirable demographics these publications offer has not gone unnoticed. And as independents are being challenged by the “big” companies, the “big” companies are facing competition from even bigger challengers.
In addition to battling among themselves, alternative weeklies are tying to ward off competition from two different fronts. First is the arrival of free dailies, small ad-driven tabloids given out by daily newspapers primarily to mass-transit commuters. At the same time they are seeing the rise of what they call “faux alternatives,” weekly ad-driven tabs started by the towns’ dominant daily newspapers, aimed at competing with the alternative weeklies directly.
Whether the new rivals prove to be long-term competition remains to be seen. Both can work off content from their mainstream publications. The free dailies also have the money to station people at mass-transit nodes where riders are looking for something to read on their way to work or around town. These papers can guarantee a lot of eyes.
The real concern with the new competitors, however, is their central mission.
The free daily newspapers are not expected to thrive in and of themselves. Rather, they try to siphon off some of the available advertising dollars and steer readers to the parent publications, the metropolitan dailies that created them. The dailies will do anything they can to reach younger readers, who seem to be shunning daily newspapers.20
The metropolitan papers’ free dailies usually limit their content to wire service copy. They are loath to offer free the same content they would like readers to pay for. Most of the free dailies don’t even have a reporting staff as such.
The weeklies launched by large companies have a different approach. They want to take on the alternative weeklies more directly in terms of editorial packaging and are looking to attract younger audiences with heavy emphasis on entertainment coverage. There have been some significant startups in recent years. Tribune has attempted to climb into the free-weeklies market in Florida. Gannett has launched free weeklies in small and medium-sized cities around the country – Boise, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Lansing, Mich., Rochester, N.Y., Greenville, S.C. – in hopes of grabbing some audience that would normally gravitate to the alternative weeklies. Times Publishing Company, which publishes the St. Petersburg Times, started tbt* in the Tampa Bay area. Cox has entered the game with AccessAtlanta. And for several years now Knight Ridder has been publishing Street Miami.21
Among all of these companies, Tribune has experimented the most with the new youth-oriented formats. In Chicago, of course, it has RedEye, a paid-circulation daily (although many copies are given away) with content that is more like what one might see in a big-company weekly than a commuter daily. Tribune also owns a majority interest in amNewYork, a commuter daily. In Broward County, Fla., its Sun-Sentinel has been publishing a weekly called City Link (previously called XS) for years. And several years ago, Tribune acquired the Advocate/Weekly chain of four alternative papers in New England.
But the traditional alternative weeklies maintain that such efforts fall short of what they offer, notably local political and arts coverage. “They don’t concern our members in terms of coverage,” says Richard Karpel of AAN. “But they concern our members as businesses.”
When it comes to content, Karpel says, the new corporate weeklies tend to avoid delving into local politics or contentious arts issues that the alternative papers cover. “These papers are limited by the corporate culture of the companies that own them,” he says. “They try not to offend.”
Indeed, some believe that the edginess that is so characteristic of the alternative weeklies, the willingness to challenge community assumptions and norms, is what is threatened in the longer run. (And some weekly-watchers say the boldness has already waned since ownership has grown more “corporate.”)
With the help of AAN, the Project for Excellence in Journalism solicited reactions to the new competition from a group of alternative-weekly editors around the country. Their words, quoted below at some length, are revealing.
There is some concern over the possibility of losing ad dollars to their new competitors, but there is also a disdain for what the editors consider “faux weeklies” and the kind of journalism the older alternative press believes these new challengers represent. What we hear in the editors’ words is a clash of cultures, between a publishing world grounded in longer pieces, idiosyncratic writers, and literary voice in journalism, and what the editors consider an anti-literary, focus-group driven big-business competition.
Vince O’Hearn, publisher of the Isthmus in Madison, Wisconsin:
” Our market has been host to a faux-alt startup titled Core Weekly
(published by Capital Newspapers Inc.) for the last two months. It has not
gained traction in the marketplace so far. They are putting out 48 pages a
week with about 5 pages of display, which we have determined was either
given free or for a very low price, and six or seven pages of classified,
all of which are lifted from the daily product. They are causing us not a
whiff of problem to date, though their sniffing around our advertisers is
unsettling. Very few, or maybe none, are interested in their blandishments.
… Incidentally, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is rollingout their faux-alt
(they call it an alternative) this week or next.”
Chuck Strouse, editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach in Fort Lauderdale:
“Our Tribune Company-owned competition, CityLink, has gone through a rather radical
transformation – replacing news with shorter, youth, youth, youth-driven stories. Pretty much all attempts at writing about politics or afflicting the comfortable or serious journalism or substance – which was something they once attempted – is gone. As are people over 25,
serious art criticism, folk music, classical music, and anything of more
sophisticated culture. The paper was here long before we were – but now looks more like a commuter daily for dummies …”
Alison True, editor of Chicago Reader:
“Here’s one effect [of the arrival of the new competition]: an irritating tendency on the part of other media to erroneously compare the Reader to local youth dailies.
