Alternative Weeklies Skew Older

By: Lucia Moses

At alternative newspapers, editors and publishers snickered when they saw daily newspapers’ latest attempts, such as the Chicago Tribune‘s RedEye and the Chicago Sun-TimesRed Streak, to woo young adults. Traditional dailies, they snorted, lack the creativity and “street cred” to win over youthful audiences.

It may be the dailies’ turn to laugh, though. Beneath that self-assurance, alternative weeklies’ own readers are starting to show gray. Their average reader’s age rose to 46 last year from 38 in 1995, according to the Media Audit. As their average reader age trends up, alternatives have to think the unthinkable: Are they losing the edge with young people that’s always been their hallmark?

Meanwhile, traditional dailies are getting more sophisticated about reaching young audiences, and while alternatives roundly dismiss the recent crop of youth-aimed spinoffs and special sections as “faux alternatives,” they may do so at their own peril.

To not take the new daily initiatives seriously “would be stupid,” says David Schneiderman, CEO of Village Voice Media LLC, which owns The Village Voice in New York and five other alt-weeklies. He decries the “blind arrogance of some people in our industry to sit back and think [the dailies] can never figure it out.” Instead, he lives by the words of one-time Voice owner Rupert Murdoch, whom he recalls once said, “Never underestimate the competition — no matter how small they are.”

Alternatives, as an industry, have matured. The biggest groups, NT Media LLC (New Times) and Village Voice Media, distribute about 1.89 million copies a week, or roughly 25% of the industry total, but many smaller clusters also mark the landscape. Their success has led to the formation of chains of various sizes, and attracted financial players and traditional newspaper companies (such as Gannett Co. Inc., Knight Ridder, the Tribune Co., and Cox Enterprises Inc.) that have invested in, purchased, or launched alt-weeklies.

As resources have grown and their founders have aged, the papers have become more professional, on both the sales and editorial sides. Stunts such as the ones pulled at Crazy Shepherd, the college-based precursor to Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express, would no longer fly. Co-founder Bill Lueders, now an editor at Isthmus in Madison, fondly recalls when he dressed as an unstable Communist revolutionary in the early 1980s and visited gun shops to show how easy it was to buy a gun. Filmmaker Michael Moore, former editor of The Flint (Mich.) Voice, uses guerrilla tactics in his popular documentaries (such as Bowling for Columbine) but it’s hard to find much evidence of that in modern alternatives.

Instead, they are increasingly partnering on cross-promotions with cable TV and radio — and, sometimes, even the dailies they regularly ridicule — according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). And in a move that struck some as cartel-like, New Times and Village Voice Media agreed two months ago to shut down competing papers in Los Angeles and Cleveland, prompting a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

In a harsh assessment of his former industry, Jim McDonald, one-time publisher of Philadelphia Weekly, says: “Alts are at the wrong end of the product cycle. There really aren’t a lot of issues to drive the alternatives to be like they once were. They’ve mainstreamed to a large degree, and they’re getting older. A number of their editors are in their 50s.”

Everything new is old again

Jane Levine, the 49-year-old publisher of the Chicago Reader, whose median age has crept to 36 from 28 in 1987, sees growing alternative-industry attention to the aging issue. “For a long time, we said, ’18 to 34, 18 to 34,'” she says, “and it’s just not true.”

The easy explanation is that baby boomers have stayed with the paper, inflating the average age. And many papers insist they’re still reaching young people just as much as before. Still, worries persist.

“I would love to say every 18-to-34-year-old picks up our newspapers, but I know it’s not true,” says Fran Zankowski, CEO of New Mass Media, the Tribune Co. unit that publishes the Hartford (Conn.) Advocate and three other New England alternatives. Seeking to lower his papers’ average reader age to around 35 from about 40, Zankowski, who is 48, is holding meetings of his editors and publishers and focus groups to figure out a strategy to get there. He hopes to have a plan in place by March.

As they struggle to regain their financial footing after two down years, some publishers have chosen to embrace the upward trend in age, while others are retooling their editorial mix to try to stay relevant to young people.

Some, such as the Chicago Reader and Seattle Weekly, welcome their older readers. With a median age of 38, the Weekly has always targeted an older, more upscale audience than the prototypical alternative weekly. The paper briefly joined the youth-advertising gold rush in the late 1990s, but without much success, according to Editor Knute Berger. And while The Stranger, a Seattle competitor founded just over a decade ago, is popular with young people, Berger believes advertisers are perfectly happy with his older readers. “If The Stranger wants to get everyone that’s 18 to 24, I’m happy to get the other five or six decades.”

