By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute
Life has become more difficult for alternative news weeklies.
They are facing more competition. Their loyal audience is aging. And their readership is increasingly at home raising children while their advertising base is still aimed at nightlife.
Mostly free, they appeared in 2007 to hold onto readership. There is conflicting evidence, however, about what is happening with advertising revenue.
But online is emerging as a platform well suited for a sector that specializes in niche, intensely local content. Some small and mid-size publications saw revenue growth online, an area that is still something of a new frontier for the industry.
Alternative weekly circulation began to stall in 2005. In 2007, there was no change.
According to figures from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), the trade group for the industry, the total circulation for hard-copy editions of its 130 member papers remained at 7.5 million, the same as the previous year .
With most other news genres witnessing steady if not sharp audience declines, this is not entirely bad news. But it should also be noted that these are free newspapers, whose circulation data in some ways are less telling than their financial results.
One factor that may be affecting audience, as we have noted in this report in the past, is aging readership. 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.
In 2007, the trend continued.1 Only 21.7% of alternative weekly readers were in the 25-to-34 group, down about 1 percentage point from the previous year and down 8 points since 1995 (29.7%). The number of older readers (45 and up) grew to 41.5% in 2007, up about 1 percentage point from the previous year. That figure was up over 10 points since 1995 (29.3%).
Even more than aging, parenting may be a major issue. Since 1995 the number of alternative weekly readers with a child at home has grown closer to the figure for the general population. In 2007, 42.9% of weekly readers in the 71 markets surveyed had a child at home. The figure for the entire market was 43.9%. That’s a difference of only 1 percentage point. 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.
Of course there are advertisers that would transcend the differences between those groups and look at another finding in the survey — that alternative weekly readers are getting wealthier. The 2007 survey found 34% of readers had an average household income of more than $75,000. Over all, 30.6% of households in those markets had incomes that high.
Growth in Alternative News Weeklies
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Member Publications, 1989-2006
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: Association of Alternative Newsweeklies unpublished data
Note: The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) is a diverse group of 130 alt-weekly news organizations that cover every major metropolitan area in North America. Members of AAN reach a print and online audience of more than 25 million young, educated, active and influential adults in the U.S. and Canada.
Economics: Smaller Papers, Bigger Gains
The economics picture for alternative news weeklies is cloudier.
There is no single official source for overall revenue for alternative weeklies. Looking at specific data from various industry groups suggests an uncertain picture financially. Some statistics are down, but others are up.
One group that has long offered data for the sector is the Alternative Weekly Network, which sells national ads for 110 weekly publications across the country. AWN reported its revenue was down to $8.4 million in 2007 from the year before, a drop of 8.7%. But AWN’s sales represent only a fraction of the industry’s revenue.
Yet other data, also a sample, suggest things may not be quite so difficult.
The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the trade group, analyzed the financial reports supplied to it by 55 of its members during 2007.2 The data are from 2006, a year earlier. But it found total revenue (mostly, but not limited to, advertising) among this sample had risen 3.6% over 2005.
The largest growth, 7%, occurred in the medium-sized papers, those bringing in $2 million to $5 million a year, according to the AAN sample. Larger weeklies in the sample, with more than $5 million in annual revenue, were down slightly (less 1%).3
(Using those same papers as a base to look at staffing, the number of full-time employees increased, on average, from 31 to 32. Newsroom employment saw a slight bump, from an average of seven full-time and two part-time employees in 2005 to eight full-time and one part-time employee in 2006.)
New data collected by the AAN from an even smaller subset of members suggests a quiet but marked revenue increase for smaller and mid-size weeklies.
In January 2008, AAN surveyed 23 of its 130 members to get a read on annual revenue for 2007. All weeklies but one (the Boston Phoenix, with more than 107,000 in circulation) represented small to mid-size markets and reported sizable increases in revenue. Nine — including those in the widely separated markets of Vermont, North Carolina, Oregon and Iowa — reported 10% to 21% jumps. And 14 weeklies, based in Utah, Washington State, Colorado, Illinois and elsewhere, saw revenue grow by 5% to 9%.4
So what is the revenue picture for alternative weeklies? Without a single source, there is mixed evidence. One caveat is that the minority of papers that supplied AAN with data might well be those with the most positive story to tell. Another is that 2007 may have been healthier than 2006. At best, the sample means that whatever the industry’s problems, they are not occurring equally across the board.
New Media Resurgence
One of most promising areas in 2006 was alternative weekly Web sites. In 2007, the online audience numbers appeared to continue to grow, although the economic benefit is less certain.
The Media Audit, which tracked online audience in 2006, did not supply numbers for 2007, but there is anecdotal evidence of growth when looking at specific weeklies, especially those in larger markets. The Web site network run by Village Voice Media, owner of the Village Voice in New York and 15 other alternative weeklies in major cities across the country, saw enough traffic to make it the 10th-most visited newspaper site in November 2007, according to Editor and Publisher.5 The company increased its online audience by 127% from November 2006 to November 2007, with total time spent on the sites jumping 89% during the same time period.
As in other sectors, that audience growth loses some of its spark when economics enters the picture. For most weeklies, online revenue adds up to less than 1% of total dollars, Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Weeklies, told us.6 And in a January 2008 article in the Quill, a publication of the Society of Professional Journalists, three owners of larger alt weeklies reported no more than single-digit revenue.7
Don Farley, publisher of four alternative newsweeklies owned by Times Shamrock Communications, puts the number higher, at least for his papers — 2.5 percent of the total ad revenue. Of one those, the Baltimore City Paper, he says, “In rough dollars, it’s grown from $60,000 four years ago to $240,000 this year .”
The evidence suggests that those revenues are at least growing.
And there may be potential online and in other digital platforms, given alt weeklies’ traditional focus on music and other entertainment.
Other evidence, for instance, suggests even smaller weeklies are immersing themselves in new media, betting that younger audiences and advertisers will follow. Many are building out their Web sites to focus largely on music downloads and purchases, including podcasts and “jukeboxes” (streaming music) that feature local bands.
Weeklies also are now drawing on their unique strength – data-driven listings – to use the newer delivery system of mobile phones in inventive ways.
The Isthmus in Madison, Wis., for example, provides cell phone users with typical content, like restaurant and movie listings. The Boise ( Idaho) Weekly takes customizing a step farther, sending its outdoors-oriented readers mobile alerts with skiing and bicycling conditions. The Phoenix Media/Communications Group in Boston offers its subscribers editorial content as well as polls, coupons and texting contests in which readers vie for prizes by seeing who can type the fastest cell phone message.
The pace is expected to pick up in 2008, according to the AAN’s Karpel, who said that nearly two-thirds of his group’s members are planning to offer mobile content, including the 16 Village Voice Media properties and the four papers in the Times-Shamrock chain .
Consolidation: The New Solution?
One company, apparently seeing both audience and revenue potential in alternative weeklies, went into buying mode in 2007.
In July, the Tampa-based Creative Loafing, which owns weeklies in Mobile, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa and Sarasota, Fla., doubled its size when it bought the Chicago Reader, one of the country’s oldest alternative papers, and the City Paper in Washington, D.C., from Chicago Reader for an undisclosed sum. (The purchase was made with help from BIA Digital Partners, a private investment firm.)
The Chicago weekly, founded in 1971, brings with it an average weekly circulation of 135,000, and the 26-year-old City Paper, 80,000. With the purchases, Creative Loafing will boost its total weekly circulation from 275,000 to nearly 500,000 newspapers, increase monthly print readership to 2 million and capture an estimated 10 million page views per month on its Web sites, according to Creative Loafing CEO Ben Eason. Included in the buy was the popular syndicated weekly column, “Straight Dope,” whose Web site, straightdope.com, has nearly 2.3 million page views per month.
The investment in newspapers amid downturns and layoffs raised predictable questions, which Eason addressed in an article in the St. Petersburg Times: “I’ve got my four papers, and while that’s a nice publishing footprint, it’s not going to let us play in the national Internet game. You want a national platform, national quality technology, that features local content. How can I help put together a consortium of great local media companies [and then] tie into one common platform? That way, we get national advertisers that will help sponsor the local restaurant listings.”8
While consolidation – and the new media ad platform it brings — might offer a solution, it also runs counter to the non-establishment, intensely local culture of alt weeklies. Will the loss of original owners intimately familiar with the papers and their readership be strongly felt?
