Originally published June 9, 1997
The first alt-weekly newspaper I ever read was The Aquarian. It was the mid-1970s and I was a teenager growing up in Central New Jersey.
Back when alternatives were still called “underground” papers, The Aquarian was the only source of articles about the cool new punk, disco or Springsteen clone bands. It was also my first exposure to the non-conforming sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll cultural scene as it breathed its last hippie breaths from the ’60s.
Finding the paper meant biking to either Cheap Thrills, an independent record store near Rutgers University, or Weird Harold’s, a head shop in the attic of a Milltown convenience store. It was always worth the trip; the colorful language, graphics, photos and free classified ads were mesmerizing.
A decade later, when I became editor of short-lived Tampa Bay Weekly, much had changed. Underground papers were now called alternatives, “head shop” were virtually unheard of and convenience stores displayed the papers prominently. They were more widely accepted but still considered outlaw publications by mainstream readers and advertisers.
Jump forward another 10 years to June 1997 and the alternative world is spinning surprisingly close to the mainstream orbit:
- Media conglomerates such as New York-based Stern Publishing and Phoenix-based New Times are staging market-by-market contests to gobble up existing weeklies in Top 20 markets.
- Stern papers such as the Village Voice, LA Weekly and Seattle Weekly are spinning off suburban editions such as the Long Island Voice, OC Weekly (Orange County) and Eastsideweek.
- National and regional advertising is at an all-time high as everyone from high-fashion retail and consumer appliance chains to cigarette and liquor manufacturers overcome the “alternative” stigma, the free distribution and the dirty newsprint. In exchange they’re buying a youthful demographic with disposable income at a really inexpensive rate.
- In many cities, alternatives have gained strength as monthly city magazines falter and appear on the media’s endangered species list.
- The Internet is acting as a great equalizer between the weeklies, dailies, radio and TV stations in their markets as well as online content providers such as Microsoft, NBC and Yahoo!
At the end of this month, the Association of Alternative Newspapers (AAN) will meet in Montreal for its annual convention. These are good, fat days for the 107 papers that belong to the trade organization, claiming among them a combined weekly circulation of more than 6.4 million and an estimated 11 million in readership. And at least 15 more papers are under consideration for new membership this month.
“It’s been an interesting year for alternative papers,” according to Terry Garrett, publisher of the Weekly Planet in the Tampa Bay area. “This is seen by many as a sleepy entrepreneurial category — hell, the combined revenues of AAN members don’t match the St. Petersburg Times. But we’ve had fast growth at a time when mature publications are scraping to keep even.”
Michael Lenehan, executive editor of the Chicago Reader, agrees.
“We’ve become the second half of the sentence, ‘Daily newspapers are declining…'” he says.
As Jim Larkin, CEO of Phoenix-based New Times Inc., puts it, the weeklies are fleas on the hides of rhinoceroses when it comes to competing with dailies. But for mostly intellectual and political reasons, the dailies no longer suffer the weeklies’ tiny bites in silence.
“Brand advertisers have discovered we can reach young readers the dailies have left in the dust,” Larkin says. “The dailies would love to learn how we do that.”
Part of the explanation for the rapid growth of the alternatives is that people who started reading the papers a generation ago still do, while many papers have remained relevant to a new generation of young readers. The successful ones have maintained a grassroots feel while operating as businesses with realistic, forward-reaching financial plans.
“This year, our paper will be 19 years old,” says L.A. Weekly Associate Publisher Judy Jablonski. “We need to make it pleasing to the people who have been with us from the beginning but also make it timely and hip so new readers gravitate toward it. We can’t be all about music, tattoos and body piercing. Or all about crime and education. We have to do both.”
Readers are drawn to a typically extreme focus on local community issues such as politics and the environment, as well as entertainment, personal ads and classifieds.
“Most of us are here because there’s a certain set of values that we believe in that the mainstream press doesn’t,” Garrett says. “We’re more comfortable with advocacy journalism than the mainstream media.”
Curiously, the very uniqueness in editorial tone that distinguishes the alternatives in print is less than riveting online. Many weekly publishers find that Web surfers are far less interested in their exposes and even music reviews than they are in scanning restaurant reviews, steamy personals and practical classified ads for finding housing and roommates.
On the business side, the consolidation of alternatives largely comes down to Stern Publishing (Village Voice, Long Island Voice, L.A. Weekly, O.C. Weekly, City Pages (Minneapolis), Seattle Weekly, Eastsideweek) vs. New Times (which publishes under the New Times banner in Phoenix, Miami and Los Angeles, and as the Dallas Observer, Houston Press, San Francisco Weekly and Westword (Denver) in Denver). Several long-time independent newspaper owners sold out their interests to one company or the other either because they didn’t want to face new competition threatened by a well-financed upstart or because it was a rare opportunity for Mom & Pop entrepreneurs to cash out in a big way.
“Our plate’s full,” New Times’ Larkin says. “We have enough to do” without further acquisitions at this time. He insists the competition between his company and Stern is “just perceived, not real. That guy (Leonard Stern) has got so much money!” he says, laughing. “We’re newspaper guys, not financiers!”
On the other hand, look for a new New Times in the Fort Lauderdale/Palm Beach market by November, where it will bang heads with the Tribune Company’s popular alternative, XS.
In the Windy City, where the independent Chicago Reader rules, Mike Lenehan says the paper — which also owns the Washington, DC, City Paper — is not for sale. “We don’t have any desire to sell,” he insists. “We all value the paper so greatly there are few chains that could afford our interests. And while we’d never prevent someone from making an offer, we’re not looking to become part of a chain. Nor are we interested in becoming the third chain.”
He does worry about the potential impact the chains might have on their independent brethren.
“When giants stalk the earth, everyone has to keep their heads up,” Lenehan warns. “It’s easy to lose your destiny. Publications everywhere have to be thinking ahead. The consolidation affects everybody, even the people it doesn’t affect.”
Lenehan adds that although the Reader briefly participated in the spirited recent bidding for the Seattle Weekly, it will most likely contain future franchise growth closer to home.
Another issue facing attendees at this month’s AAN convention will relate to whom it grants future membership. A current clause in the by-laws prevents daily newspaper that publishes weeklies from being accepted. But Kris Henning, AAN vice president and associate publisher of City Pages in Minneapolis, says that rule “may too narrowly exclude what we want to exclude.”
The rule was intended to prevent one company from monopolizing the media in its community, so that the daily paper didn’t also publish an alternative, as well as perhaps owning radio and TV stations, thereby limiting alternative voices. In a fast-changing world, the face of the enemy may be changing.
“Would we allow a Microsoft-owned newspaper into the association?” Henning wonders. “Do they exert too much mass-media control for our organization?”
As Microsoft’s locally-oriented “Sidewalk” online community marches from city to city, challenging daily and weekly newspapers for eyeballs, it will probably incite a lively debate at the AAN convention.
“It’s a contentious organization by its nature,” Henning says. “Everybody loves to have a good argument.”