Alternative weekly newspapers rethink their strategies
The digital age means new approaches for alternative weeklies.
As the nation’s newspaper industry in the digital age continues to deal with dwindling circulation, decreasing revenue, and rising costs, two Buffalo-based alternative print weeklies continue to revise and rethink their strategies. In 2014, Artvoice, the region’s long-standing alternative weekly, was joined in the market by the Public—a similar print product—which began publishing in mid-November.
Both publications engage in substantial experimentation on the digital side, but monetizing the online business remains largely an elusive goal, and both papers aim to find a delicate and profitable balance between publishing a weekly print paper and providing an online edition with a higher frequency of fresh content.
New kid on the block
While still in its infancy, the Public appears to have made an impact in terms of both editorial content and new advertising opportunities. “It’s been incredibly humbling how well we have been received since we started publishing,” says founder and editor-in-chief Geoff Kelly. “We are building our audience and attracting new advertisers each and every week. There was a need for what we do and we are happy to provide what we think is smart thinking and good writing.”
Geoff Kelly, the Public
Photo by kc kratt
Kelly, who resigned as editor of Artvoice last May, says the positive feedback he and the Public’s editorial staff have received from readers includes praise for both the weekly print product and online content. Dailypublic.com, designed by two former Artvoice graphic artists, who, along with four other staffers left Artvoice this past fall, is updated daily and, much like Artvoice’s website, provides an online source for breaking news and analysis that is regularly promoted through the use of social media.
“The team we have put together is unique, everyone is talented and, perhaps, most importantly, each one of us gets what needs to be done in order for us to be successful,” says Kelly. “It is a total team effort and I couldn’t be more happy with how some familiar names have blended perfectly with some talented new writers to help us establish a forum for smart conversation about what is happening in our community.”
Kelly also notes the Public’s commitment to local artists, which includes weekly artist-created covers and centerfold illustrations.
Adapting to industry changes and trends
An analysis of alternative weekly newspapers throughout the country demonstrates dramatic changes in the print business model. In March 2013, one of the largest papers, Boston Phoenix, announced it was ceasing publication after nearly a half century. That decision followed a recent move to shift the alt weekly from traditional newsprint to a glossy magazine format. In recent years, over a dozen alt weeklies have made the same move, which is designed to make them more attractive to advertisers. There were also significant changes just a few years ago at New York’s Village Voice, the country’s best known and oldest alt weekly, as some staff writers were laid off, its editor resigned, and its parent company was sold after its circulation dropped substantially.
While Artvoice and the Public are traditional newsprint publications, efforts to provide unique editorial content that includes in-depth investigative journalism are being made in the hopes of attracting new readers and advertisers. Both newspapers have no immediate plans to reduce the number of papers published each week, with Artvoice’s free circulation at approximately 45,000 and the Public’s at an estimated 35,000.
While Jamie Moses, Artvoice’s founder and current editor, declined to be interviewed for this story, industry insiders point to Artvoice’s (nearly) twenty-five-year longevity as a measure of its success.
“The death of print is oft-repeated and usually without a fair argument,” says Tiffany Shackleford, executive director for the Association of Alt Newsmedia, which represents over 100 alternative news media organizations throughout North America, including Artvoice. “While there is no doubt that there is some change occurring and a lot of what will happen in the future is very much unknown, there is still an audience for traditional print publications.”
Commitment to excellence
City Newspaper is the alternative weekly newspaper of Rochester. The free publication has been around since 1972, with its longevity credited to management’s consistent commitment to evolution in a digital age.
“We are very positive about our future,” says Matt Walsh, assistant to the publishers of City Newspaper. “Our circulation numbers have held relatively steady and while some publications have cut staff, we actually added to our staff this year. The future is bright and there is a definite commitment to the type of journalism we are known for, especially in print form.”
By creating new business strategies and regularly earmarking resources for their editorial staff, City Newspaper is viewed by many industry observers as the model for other alternative weekly newspapers.
“I would like to think that we are as successful as we are because we all take our jobs very seriously and are devoted to providing content that people find informative and entertaining,” says Walsh. “We have also embraced the immediacy with which news can be shared and we do not consider that a threat to us or the industry as a whole. It is instead seen, at least by our staff, as a great challenge and we find that exciting and welcome what is in store for the future.”
Let’s get digital
Mobile technology continues to reach new thresholds, with well over half of Americans owning either a smartphone or a tablet, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Researchers also found that close to seventy percent of tablet and smartphone owners access news on a daily basis using their mobile devices.
“I support print, but at the same time feel quite strongly that the commitment to exceptional writing and reporting, no matter how it is distributed to readers, is most important,” says Shackelford. “I do not care how you read alternative weekly newspapers, just as long as you are actually reading them and consuming the information and supporting their advertisers. Mobile technology can help increase monetization if alternative weeklies are able to capitalize on specific relationships with advertisers to help develop and create digital advertising that is profitable and allows local merchants to reach their target audience.”
Despite all of the developing digital innovations, some weekly alternative publications are not generating enough income to counter their revenue losses, a predicament that can bring great stress to management as it attempts to figure out how to consistently make enough money. Kelly reports the Public’s business model is exceeding his expectations and he remains quite hopeful that securing long-term contracts with some major advertisers will allow the newspaper to have a strong presence in the Buffalo market for years to come. While Moses declined to discuss last year’s revelation that Artvoice was hampered by a debt load that was in six-figures, reportedly, changes in how Artvoice handles their day-to-day business operation have resulted in a significant reduction in that debt.
Future is unlimited but uncertain
Some alternative weeklies have struggled because of the industry-wide decline in classified advertising as free online advertising venues such as Craigslist continue to dominate the marketplace. “Like everyone else in today’s media industry, the free alternative weekly newspapers are in a state of flux,” says Shackelford. “There is intense competition for classified and display advertising and customers are continually reviewing their budgets and keeping a close eye on their bottom lines.”
The main strength of most weekly alternative newspapers is the loyalty of their target audience, but converting reader passion into consistent profit is an ongoing struggle.
“Anyone in the media business should be equally excited and terrified,” says Shackleford. “The future is bright when you look at the digital evolution of sharing and distributing content and using social media to create excitement about a special series or something else unique in your print product, but at the same time there is reason for great concern because of the intense competition for advertising dollars and dealing with escalating costs associated with running a business and printing a paper every single week. There is no perfect science, especially when you are doing business in the newspaper industry during times of economic uncertainty.”
Daniel Meyer is a freelance writer from Hamburg.