Alt Weeklies Mine Roots To Drive Web Rev
In a digital media world crowded with legacy sites, startup independents and nonprofit news operations, the world "alternative" can ring hollow to users who are spoiled for choice. This is no small problem for alternative newsweeklies, the print industry's local stalwarts of long-form journalism, snarky commentary and definitively hip calendars and listings. In the Internet age, their name alone (weeklies?) threatens the very bedrock of their brands: their coolness.
But for Tim Keck, publisher of Seattle's alt weekly, The Stranger, and Portland, Ore.'s Mercury, the digital front is one where such papers can draw on their deepest strengths — their iconoclastic voice, ownership of local entertainment coverage and close relationships to the small- and medium-sized businesses of their markets — to launch new ventures and be heard above the din of more blandly-voiced local sites.
Keck, whose alternative bona fides reach back to his co-founding of the satirical paper The Onion while still an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has always come out swinging. When he launched The Stranger in 1991, he branded it as "Seattle's Only Newspaper," a swipe at both the city's daily and its existing alt weekly, the Seattle Weekly. He also helped propel the paper's executive editor, Dan Savage, into a national brand via his "Savage Love" advice column (which since has spawned a podcast and apps).
Keck may have saved some of his best moves for digital. In addition to creating highly dynamic sites for both of his city papers (and helping to develop the CMSs that they run on), he has launched vertical sites including QuestionLand (a locally-focused Q&A site) and ElectionLand (a voting-enfranchisement site partnered with Rock the Vote), a deals program, AltPerks, a drinks-oriented iPhone app and a ticketing service to compete in the same space as Ticketmaster, Brown Paper Tickets and other players.
In an interview with NetNewsCheck at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia's annual Web conference in San Francisco, Keck described how his digital businesses evolved organically out of his newspapers' needs, how leveraging his print and digital products against each other continues to give him a competitive edge and why the alternative media, especially the smaller, independent businesses that predominate its landscape, shouldn't be counted out.
An edited transcript:
Of all of the legacy media outlets, alternative newsweeklies seem to have had everything in place to make the smoothest digital transition. They understand niche markets, they're known for their scrappiness and their edginess and they have a very digitally-friendly demographic. So what has happened?
I think what happened was just when the digital world started to heat up was when alt weeklies were really kicking ass. And I think that's the danger of doing really well — I'll just keep on doing what I've been doing. For the most part, a lot of them are small organizations that don't have a huge amount of muscle to do R&D. And the publishers and owners of those publications were aging. So a lot of them weren't interested in doing something different at that point in their careers.
They're newspapers, and newspapers have taken a lot of hits. The recession came, and the music industry changed, which was a huge part of a lot of their business. Cigarette advertising changed. It was a confluence of events of aging ownership and a crashing economy, and everybody was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Stranger came out of the second wave of alt weeklies in 1991. How, if at all, do you think that helped to distinguish the publication within that space? Did it give you any kind of competitive edge?
We came into two markets that had strong competition, and so we had to be a little bit more feisty and looking for money to figure it out. If you were making really good profits and good classified money, you grew kind of complacent, and managers who succeeded in those organizations were managers who didn't mess up, who didn't take risks.
So when digital started to blow up, were you positioned to evolve around it?
No. We were really slow to move. It was both good and bad. A lot of players went really hard and fast in the beginning and didn't do well. So we were able to watch a little bit of what other people were doing. But I think we were stupidly slow. We kind of had to go into it kicking and screaming.
When you look around the country right now at all the other alt weeklies operating in the digital space, what do you think ails them the most at this point?
The quality of their blogs. They should be doing a much better job with their blogs. And that should be job No. 1 on the local editorial landscape — they can own the blog space, but I don't think they do well at it.