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.
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."
What he came up with was The Stranger, one of at least two alternatives in Seattle. It has about 80,000 readers, whose average age is 30. Readers let the staff - who are fond of experimenting with different formats - know about it when they get too strange. In recent months, the paper has run issues entirely in handwriting and one that was a novel.
In Missoula, a college town with culture influenced by the Pacific Northwest, the alternative paper is going head to head with the daily. "We claim to be the best-read alternative weekly in America," says Matt Gibson, publisher of the Missoula Independent, a nearly 10-year-old publication that circulates as many papers in town on the day it's published as the daily does (16,000 in a town with a population of 70,000).
Recently, the Independent went out on a limb, taking an unsympathetic view of the police department's role after civilians were hurt by police in a riot when a Hells Angels rally came to town. "I thought we were going to get rocks through our windows," Mr. Gibson says.
Targeting the establishment is a regular occurrence at
alt weeklies. At the Nashville Scene in Tennessee, former BusinessWeek writer Willy Stern earned a shelf-full of journalism honors for a recent series on police corruption.
He quips that he writes for "a free newspaper with sex ads in the back - it doesn't get much lower than that on the prestige totem pole."
But he chooses to stay, even though he's had offers from well-known publications. "We get space, we get time, and the salaries are competitive," Mr. Stern says. "The fact of the matter is, the dailies, including [the Monitor] ... are not giving people the time and space to do quality journalism."
David Green disagrees. The managing editor of The Tennessean, the daily paper in Nashville, offers a long list of stories his investigative reporters have covered that are of interest to the community, but which haven't been covered by the Scene. He says dailies have a lot of ground to cover, but aren't just sitting around.
"Do we break every story in this city? No. Does The New York Times break every story in New York?" he asks.
Does consolidation make some not so alternative?
As independent as alternatives are, they do have at least one thing in common with dailies: consolidation. Today, eight alternative papers are owned by Village Voice Media, while another 12 are owned by New Times Inc.
Though owned by people in their own industry, consolidation is ironic for a group that doesn't hesitate to point out the evils of corporate ownership of dailies.
"Whether you are for it or against it, it is somewhat inevitable in my opinion," says Albie Del Favero, publisher of the Nashville Scene and now executive vice president of Village Voice Media, which owns the Scene.
"I would certainly prefer we were locally owned, [but] in today's competitive environment, I'm not sure we could survive," he says.
"They're trying to operate their business the same way we operate ours; they just don't want to admit it," says managing editor Green, whose paper, owned by a chain, is often the target of criticism in the pages of the Nashville Scene.
Consolidation is one way to attract more national advertisers, however. In 1990, total ad revenues for AAN members were about $170 million. The figure for 1999 is about $500 million -small compared to the more than $46 billion that daily newspapers bring in, according to Mr. Broadwater.
But, as he points out, that's money the dailies aren't seeing. And in terms of compound growth, in the last five years dailies ad revenue increased at a rate of 6.5 percent, while alternatives grew at 13.5 percent. "This isn't the Internet," he says, "but in general you're seeing an industry that's growing well."
In Charleston, S.C., publisher Noel Mermer is busy bringing arts and entertainment coverage to a community that has plenty of it to cover. His three-year-old free weekly paper, The Charleston City Paper, is already up to 30,000 circulation and he is aiming to get it to 50,000.
"It's a good business to be in if you can do it right," he says, joking that these days the rule about alternative newsweeklies is "If you can find a city that doesn't have one, let me know."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society