AAN Digital Conference 2013

Alt Media Mine New Revenue Alternatives

Local business directories, online stores, social media management and other digital marketing services for SMBs are among the monetization strategies underway in the alt-weekly newspaper industry, which gathered last week in San Francisco for its annual digital conference. Alt-weeklies are also collaborating more, with a video network up and running and a search engine for entertainment listings and reviews in the works.  
NetNewsCheck,

SAN FRANCISCO -- Of all the radical moves the alternative media could make, embracing the mantra of monetization might be the most shocking.

But judging from the conversations at this year’s annual digital conference of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia here, the alt-weeklies — as they used to be known before the digital age — have finally done the equivalent of growing up and taking a responsible job (though many still refuse to cut their hair).

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Among an eclectic mix of about 110 publishers, editors and digital-centric staffers, talk veered little to journalism. Instead, the buzz grew loudest around experimental revenue streams such as digital local business directories, an online store and social media management and other SMB-targeted digital services. Perhaps sexiest of all to this arts and event-oriented crowd of somewhat graying scenesters was a new ticketing service from Seattle’s über-hip The Stranger that will make its way to a white labeled iteration later this year.

While such moves are happening mostly among the outliers, a more broadly echoing theme of collaboration also started to emerge. Tiffany Shackelford, AAN’s executive director, said she was increasingly looking for ways for member companies to leverage together in the digital space, easing the cost burden of adopting new technologies and platforms.

To that end, the AAN has already launched a video network, and Shackelford presented members with a menu of new prospective group plays. Cross-pollinating alt media listings and reviews content with local search was chief among them. Also in the cards could be an industry-wide ad server, a semantically-based search engine that could serve content recommendations between alt sites and even the possibility of an en masse move to responsive design.

“I think the members of the organization are seeing collaboration with each other as the obvious choice to move themselves and the industry forward,” Shackelford said. For many alts, that might mean making their content available in places beyond their own sites — not often a publisher’s favorite option. But Shackelford said so far she hasn’t had any pushback on that prospect, as long as the revenue share potential is there.

Brand Connections

“Publishers in this arena understand that the website doesn’t need to be the destination,” she said. It’s about the content and the brand.”

Buoying this corner of the newspaper industry is a palpable sense that the worst may have passed. While alts took their fiscal hits along with every other type of paper, none expressed a fear that they were facing any kind of extinction event in the coming year.

“I think for the first time since the great bust, people are feeling better,” said Richard Meeker, publisher of Portland, Ore.’s Willamette Week and also an owner of The Santa Fe Reporter and the newly-acquired Indy Week, which rebranded from the North Carolina triangle’s Independent Weekly and now publishes separate editions in Raleigh/Carey and Durham/Chapel Hill. “Every publisher I know feels like their community is doing a little bit better.”

That cautious optimism jibed with sentiments expressed by other publishers interviewed for this story, and Shackelford said that anecdotally, her members have reported that revenue is trending slightly up across the board.

But there was a dark cloud over this silver lining. National ad sales were down in 2012 nearly across the board. Among those who felt that hit hardest was Voice Media Group, which owns 11 publications across the country after selling off its properties in San Francisco and Seattle earlier this month. VMG’S ad network includes 52 member publications and remains one of the industry’s largest (there are 128 AAN member publications).

VMG has weathered serious blows, notably layoffs of some of the most venerable staffers at its flagship Village Voice and a sex trafficking scandal and subsequent boycott of Backpage, the listings service it ultimately sold off last year. After all, it’s hard to maintain your street cred among the left-leaning, alt reading mainstay audience when The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff is repeatedly denouncing you for abetting sexual slavery.

Hence the ripples through the alt industry. “When the national knee jerks, it effects a lot more than when just one restaurant goes down,” said Joe Larkin, senior VP of sales operations at VMG. “It trickles up.”

But it also pushes the more entrepreneurial toward some creative revenue solutions, and those were the beating heart of meetings here. One of the most chattered about was a newly-launched digital business directory/self-publishing website service from Oakland, Calif.’s East Bay Express. Publisher Jody Colley developed the product, East Bay Express Web Services, with LocalOn, a local software company.

There are three tiers to the service said Shahbano Imran, co-founder of LocalOn. The first is a baseline directory listing offered for free, while the second gives merchants the ability to create and constantly change real time “adlets” for their business, which can feature news, events or deals. Once published via a merchant-facing dashboard, these adlets push to Facebook and Twitter at the same time as they run on the East Bay Express’ home page along with its iterations across sites for the 38 area merchants associations, business improvement districts and farmers markets who have come on board. This feature runs merchants $40 a month for The East Bay Express.

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