With the closure of alternative weeklies in Baltimore and Philadelphia—and the Village Voice’s decision to end print publication after 62 years—the past few years have been grim for the once-essential element of the urban media landscape. But like other newspaper publications, alt weeklies around the country are finding new ways to be profitable, including nonprofit funding, specialty publications, and new advertising markets.
For this story, E&P talked to editors and publishers at several alt weeklies, including the founder of The Alt, a new weekly based in Albany, N.Y., and the new ownership team at DigBoston about their approach and the vital role that alt weeklies provide in their communities.
But first, let’s start with what it means to be an alt weekly.
Tim Keck, the founder and publisher of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stranger in Seattle, said, “I think (alt weeklies) typically are more opinion-based and are more left-leaning. They do literary journalism. They care a lot more about events. They use swear words.”
Keck hates the term “alt weekly” though, especially since it no longer applies to The Stranger. The paper just switched from a weekly to a biweekly schedule, based on feedback from readers who wanted a higher-end publication with a longer shelf life.
Keck also takes issue with The Stranger being dubbed “alternative.”
“I consider us the mainstream. We’re more politically aligned with the city than The Seattle Times is,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re covering the stories that the Times doesn’t cover. We’re competing on different levels.”
He added, “I think calling yourself an ‘alt weekly’ sets you up for failure. If you consider yourself the alternative to the daily paper, you’re dead. ‘Alternative press’ really needs to solve problems for readers and not think about other media in town.”
Jason Zaragoza, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, explained it this way: “Alt weeklies serve not just as a source for information on local politics and culture, but also as a community bulletin board and a civic forum that connects people to their public officials, local businesses, and one another. As far as I’m concerned, nothing reflects a community better than a copy of the local alt weekly.”
As the Sun Sets in Baltimore, How are Other Alt Weeklies Surviving?
Brandon Soderberg took over as editor-in-chief earlier this year at City Paper, which is folding at the end of this month after 40 years, a decision that was announced in July by its owner The Baltimore Sun Media Group. The Sun purchased the paper in 2014.
“I think we were always really realistic about the state of print media,” said Soderberg. “When we were bought, I thought, ‘Who the hell knows how much time we have?’ It’s a surprise that it came the way it did, so swiftly. But am I surprised that the Sun shut us down? No. I’m still confused as to why they bought us in the first place.” (E&P reached out to the Sun for comment and did not hear back.) Among the red flags since the purchase? Soderberg said that vacant spots took months to fill—if they were filled at all.
As for The Village Voice going digital-only, David Howard King, who worked at the Manhattan-based Gotham Gazette for seven years before starting The Alt in Albany, said, “I wasn’t shocked by their decision to cease print. I know some folks who work there and they’ve seen the writing on the wall for quite some time.”
AAN’s Zaragoza said, “Putting out a print publication requires a lot of resources, and so the decision to go digital-only has to take that into account. I do think that a city loses a bit of its soul without the physical presence of an alt weekly on its street corners. That being said, I do think the message is more important than the medium, and so any way to each publication has to determine the best way to reach their audience. In some cases, digital-only may be the answer.”
At The Stranger, Keck said advertising is still strong. Their “Savage Love” podcast also brings in revenue, as do their events. In 2010, they started a local event ticketing company, which put them in a great position to also sell event ads.
“It became more and more of a business and now we’re kind of the dominant player in Seattle and Portland. We sell millions of tickets,” Keck said. Like many publications, they also produce a number of specialty publications.
Alan Leveritt, who co-founded the Arkansas Times in 1974 and currently serves as publisher, said, “If you’re in the alt weekly business, you’ve got to do more than one thing to keep the doors open. We do events, we do special pubs, we do a metered paywall.” That includes a Spanish-language weekly for the immigrant community in Little Rock, an outdoor lifestyle magazine, and a bi-annual cycling magazine.
“It’s not all doom and gloom, but I’m working harder at 65 than I was at 22,” he said, joking that running an alt weekly is “like being chased by banshees 24/7.”
After 47 years, the Boston Phoenix closed its doors in 2013, leaving DigBoston as the only alt weekly in town. Former Phoenix writer Chris Faraone is now editor-in-chief and an associate publisher for DigBoston (affectionately known as The Dig), founded in 1999. After finding an investor, Faraone and the other owners already had their first order of business in mind: Paying off the old debt.
In addition to expanding their digital properties and doing more email newsletters, The Dig does custom playbills for local theaters. “In the next six months, we’re going to be doing about a dozen books. We have a couple of big events early next year, so we’re not biting off more than we can chew,” Faraone said.
From Escorts to Weed
Increasingly, the once-standard back-of-book escort ads are a thing of the past, according to the papers E&P spoke with.
“Under my tenure we would never have such a thing,” Faraone said. “The Dig was actually one of the first to get rid of those more than 10 years ago. The Phoenix had them until the very end.”
It was the same at The Alt. “The previous alt weekly in the area saw sex ads run dry 10 years ago,” King said, referring to the Metroland, which folded in 2015. “The Alt doesn’t have any of those sorts of ads.”