“In some ways, these alternative newsweeklies are now middle-aged, and many of the dynamic young founders are beyond middle age; they’re reaching their dotage,” Charles Whitaker, an assistant professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and director of Medill’s Academy of Alternative Journalism, told the Quill. “I think the [older owners] have had difficulty adjusting and figuring out the new media landscape, particularly the Internet and things like Craigslist. At the same time, a group of new owners said, ‘We can do this as a chain. We still have our alternative press sensibilities, but by pooling our resources we can run these papers more efficiently than they had been run in the past.’ ”9
Alt Weekly Reader: The ‘Perfect’ Media User
According to The Media Audit, which surveys audiences for marketing, communications and media firms, readers of alternative weekly newspapers have a tendency to be avid consumers of other media, more so than the public over all.
Compared with the general population, they are 32% more likely to be heavy newspaper readers (meaning they read for 60 minutes or more in an average weekday), 22% more likely to be on the Internet (430 minutes or more in an average week) and 18% more likely to listen to the radio (180 minutes or more in an average weekday). Nearly half (48%) were heavy Internet users in 2007, compared with less than 40% of the general population. Television attracted an equal share of heavy users from the general population and the alt weekly audience – both 20%.
Alternative Weekly Readers are Heavy Media Users
|Design Your Own Chart|
Source: The Media Audit
Note: “Heavy media usage” defined as follows: Newspapers — 60 minutes or more in average weekday; Internet — 430 minutes or more in average week; Television — 300 minutes or more in average weekday; Radio — 180 minutes or more in average weekday.
When it comes to daily newspapers, the front page dominates for alt weekly readers. About two-thirds (66.5%) regularly check it out, compared with 52% of the general population.
They are also interested in the Sunday advertising inserts, the movie and entertainment sections and the Business and Sports pages. Something to note for advertisers: 53% of alt weekly readers are more likely to check out employment ads and 33% auto classifieds.
2. AAN estimates there are 175 alternative news weeklies in the United States, excluding publications focused solely on arts and entertainment.
3. Final revenue numbers are not publicly released by alternative weeklies. AAN averaged revenue numbers from 55 of its 130 members (may include only one paper in a chain).
4. Newspapers (and their circulations) surveyed by AAN were: San Luis Obispo (Calif.) New Times, 39,898; Santa Barbara Independent, 40,250; San Antonio Current, 44,913; Colorado Springs Independent, 36,500; Tucson Weekly, 47,309; Illinois Times, 27,894; Monterey County (Calif.) Weekly, 38,951; Boise (Idaho) Weekly, 35,000; Source Weekly (Bend, Ore.), 13,630; Metroland (Albany, N.Y.), 40,000; Seven Days (Burlington, Vt.), 32,000; Willamette Week (Portland, Ore.), 89,134; Ventura (Calif.) County Reporter, 33,385; Eugene (Ore.) Weekly, 38,904; Santa Fe Reporter, 22,726; Cityview (Des Moines), 27,902; Boston Phoenix, 107,067; Metro Santa Cruz (Calif.), 33,000; North Bay (Calif.) Bohemian, 33,271; Metro Silicon Valley (Calif.), 79,442; Mountain Xpress (N.C.), 29,268; Pacific Northwest Inlander (Wash.), 46,000; and North Coast Journal (Calif.), 22,000.
5. Editor and Publisher, via Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (an examination of Nielsen and comScore data for newspaper Web sites suggests this claim is hard to evaluate): http://aan.org/news/village_voice_media_web_traffi c_up_127_pecent_from_last_year/Aan/ViewArticle?oid=200369.
6. Telephone interview with Project for Excellence in Journalism editor Jane McDonnell, February 5, 2007.
7. Ed Avis, “Alternative Newsweeklies: Growing Up,” Quill, January 28, 2008:
8. Eric Deggans, “Media Exec Gets Cold Shoulder From Chicago,” St. Petersburg Times, August 19, 2007:
9. Ed Avis, “Alternative Newsweeklies: Growing Up,” Quill, January 28, 2008: