|Alternative weeklies, those publications rooted in the political ferment 1960s that became mainstream by the 1980s, are beginning to suffer some of the pains of establishment daily newspapers.
After years of substantial growth in audience during the very time that daily papers were beginning to suffer, alternative weeklies are having more difficulty as print products. But they appear to be enjoying enormous growth on the Internet.
In print, readership was down slightly in 2006, according to figures from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The total audience for hard-copy editions of its member papers dropped to roughly 7.5 million in 2006, from 7.6 million in 2005 – a decline of about 1.3%.
But a survey of the readers of 25 alternative weeklies by the audience researchers The Media Audit found that those publications had collectively increased their audience by 2 million through their Web sites. (That figure does not include readers of both print and online versions of the weeklies, just online. So AAN considers them net additions to readership–though they have not yet included them in the circulation figures mentioned above.)
Some of the gains are fairly substantial. The Village Voice in New York City has added more than 240,000 readers online. LA Weekly has added more than 220,000, the Chicago Reader more than 100,000. And smaller weeklies also made big gains, the survey reported. More than two-thirds of AAN’s member weeklies gained over 10,000 online readers apiece.
Over all, says Richard Karpel, executive director of the association, print audience in recent years has been flat — just bouncing slightly up and down — and the group is happy about its online growth. The challenge, he says, is finding a way to cash in on that online audience.
As we have noted in this report in the past, survey data show that the readership of the weeklies is aging. The percentage of readers 25 to 34 years old has been declining steadily since 1995, according to surveys by The Media Audit. At the same time, the percentage of readers 45 and older has been growing.
That aging readership has raised concern within the industry. A graying audience is one sign of a maturing media sector, something no one in the media business wants to hear. Advertisers tend to favor targeting younger consumers for whom brand loyalty has probably not fully developed.
In 2006, the trend continued.1 Only 22.5% of alternative weekly readers were in the 25-to-34 group in 2006, down 1 percentage point from the previous year and down more than 7 points since 1995 (29.7%). Meanwhile the number of older readers (45 and up) grew to 40.8% in 2006, the first time the that group has made up more than 40% of readers. That was up from 37.1% the year before and 29.3% in 1995.
In some ways the graying is not too surprising. The tabloids were born of the political revolt of the 1960s and as they become more established — in some cases like New York’s Village Voice and Chicago’s Reader, very established — it would make sense that the readers who grew up thumbing through them would continue to pick them up.
The aging of their audience, however, has particular significance for the weeklies. Their readers have traditionally been young and their advertising has been built around a demographic group that spends its evenings out — young adults with disposable income to spend on urban entertainment. Flip through the pages of most alternative weeklies and you will find a lot of ads for movies, plays, restaurants, clubs, alcohol and edgy boutiques. Classified ads are largely for apartment rentals or, often, are risqué personals.
Such ads may be of less interest to the weeklies’ aging readers, or to parents who increasingly make up a larger percentage of readers.
Even more than aging, parenting may be a major issue for the weeklies. Since 1995 the number of alternative weekly readers with a child at home has grown closer to the figure for the general population. In 2006, 42.5% of weekly readers in the 71 markets surveyed had a child at home. The figure for the entire market was 44%. That’s a difference of only 1.5 percentage points. Compare that to 1995 when only 35.4% of alternative weekly readers had a child at home as against an average of 42.4% of homes over all in the markets surveyed.
Could alternative weeklies simply change their ad targets, moving from bars and restaurants to children’s stores and toy retailers? In theory, yes. But industry experts say it would take time to institute such a switch. And there would still be a large group of readers who participate in the activities the weeklies have traditionally targeted.
Of course there are advertisers that would transcend the differences between those groups and fit with another big finding in the survey — that weekly readers are getting wealthier. The 2006 survey found 32.7% of readers with an average household income of more than $75,000. Over all, 27.7% of households in those markets that had incomes that high.
After the Merger
The talk of the alternative weekly industry in 2005 was the merger of the New Times and Village Voice chains. The two had been the leaders in field, and their union created two primary concerns for readers and the remaining chains. First, insiders worried about whether the merger would lead to homogenization among the titles owned by the company. (One of the criticisms often leveled at New Times was its papers were similar in look and content.) Second, people worried that the merged company would be so big that it would begin to dominate the field and either force other companies to merge so they could compete or start buying other titles and companies themselves to create an alt-weekly behemoth.
The merger led to some bumpy times at the Voice. The paper’s editor and publisher left soon after the ownership change, as did its esteemed media writer.
Critics of the merger say they have noticed changes in the content of the Voice as well. One pointed to a recent cover story on the fifth-place finisher on American Idol as an example. That story and others like it, detractors say, do not fit with the magazine’s iconoclastic alternative image and depart from its history as a voice of liberalism.
The new owner, meanwhile, has said any changes in approach at the Voice are based on moving the paper toward reporting than opinion. In an e-mail in 2006 to the Boston Phoenix media writer at the time, Mark Jurkowitz (who is now associate director of PEJ) the new conglomerate’s executive editor, Mike Lacey, said the Voice’s liberal tilt was not an issue with him, but the way politics was covered was. “ I expect original reporting, not merely some lazy form of print blogging,” Lacey wrote.
Economically, the early indications are that the merger may not have as dramatic an effect as many in the industry expected.
Two companies sell most national ads for alternative weeklies across the country: the Alternative Weekly Network and the Ruxton Media Group, which was owned by New Times. Historically, with AWN selling ads for Village Voice, the ad dollars have been split fairly evenly between the companies. The merger, which put Village Voice in the Ruxton camp, led to speculation that the ad dollar mix would change dramatically. But in 2006 the great sea change did not manifest itself.
Alternative Weekly Network’s revenues were down to $9.2 million in 2006 from $10.3 million in 2005, a drop of about 10.7%. The company expected a much steeper drop, however, after losing a third of sales team and media properties.
Still, it is only one year into the merger of the two biggest owners in the industry. Time will tell if somehow the merger can be leveraged into bigger market dominance.
The next few years hold challenges for the alternative weeklies. A lot of classified advertising, a reliable revenue base, has moved onto free Web sites like Craigslist. And new free publications in bigger cities, like commuter dailies and ad supplements, are taking away ad dollars.
But the bigger question probably involves the changes in audience demographics and their relationship to content. The weeklies were born with the long-form, no-holds-barred journalism as the goal. Should they stick with that hallmark formula and try to hold onto their older readers? Or do they switch to producing shorter items in the hope of attracting a young crowd? And if they do will the younger demographic follow?