On the other hand, Baltimore’s City Paper still run the risqué ads. Soderberg said he changed his mind after reading Melissa Gira Grant’s book about sex workers, “Playing the Whore.”
“The ‘back pages’ controversy? It’s actually much better to be on the up-and-up than to fall into this problematic netherworld,” he said.
So, what’s replacing escort ads? In a word, weed.
“The real hope for alts is weed, if weed keeps being legal,” said Soderberg. “Alts are the only place where dispensaries can advertise.”
Faraone estimated that cannabis ads make up between 5 and 10 percent of The Dig’s advertising income—and that’s before the dispensaries open in Boston. “I don’t want to be so cannabis-minded, but it’s such an important factor. You’re going to have the markets where there’s weed, and the markets where there’s not and it’s going to be two different stories. Some people would say I’m exaggerating what the cannabis dollars are going to look like, but I don’t believe that. I don’t see the mainstream warming up to cannabis. You’re not going to be seeing reviews of products (in a daily paper).”
At The Stranger, “pot ads are definitely huge,” Keck said. “We’re in Seattle, it’s a legal pot market. We do two Green Guides a year. And the pot ads are even in our high-end publications.” But for The Stranger, entertainment ads still bring in more money.
In a red state like Arkansas, being the lone progressive voice has its consequences. “We’ve always enjoyed pretty good advertising from the state, and that’s not true anymore,” Leveritt said. “The Times has lost pretty much all of its state advertising. And our other publications have lost ads, simply because they’re associated with The Times.”
Will Nonprofit Funding Be the Turning Point?
Faraone, who founded the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism to fund long-form investigative journalism, is seeing other papers adopt the same model. “After I started the nonprofit, I went to talk about it in 2016 at (the AAN) conference, there were some people interested. And by the time we did the same thing this year, three other cities had started their own,” he said.
With Faraone’s blessing, Soderberg co-founded Baltimore’s Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. “We’ve raised a little bit of money and, ideally, we would fund journalism and help people find a place for it. We can’t raise enough money to start a new paper, but we’ve been raising money to create some journalistic projects…Until we can figure out the revenue problem, I’m not sure how you do good journalism over a long period of time,” he said. “I don’t know if nonprofit’s the answer, but I don’t know if advertising is either.”
Soderberg intends to keep funding journalism through Baltimore’s nonprofit, even if he doesn’t have his own outlet to place it in.
King, who has worked in nonprofit journalism before, said, “I would like to pursue funding for large-scale investigative stories, but overall I’m pretty confident in our traditional approach.”
The Stranger’s Keck isn’t so sold on nonprofits as the answer though: “I do have some issues with the model as funding, or that this is a way to save journalism. The focus becomes on pleasing donors, rather than serving readers. I’m not casting aspersions on the whole thing. We need journalism. If you can (save journalism jobs) with not-for-profit? Great, do it. For me, I like the challenge, and I like what it means to be connected to readers rather than donors.”
What Does the Future Hold?
“How are they doing overall? I think most people would say they’re not doing very well,” Keck said. Although he’s happy with where the The Stranger is, he said, “It feels a little bit dark right now in the world of alt weeklies.”
Soderberg, who is captaining the City Paper until it closes, said, “It’s grim because they don’t want to change. I don’t want to critique them too much, because they’re in the same position as us, but they’re caught between the internet and the big newspapers. It’s all a revenue problem. There’s nothing wrong with the journalism we’re doing.”
“These are challenging times for all media,” said Zaragoza. “As readers and consumers we have more options than ever on where to spend our limited attention. But when it comes down to it, I think most people crave a connection with the media they consume, and will return again and again to sources they can identify with, that they can trust, and come from a place of authenticity. That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of alt weeklies.”
He points to several papers he sees thriving, including The Arkansas Times, C-Ville Weekly, The Inlander in Spokane, Santa Barbara Independent, and Seven Days in Vermont, which, as he mentions, have all been recognized in recent years by E&P in our annual 10 Newspapers That Do It Right feature.
In Albany, King said, “Our media circle is so small and insular that we’ve ruffled a lot of feathers and upset the order of things. We quickly provoked the ire of institutional heads who are used to being able to make a call to get a story killed.”
He said one of their major struggles is educating people about what alt weeklies do. “We aren’t going to run your press release, we aren’t going to cover press conferences, we might give things bad reviews, you don’t get to read and edit the story before we publish it. So the idea that we do real journalism has shocked some folks. We’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time getting through to advertisers that they are paying to be seen because people read our articles and not because we are going to write about them.”
To really succeed, collaboration seems to be the key to building a strong future.
“There are more than 100 papers that are part of AAN, and we get together once or twice a year. We share ideas and every year there’ll be a couple collaborations,” said The Dig’s Faraone. “We need to be doing more of that. We’re all thinking about sharing and networking. Those lines of communication are more open than I’ve ever seen them. There are just a lot of good ideas out there, and there’s no one solution because all of our markets are different. It has to not just be about your newspaper. The closer that the remaining community-minded journalism outlets are, the better they’re going to be.”