The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies
Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.
Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.
Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.
The formula, pioneered by the Village Voice in the 1950s, finessed by the Phoenix in the 1960s and perfected by the Chicago Reader, the Phoenix New Times and others in the 1970s, became such a cinch that know-nothing bar owners and recent college graduates (or dropouts!) eventually made millions off it. Some papers, like the Phoenix New Times, built immense chains from the links they forged and acquired. The formula connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers in both compact, urban settings like New York and Washington and sunbelt expanses like Phoenix and Dallas. In 2005, the two largest alt-weekly chains, anchored respectively by the Phoenix New Times and the Voice, combined to create a company valued by the participants at $400 million, with annual revenues of $180 million. Newspapers started in bar booths had become big business, but like many of the daily newspaper merger and acquisition deals going down during same period, this deal also proved too rich.
Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.
In most cities — and eventually in all — the alt-weekly was priced at zero for readers, prefiguring the free-media feast of the Web, and these publications became cultural signifiers. Bob Roth, one of my bosses when I edited Washington City Paper (1985-1995), told me to watch people as they picked it up from a street box and walk away with it: Almost to a one, they would hold it in their hands or fold it under their arms as if to display the paper’s flag so onlookers would know they were City Paper people, whatever that meant.
The alt-weekly collapse came in spurts over the last decade, as a market shift destroyed whole advertising sectors. Craigslist destroyed the classifieds — housing, for sale, services (sex and otherwise), et al. — and the lucrative personals and matches ads fled for the Web, too. Depending on the paper, classifieds had amounted to anywhere between 20 percent to 50 percent of revenues. Now, that money is mostly gone.
Mostly gone, too, is record-company advertising. Before that business was disrupted, the labels would give record stores — remember them? — big bags of “co-op” money to advertise the new releases, and even reissues! Video stores — remember them? — were big advertisers, too. Amazon has helped to clean out whole categories of retailing that once advertised in alt-weeklies, such as electronics, books, music and cameras. Big-box stores have displaced many of the indie retailers that long provided advertising backbone. And while Hollywood still places ads, it’s nothing compared to the heyday. To give you a sense of how precipitous the drop, the smallest edition Washington City Paper printed in 2006 contained 112 pages, with 128-pagers and 136-pagers being the most common. In 2012, the page counts ordinarily ranged between 56 and 72.
These retail shifts have made it harder for publishers to distribute their weeklies. Before Tower Records went under, a paper could drop thousands of copies a week at the store’s many locations, and the stacks would disappear in a day or two. The video stores that once distributed them? Gone. Borders Books? Gone. What’s equally alarming is that some surviving retailers now say they’d rather use that tiny space by the door or bathroom where the newspaper rack once stood to sell their own goods.
The advertising shift from newsprint to Web is mirrored by a cultural shift. In my mind, the alt-weekly remains the perfect boredom-alleviation device. Waiting for a subway train? Pull one from your bag and it will entertain you. Your girlfriend is late for your date? The paper will keep you occupied. That beer and bag of nuts not distracting from life’s troubles as you mope on a barstool? The alt-weekly saves the day again.
But even a human fossil must concede that the smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer. How does a wedge of newsprint compete with an affordable messaging device that ferries games, social media apps, calendars, news, feature films, scores, coupons and a library’s worth of music and reading material? Ask a young person his opinion and he’ll tell you that nothing says “geezer” like a newspaper, be it daily or alt-weekly.
What’s changed, and what probably convinced the Phoenix to exit, is that the papers are no longer a 30 percent (or higher) margin business, and that lost business is not returning. Publishers who hope to survive will have to content themselves with 10 percent margins. They will have to work harder to maintain advertising categories where they still have a comparative advertising advantage, such as food and restaurants, which usually require a face-to-face meeting between an ad representative and an owner to make a sale. It’s a cliché, but I’ll toss it out there anyway: Every newspaper and website needs to compete in the events business. The smarter papers are already there, and if they’re lucky they’ll hit the jackpot the Austin Chronicle has with its decades-old SXSW business. And it doesn’t require much insight to urge alt-weekly publishers to continue building out their Web components.
If this sounds like a campaign for every alt-weekly to slip itself inside a noose like the Phoenix tied for itself, I apologize. Even in their diminished state, these papers still break news, publish terrific features, drive the politicians at City Hall nuts, cover the arts smartly, and do well most of the things they did well before the commercial decline. They just don’t do as much of it. So, pour yourself a drink and spend some time with an alt-weekly this weekend. You’ll rue the day they vanish.
Additional disclosure: In 1995 and 1996, I edited SF Weekly, then owned by New Times. Send your alt-weekly recollections to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed couldn’t possibly be more alt than it is. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A boy pushes a newspaper box in a flooded street in the Soho section of Manhattan after Hurricane Irene passed over the New York City area August 28, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar