Inside the World of Alt Weeklies

2017 was a difficult year for the alternative media market. In a six-month period, The Village Voice stopped printing and became a digital-only publication, Washington City Paper was sold, The Nashville Scene laid off 25 percent of its staff, Baltimore City Paper ceased publication and LA Weekly was sold, leading to an advertiser boycott. POLITICO’s Jack Shafer, former editor of Washington City Paper, felt compelled to write a eulogy for alternative newspapers.

As classified ad revenue continues to decline, alt weeklies face challenges unique to their business model. However, challenges for independent publishers aren’t unique to alternative outlets. In the first half of 2017, the “digital duopoly” trend continued. Pivotal Research estimates Google and Facebook accounted for 73 percent of all digital advertising, an increase from 70 percent during the first half of 2016. The IAB points out that the bulk of this advertising is done by small- and medium-sized businesses, but further research will be necessary to understand whether these small businesses are shifting their spend from independent publishers to these platforms.

Even with these developments, there are bright spots in the market and successes that provide valuable lessons for all media organizations.

First, alternative and traditional outlets alike can create lasting offline relationships with readers by hosting community events. Even as SouthComm sought a buyer for the Washington City Paper, it expanded the paper’s Crafty Bastards Arts & Crafts fair to other markets. The fair, featuring local and regional artists, leverages the paper’s role as promoting art, benefiting local charities and generating non-advertiser revenue.

Next, these organizations can succeed through identifying opportunities for efficient production of local news and seeking out experienced teams who understand local market needs. In Baltimore, the day after the City Paper printed its final issue, alumni from the publication announced the Baltimore Beat. The paper will be published by Brown Naff Pitts Omnimedia, a local company that publishes the Washington Blade, a 50-year-old LGBT-focused alternative paper. Additionally, the Beat team will partner on content with the Baltimore-based Real News Network, with Beat reporters appearing in Real News Network videos and Real News staff writing stories for the Beat. By collaborating – and identifying experienced alternative media stewards to help produce the news – both organizations can benefit and find efficiencies.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that an important way for organizations to share what they’ve learned is by joining forces with others. For alternative media outlets, our counterparts at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) exist to help media organizations and support journalism.

At the News Media Alliance, we are strong supporters of the power of local news and journalism. There will never be a replacement for well-informed organizations with the best interests of their communities at heart, and alternative news organizations play an important role in connecting local communities with the news they want to read.

Rebecca is VP, Research & Insights at the News Media Alliance.

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