Free and Quirky
Alternative newspapers are everywhere, brimming with attitude, filling a niche.
Let's say you've just moved to a new city -any major one will do - and you want to find a place to live, a club that plays live music, and a date to take with you. If your sensibilities lean more toward "Being John Malkovich" than "The Sound of Music," there's a paper that aims to give you all three: the alternative weekly.Skip to next paragraph
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Riding a trend in niche publishing, alternative weekly papers are multiplying in big cities and spreading to places like Missoula, Mont., Iowa City, Iowa, and Burlington, Vt. In the process, these papers -often an "alternative" to the daily paper -are developing loyal followings and attracting sought-after young readers.
"Alternatives address an audience that really isn't addressed by anyone else," says Robert Broadwater, a managing director at Veronis, Suhler & Associates, a New York investment bank that specializes in media. He says the alternative is the first place a 20-year-old coming to New York City would look for a home, a club, and a date.
"Part of it is a group of people hungering for community, and alternative newspapers tend to create that," says Jane Rinzler Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a consulting firm that focuses on Generations X and Y.
While in many metro areas, daily papers are folding or merging, cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York now have at least two alternative weeklies, which are free and entirely dependent on advertising in most cases.
"One-newspaper towns are now finding themselves competing with local alternative weeklies," says Bruce Brugmann, co-founder of the 34-year-old San Francisco Bay Guardian, which has a readership of 156,000 (the papers use auditors to arrive at their circulation numbers).
The growing ranks of alternatives make them attractive to national advertisers - a market the weeklies are actively pursuing through sales networks dedicated to alternatives. And at a time when information is readily available on the Internet, the climate is right for free print publications to compete for readers.
Few cities are without alternative papers
"All the problems they [dailies] have now are exactly the problems we don't have," says Patricia Calhoun, editor of Westword in Denver and president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
In the last decade, the number of AAN members has doubled. The group, which is selective about who it accepts, estimates that its 123 members have a circulation of 7.6 million -a readership of more than 19 million with the pass along rate. Individual Web sites provide each paper with more exposure, and sites like Newcity.com and AlterNet.org offer clearinghouses for alternative journalism on the Web.
Typically, alternative papers combine local entertainment listings with civic reporting and opinionated writing. Some are award-winning -The Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix have won Pulitzer Prizes -while others are still working on accuracy and explaining to reluctant sources that their paper is legitimate.
Papers differ from town to town, sometimes attracting more babyboomers than Gen Xers. But they tend to have an "in your face" attitude and often talk frankly about issues such as sexuality. As Tim Keck, publisher of The Stranger, puts it, "Seattle is a very polite town, and The Stranger isn't a very polite publication."
Donald Forst, editor of The Village Voice (circulation 250,000), says what separates his paper from a daily is that "we make no pretense about being impartial. We're fair, but we come with a bias, with a leaning, and the leaning is to the left."
Though The Village Voice dates back to 1955, other early alternatives were created in the 1960s at the same time underground publications arose to protest issues like the Vietnam War. Many continue to have a muckraking tradition, and regularly act as watchdogs, critiquing local media.
But a new generation of voices is now part of the mix, as is a new definition of alternative - which more often refers to the characteristics of the paper: free, local, opinionated.
"I've never really felt my competition was the daily," says Mr. Keck, who created his paper after he sold The Onion, a satirical publication he co-founded in Madison, Wis.
"I really didn't know the world of the alternative weeklies," he says, but he knew he wanted to start a paper with more of a blend of "opinion and funny stuff." He argues that people want to read something sophisticated and challenging. "So much media is siphoned through a fine screen," he says, and the result is "no lumps."