What newspapers can learn from alternative weeklies

In my spare time, when I’m not thinking or writing about the newspaper industry, my main hobby is music. In my house, we either listen to music or play it live pretty much whenever we have free time. (My wife and I are in an acoustic quartet that plays around town.) In addition, we love concerts! Big or small, national or local, we make a point of trying to see music in any town we visit.

Now, I hate to admit this, but the local daily newspaper is often not the first place I go first to find out about these shows.

Let’s talk about alternative weekly newspapers. You know the ones. Every city has them. They are the irreverent, sensational magazines distributed at the entrance to the local head shop.

Editors I have worked with shunned the idea of being compared in any way to these local freebies. I agree that we should distance ourselves editorially from these publications as much as possible. But these publications do bring value to consumers, and there are some areas in which newspapers can and should emulate the alternative weekly strategy.

Here are some facts that you may or may not know about the alternative news media industry:

First, it has struggled just like traditional dailies. According to a 2013 Pew Research report, the combined circulation of the top 20 alternative weekly publications is declining. It fell 8% in 2012 and 14% in 2011. Circulation at the Boston Phoenix fell 29% during the six-month audit period ending September 2012. (It’s important to note that, despite the similarities to dailies, there are many publications, often in smaller markets, where the circulation is growing.)

Like dailies, alternative weeklies are also trying to grow digital audience.

There is also a great deal of transfer of ownership within the industry. In fact, in recent years many major daily newspapers have actually purchased the local alternative weekly in their markets. The Baltimore Sun purchased the Baltimore City Paper in 2014, and the alternative weeklies in Chicago and San Francisco are also owned by the local daily newspapers.

New ownership has come from outside the news media industry, as well. Many publications have been purchased by local venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs.

So what do these publications offer, and what can traditional newspapers develop strategy-wise by learning from them?

  • News: Alternative weeklies have generally not made the staffing cuts that newspapers have. This is largely because their staffs were fairly pared-down to begin with.

    Still, there is often a perception that, while daily newspapers have shrunk, the weeklies have continued to thrive. This is not necessarily the case, but the alternative publications have done a good job in many cases of making their products appear robust.

    For example, many have gone to glossy covers and more of a magazine format (without any significant changes to the editorial content).

  • Advertisers: Because they usually have lower overhead, alternative weeklies can offer advertising at a lower overall cost than the dailies can, which makes them appealing to smaller businesses that the larger newspapers often can’t attract.

    I used to work for a newspaper that did a study of the alternative and other local weeklies in the market. This was a big market so there were several. What we found was that weekly publications generally had regular interaction with 98% of the retailers in their distribution area. This compared to 2% for our large newspaper.

  • Event listings: Weeklies are often perceived to be the go-to print publication when it comes to looking for a night on the town (especially among younger readers).

    I had an office once that was directly across the street from one of the town’s main venues. We couldn’t even get them to advertise in our newspaper or update event listings on our Web site. Despite everything we showed them – surveys, graphs, etc. – they just couldn’t believe that we were reaching their audience as well as local alternative weeklies were. It was all perception.

  • A “hip” feel: In most cities, weeklies position themselves as the “alternative” (hence the name) to the stodgy, 125-year old newspaper. Usually, they are very critical of the local major daily and look for any opportunity to editorialise about the challenges (both circulation and editorial) that daily newspapers face. They appeal to the reader’s sense of “cool” and usually present bold, often sensational headlines.  

So what is the point of all of this? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that alternative weeklies command a very attractive audience. And while surveys I’ve seen in the past showed there was some overlap in the daily newspaper’s and the weekly’s audience and reach, there still remains a unique, robust audience (both consumer and business) that newspapers often just don’t reach, but could!

Needless to say, we all don’t have the luxury of purchasing the existing weekly in our market, but newspapers can produce products that compete for this audience and advertising. For example, they can establish publications that are somewhat edgy and have different content than what the newspaper produces.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is a good example. The editorial team did a complete revamp of the Friday entertainment section called 7. It turned what was a section of the newspaper into a stand-alone product delivered free to subscribers in the Friday edition and distributed to free racks throughout downtown and at other locations throughout the area. 

The product supports the newspaper’s entertainment Web site, which is the best in the market. The content in the section is just slightly edgier than regular newspaper content, but with journalistic integrity intact!

Another good example is Living Intown, a magazine launched by The Atlanta Journal Constitution. The publication sought to serve a niche audience – high income homeowners living in Atlanta. While not a weekly, the glossy magazine offers lifestyle and entertainment content, restaurant reviews, and event listings, and it competes with other freely distributed products.

Quantitative research was done with the people living in the target area, which helped shape the design and content of the publication. The product served a specific audience and opened up new advertising possibilities as well.

In both of these examples, the newspapers launched publications that opened up new audiences, both consumer and business, that had previously been dominated by free alternative weekly publications.

As we continue to look for ways to expand our reach and our audience, we need to look at where audiences get their content and emulate those content delivery methods. This can be done in a manner that both maintains the journalistic integrity that sets newspapers apart from other media while still creating fun, hip products that become “go-to” alternative publications for culture and entertainment.

About Dan Johnson

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