After our recent long-overdue redesign, a poster to an online discussion
accused us of “getting all Tribune on our ass. Bigger font, more color, big
pretty pictures? C’mon!” And a recent report on arts coverage in dailies, put out by the NAJP [National Arts Journalism Program] at Columbia, said youth-oriented dailies put out by Gannett and Tribune Co. “mimic” local weeklies. I don’t know about other cities, but they don’t do that here. We run magazine-style long and short features, essayistic arts reviews, and exhaustively complete entertainment listings. We compete with the dailies for ads and for readers’ time, but there’s little overlap in content.”
There is undoubtedly some truth to those critiques of the new competition, but there are larger long-term content questions ahead for the alternative weeklies as well. The weeklies grew out of the New Journalism movement, which meant many were formed around long stories and distinctive writing voices. The Village Voice came of late-1950s and early-1960s New York and the thinking of people like Norman Mailer, one of its co-founders. That period of evolution continued for years. The Chicago Reader, for instance, didn’t appear until 1971. The template of those papers was and remains stories like those that appeared in the early days of Rolling Stone, boundary-pushing stories about things that didn’t get coverage elsewhere.
Now the question is whether that format, which helped the papers increase circulation and ad revenues, will be as popular with the next generation of readers. As we show in the audience section of this chapter, the readers of the weeklies are growing richer and becoming more family-oriented, but they are also growing older.
The model the new (and what critics call “faux”) alternative weeklies are using does not follow the long-form literary style of “new journalism.” The model is more along the lines of the quintessential magazine of the 1990s, “Entertainment Weekly” – short story-lets designed for quick reading. And indeed some of the old-line alternative weeklies are experimenting with this model of journalism. “We live in a TV- and Web-dominated world, where pictures increasingly trump words, and attention spans grow shorter and more fractured,” writes Richard Karpel of AAN. “And there is a widespread recognition in our industry that we need to find new ways to communicate with readers if we expect them to continue to pick us up. The challenge for us is how to do that while maintaining our core mission.”
It’s not yet clear how much of an impact the new challenges will have on alternative weeklies over the long haul. Yet more is at stake culturally and journalistically in this dispute than which free-circulation tabloid paper prevails. The two kinds of papers offer different things to their communities. If the older alternative weeklies pass away, what replaces them as advertising vehicles will not, by any means, be duplicating what they are trying to do in terms of the politics, culture and values of the cities in which they appear. The sense of “alternative” that means offering a different perspective in the community will, to a significant extent, be gone.
For the moment, such a drastic shift is not measurable in the numbers, and apparently is not occurring. Whether that situation changes will be an important barometer measuring urban culture.
1. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, unpublished circulation figures.
2. Almost all of the papers that closed after 2000 faced alternative-weekly competition in their market: New Times Los Angeles, Local Planet Weekly (Spokane), Worcester Phoenix. Blue Dog Press (Buffalo), Casco Bay Weekly (Portland, Me.), In Pittsburgh Newsweekly.
3. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Reader Comparison data, unpublished.
5. AAN demographic data for 1992-94 comes from a different source than the data for 1995-2003. The earlier data derived in part from a Simmons Marketing study, whereas the 1995-2003 derived from national Media Audit studies. Changes in methodology between the two studies make differences in the numbers less reliable.
6. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Reader Comparison data, unpublished.
8. “Households, By Type: 1940 to Present,” U.S. Census Bureau table.
9. “Families, by Presence of Own Children Under 18: 1950 to Present,” U.S. Census Bureau table.
10. Despite the way they are increasingly taken seriously, some industry watchers note that perhaps the most influential AAN paper in the last 10 years has been The Stranger (a Seattle paper published by the people who were the original founders of The Onion), which introduced a heavy sense of irony and creative playfulness to the alt weekly template.
11. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Reader Comparison data, unpublished.
12. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies revenue figures, unpublished.
13. AAN staff interviews.
14. “Alternative Newspapers Turn in Strong ’03”, Editor and Publisher, January 14, 2004.
15. Association of Alternative Newsweeklies revenue figures, unpublished.
16. AAN Member website pages, Village Voice, Miami New Times.
17. Redmond, Tim, “Bay Guardian sues New Times chain for predatory pricing,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, Oct. 20 – Oct. 26 2004.
18. AAN Member website pages, Boston’s Weekly Dig.
19. AAN Member website pages, Boston Phoenix.
20. Free commuter dailies in some cities are owned by companies that don’t have paid dailies to convert readers to. There are, for instance, the five North American commuter dailies – published in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Montreal and Toronto – that are owned by the European company Metro International.
21. There are many more examples to cite. Freedom Communications with Get Out in Phoenix; Journal Register with Play in New Haven; Capital Newspapers with Core Weekly in Madison, Wisc.