Association of Alternative Newsmedia Conference

Agile Alt Media Adapting to Digital Challenges

Like all media entities, alternative newsweeklies have taken their hits over the past few years but now they are taking advantage of their flexibility and experimenting with social media, video and blogs in an effort to catch up in the digital world, and in some markets, challenge the local daily for dominance.
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Boise Weekly

Alternative weeklies have never been the type to back down from fights; in fact, most of them got their start by picking them. A media product of the 1960s counterculture, alt weeklies such as the The Village Voice, the Chicago Reader and the Boston Phoenix began as the muckraking, hip counter-voice to the stodgier city dailies, the place for readers to turn for under-the-radar stories, edgy editorials and criticism and uncanny prognostications of the Next New Thing.

But a funny thing happened when the news went digital: Faced with so many alternatives, suddenly the alt weeklies weren’t always the hippest guy in the room. And given that so many of these weeklies were small, independent operations, making the digital transition was often hampered by limited resources and technology. For once, the alt media found itself on the wrong side of the cutting edge.

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Meeting for their annual Web conference in San Francisco last week, members of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (recently rechristened from “Newsweeklies”) strongly asserted that the very qualities that launched them into their markets will ultimately save them on the Web, notably their irreverent voice, strongly established local brands and their entrepreneurial agility.

“We're a bunch of street fighters,” said Molly Willmott, director of new media and operations at the Memphis Flyer, one of the later wave papers to join the fray in 1989. “We have the ability to change on a moment’s notice.”

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Memphis Flyer

(It’s the alt market’s larger players, chains Village Voice Media and Creative Loafing, that have taken the tougher hits over the last decade with serious staff cutbacks and selloffs. Voice Media’s controversial adult-oriented listings, Backpage.com, has more recently come under fire for allegations of enabling child sex trafficking, including a major drubbing by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times last week. Backpage was also linked to recent murders in Columbia, S.C., and Detroit)

The alt media’s changes have taken them into some wildly divergent, if not necessarily yet profitable, directions. For some, it has meant the addition of social media marketing services; for others, using social media to harness the latest local political conflagrations. Still others are finding video to be an audience-driving addition to their online presence, while some favor their strongly-rooted blogs as the weapon of choice. But most surprising is a move by some papers that would’ve been inconceivable to the hipsters, Beats and revolutionaries of the 60s who started it all: Straight up coverage of daily, breaking news.

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Wait a minute: Have alt weeklies moved to the Web and become The Man?

“You're seeing a shift in small- to medium-sized markets becoming the paper of record because the daily is shit,” said Tiffany Shakelford, executive director of the AAN. “It was sort of an organic thing, and a lot of papers aren’t comfortable in doing that, but they’re doing it because they have no choice.”

One of those papers is the Santa Barbara Independent, a 40,000 circulation paper whose growth in the digital space has suffered because of a legal dispute between its owners according to Robby Robbins, multimedia sales manager. Fortunately for them, the city’s daily, The Santa Barbara News-Press, has had even bigger problems with internal politics, legal woes and diminishing local coverage, giving the Independent room to reassert an edge by making daily news a higher online priority. “We're pulling back to do more investigative and feature writing, and they’re just making it easier,” Robbins said of the News-Press.

The Boise Weekly, a 32,000 circulation paper known for its left-leaning voice in red state Idaho, has also taken to shifting its brand around daily news. “Now we’ve got a pretty solid reputation as a hard news source, particularly online,” said Rachael Daigle, its editor, who also cited constrictions within the city’s daily, the Idahao Statesman, as having opened a space for them to compete.

And Richard Meeker, publisher of the Willamette Week, an 80,000-plus circulation paper in Portland, Ore., said cutbacks at the daily Oregonian also presented an opportunity for his staff. “From a media point of view, the strangest thing is to see our daily newspaper being perceived by the citizens as losing interest,” Meeker said. “And we organize ourselves around the principle that there are events or trends that others are either ignoring or covering incorrectly.”

So maybe in an era of diminished city coverage by the daily, alt media’s ramping up hard news is the way to stick it to The Man, after all.

One area where they’re not quite sticking it yet is profits, however. According to Mark Hanzlik, executive director of the Alternative Weekly Network, an ad network for 150 mostly small- and medium-sized alt papers around the country, most papers are making less than 5% of their revenue from digital with the rare few edging towards 20%.

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