| Alternative Weeklies
Circulation among alternative weeklies was up again in 2005, according to figures from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The average circulation among all AAN members reached 7.64 million in 2005, up from 7.58 million in 2004.1
The industry is still below its all-time peak of 7.79 million in 2001. The recession hurt the weeklies, particularly in the area of national advertising, and some titles folded. But since bottoming out at 7.33 million in 2003, the weeklies have regained upward momentum in circulation.2
The demographic data for the alternative weekly audience didn’t shift in any dramatic way in 2005, though there were some very small changes recorded in an annual survey by the Alternative Weekly Network, which sells national ads for weeklies. The survey examined readers of 108 different weeklies in 72 different markets. Readers 18 to 24 years old increased to 14.8% in 2005, up from 14.3% in 2004, according to the data. The median age of readers, however, held steady at 40.3
The percentage of weekly readers who were married climbed to 48.2 in 2005, from 46.9 in 2004. And the number of readers with children at home was up to 41.3% from 40%. Both numbers represent high-water marks since 1995, the first year for which survey data were available, and the changes may represent a few trends.4
The alternative weeklies are well-established papers, entrenched in many communities as more than simply tabloids for the young. As we have mentioned in previous years, weeklies are by no means outsider publications; their readers have an average income of over $51,000 and more than 40% of them have college degrees. And the rising rate of those who are married with children in the house reinforces their broader appeal. The gap between the weeklies’ readers with a “child at home” and the market average has narrowed. In 1995, some 35.4% of such readers had a child at home, and for the market that figure was 42.4% — a difference of 7 percentage points. In 2005, 41.3% of weekly readers had a child at home, while 43.6% of the market did — a difference of only 2.3 points.5
Those numbers indicate not only that more households in the alternative weekly markets have children, but also that more parents are reading them. That may suggest that readers of the weeklies are not moving away from them as they grow older, but continuing to read the papers. And in coming years that may mean that weeklies will begin reaching out to different advertisers and altering their content to appeal to the older readers.
As this report was compiled the final economic data from 2005 were not yet available. But there was an interesting trend at the national level with advertising: national ads in the alternative weeklies fell after being steady for a few years.
National ads have declined over all since 2001, when they brought in about $50 million. But for a while the national ad dollars held fairly steady in the range of $30 million to $40 million, according to Mark Hanzlik of the Alternative Weekly Network, which sells national ads for 110 weeklies. In 2005, AWN was estimating, the total dropped below $30 million.6
AWN splits the national ad sales market with the Ruxton Group, a company owned by the alternative weekly publisher New Times. The two sell more or less the same amount of national ads for their clients, with a small amount of national ads being negotiated by some weeklies themselves. In 2004, AWN and Ruxton sold about $13 million in national ads each, with another $5 million being contracted by a few weeklies directly. The 2005 numbers for AWN were down to about $10.5 million. If the rest of the national ad math holds, it would put the final national ad figure around $25 million to $26 million.7
But using those numbers as a way to understand future ad sales might be difficult. In October New Times, owner of Ruxton, and the Village Voice announced that they would merge. That step will probably change the dollar split between the two major ad companies, since AWN used to sell ads for the Village Voice. But it may also change the amount of ads sold and how much they are sold for.
The merger, subject to government approval, would give the new company leverage in the marketplace. If advertisers want to reach the biggest alternative papers in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Miami or Houston they have to go through it. On top of that, Ruxton also manages the ads for papers in Chicago, Washington and San Diego, giving the company leverage in most of the biggest markets.
And the alternative weekly reader is a desirable target for an advertiser. According to AWN research, weekly readers are 20% more likely to stay in a hotel than the market as a whole, 35% more likely to rent a car, 36% more likely to ski — as well as 67% more likely to attend a rock/pop concert and 48% more likely to frequent a bar.8
There do seem to be different economic situations for small-market and larger-market weeklies. With no final ad figures in for 2005, Richard Karpel of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies said the smaller-market publications were not yet facing the same kind of competition as their big-market brethren. The local dailies in those markets have not yet created commuter dailies or their own weekly publications. And some smaller AAN member publications, like those in Athens, Ga.; Norwalk, Conn.; Portland, Maine ; and Wausau, Wis., don’t yet have a Craigslist.com site for their towns to take away classified ads. Even in the secondary markets where Craigslist.com does have a site — Memphis, Indianapolis, Birmingham, etc. — it hasn’t had the same traction it has in the bigger markets.9
Weeklies in larger markets have had to adjust to that competition, particularly to Craigslist.com, which has large sites in big cities. Some have improved their Web classifieds to make them easier to use. Some have included new free classifieds. And some have done both.
But the fact is that numerous factors are eating into growth for large-market weeklies. The publications in larger cities are older and more mature, their growth phase largely behind them. Distribution for is tougher for them; competition for space in the street boxes and in stores is hard, and news-rack ordinances can limit space. And consider the sub-niches that have developed in large cities: often more than one daily, maybe a commuter daily, free auto advertising circulars, free real estate circulars, neighborhood publications and local Web sites designed to target specific ad areas, real estate or employment listings. Many of those competitors are less than a decade old. The large-market alternative weeklies are bleeding from dozens of little cuts.
In January 2005 the Village Voice announced a major overhaul of its online classifieds, focusing on real estate ads — the Voice’s real estate classifieds have long been the choice of renters in the city — that offered virtual tours, photos and floor plans, and comprehensive neighborhood information. “Unlike other sites, villagevoice.com users won’t sift through clutter, unwieldy navigation or outdated listings,” the weekly boasted in a press release. The site also made “for sale by owner” ads free. And beyond real estate, the online classifieds for the Voice added an area for free ads in “selected popular categories.”
And last year the other member of the Voice/New Times merger pushed forward with its free online listing, Backpage.com. Backpage is linked not only to alternative weeklies but to other outlets as (including the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio ) and is meant as competition for Craigslist. Backpage starts by offering a free listing, but then offers the advertiser a chance to spend cash to get a higher spot on the site or, for more money, to place an ad in a print outlet. So far Backpage is available in 40 markets10 with plans for more on the way, and clearly the merger with the Village Voice would expand its reach. The service also powers Univision’s classified sites in nine markets.11
New Times maintains that the service has “stopped the bleeding” at the company’s papers, but Backpage has a long way to go. In December 2005, the service received 3.3 million total visits. Craigslist has more than 10 million unique visitors a month.
The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies announced in December that 20 of its papers were starting to use a classified advertising software called Avenews Remote to create free classified listings for their sites. By the end of 2006, the great majority of AAN members will have free online classifieds, the association said.
The merger of Village Voice and New Times raises various questions for those in the industry, beyond simply issues of classified advertising. Will the new giant among the alternatives bring advantages in terms of economies of scale in newsprint, writer features and even employee benefits? Will the company be able to more easily attract large national advertisers? On the content side, will the individual, community-based appeal of alternative weeklies be damaged by larger, more corporate management?
What does appear clear is that the merger binge that has hit the mainstream newspaper field is now clearly a reality in the world of alternative weeklies. Consider the markets the new company will hold, assuming the merger is approved.
Publication City Circulation
Publication City Circulation
All told that would give the new company more than 1.8 million readers and the dominant alternative weekly in 5 of the nation’s 10 largest cities, as well as the biggest weeklies in other large cities like Denver and Miami .12
If the merger is successful, it might not be a stretch to expect more like it. Alternative weeklies are still taking economic hits from a variety of sources —commuter tabs, free weeklies launched by mainstream papers and, of course, Craigslist. The savings that a publisher can achieve with a bigger reader base and perhaps more uniform content could be important in what forecasts suggest could be lean years ahead.
The other ownership question hanging in front of the weeklies at the end of 2005 was Craig Newmark, the founder of — Craigslist.com. Newmark has been discussing wading into the world of news content for some time, and it appeared that something concrete was ahead. It wasn’t clear what form any journalism venture would take or how much it would challenge the alternative weeklies directly. Newmark did not reveal much about his plan, but announced that a trial version of his journalism effort would be ready in the spring of 2006.
The biggest issue on the horizon for the alternative weeklies is the Voice/New Times merger. Despite talk in recent years that the world of the weeklies has been conglomeratized, there is still a lot of room for mergers among the owners that remain.
Beyond the merger, if numbers show that the smaller weekly markets truly are seeing the bigger growth, one can only wonder if the larger weekly publishers will look to purchase publications in smaller cities or if competitors find those markets are big enough for them to push into.
There is also the question of Craig Newmark’s venture. Newmark, who sits on the board of advisers of the Center for Citizen Media being started by “We the Media” author Dan Gillmor, may be looking to expand local blogging in some way. As this report outlines in the Blogs section, that is an area that is sorely lacking in real content at the moment. If Newmark can find a way to make local blogs more useful — even help push them into more regular, serious coverage of local issues — the competitive target won’t be just local dailies, but alternative weeklies. The attitude and opinion in blogs are more typical of the weeklies than the dailies.
All of which may mean that another competitor for alternative weeklies will soon be on the horizon, and this time it won’t just be targeting ads, but content.
6. Interview with Mark Hanzlik.
8. Alternative Weekly Network demographic data.
9. PEJ interviews.
10. Data from Richard Karpel of AAN.
11. Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Antonio and Puerto Rico.
12. AAN member pages, Village Voice papers http://aan.org/gyrobase/Aan/ViewCompany?oid=oid%3A1958