Most, though, are placing their bets on younger readers. “We want to own 21 to 34,” says Michele Laven, president and chief operating officer of NT Media, parent of the 11 New Times papers. Both New Times and Village Voice Media emphasize youth-oriented stories, because, as Schneiderman says, “If you don’t keep bringing new people into your publication, you will die.”

Thus, The Village Voice featured Eminem on a recent cover and tucked a political story inside, while Cleveland Scene, a New Times paper, has tilted its coverage in favor of more music and culture cover stories in the past couple of years. “We kind of got a little too serious, too intoxicated with hard, serious news,” Editor Pete Kotz says, recognizing that a big City Council matter “probably isn’t that important to most people.”

Taking a third approach is Tampa, Fla.-based Creative Loafing Inc. While trying to strengthen its young-adult readership, the company also is courting opinion leaders through coverage of civic issues in its three weeklies in the Southeast. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s focus on active people.’ That’s who advertisers want,” says Senior Vice President Neil Skene. Atlanta flagship Creative Loafing runs a confessional column called “Karma Cleanser” and sex ads, but also seeks interviews with political officeholders. The formula seems to be working: Readership among both 18- to-24-year-olds and opinion leaders is up over the last year.

Aging hippies they’re not

Alternatives have ridden their young-reader appeal to financial success. Between 1997 and last year, AAN members’ advertising revenue grew at a compound annual rate of 7.8%, to more than half a billion dollars — a fraction of ad spending in newspapers, but a partial opportunity lost by dailies nonetheless. Distribution of AAN alt-weeklies over the past five years has grown, too, by 8%, to 7.4 million.

National advertising in alt-weeklies has thrived much of the last decade, accounting for as much as 10% of their revenue, though it has fallen off sharply during the economic downturn of the last two years. Marketers of tobacco, liquor, financial products, and air travel, to name a few, have discovered the papers’ attractive demographics.

The New Times-owned Ruxton Group, one of two sales networks formed in the past two decades to focus on the national-advertising business, saw annual double-digit growth in gross billings from 1996 to last year, when it handled $24 million in sales. Its clients often come to alts to target people other than their core customers, as when an airline promotes last-minute fares or a liquor company looks to recruit future imbibers. Mostly, the money tends to come out of national-magazine ad budgets, but in the cases of airline and bank ads, it comes from advertisers’ daily-newspaper budgets, New Times’ Laven says.

Alt-weeklies are a response-driven ad vehicle, as young urbanites pick them up on their way to party or shop, Laven says. “These readers are the first to embrace new technology and new ideas,” she adds. They tend to be single, above average in education and income, wired — and big spenders on music, concerts, and computers.

An older readership could help alternatives attract more upscale national advertisers who traditionally buy only dailies, as readers in their 40s and 50s share the active, buying lifestyle that advertisers covet in younger adults — and have more money to spend. John W. Morrison, sales director of the other major sales network, the Alternative Weekly Network, says the broader age range of today’s readership has opened doors to such advertisers as Verizon and Washington Mutual Inc., and prompted interest from some national retailers.

“What we’re not is a bunch of aging hippies,” says Judy Miszner, publisher of The Village Voice, the Big Daddy of alt-weeklies that, at 47, has hit middle age itself. “These are people who spend money and have fun and have a lot of disposable income.”

As alternatives struggle to replace the tobacco ad revenue lost over the past two years and recoup their other losses in national advertising, they’re setting their sights on travel, real-estate, packaged-goods, movie, and financial advertising.

Declares Village Voice Media’s Schneiderman, “I’m directing my efforts right at daily newspapers.”

Alt, weakly?

But by appealing to a broader base, do alternatives risk diluting the identity that’s been key to their advertising success?

Some say advertisers care more about reader psychographics than age alone, and find much to like in alternatives’ older reader segments. “The 50-year-old who reads the [San Francisco] Bay Guardian is different from the 50-year-old who reads the [San Francisco] Chronicle,” says Abe Peck, a former alternative editor in Chicago who heads the magazine department at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Still, Peck says alts must strive to stay distinctive, because “they can less afford a bland voice than the dailies can.”

That concern has led to some soul-searching. “We have a lot of entry points,” New Mass Media’s Zankowski says. “Doesn’t that sound like we’re trying to be everything to everybody? And that’s what we’re not.”

As Atlanta’s Creative Loafing begins to look more mass-market than niche, Editor Ken Edelstein says with some ambivalence, “I hope what we can do is maintain that independent voice … and, at the same time, reach more people.”

Indeed, some wonder what defines them. Many of the 118 members of the AAN grew out of the anti-establishment movements of the 1960s and ’70s. They became local entertainment guides and distinguished themselves by covering the kinds of music, politics, and other subjects the dailies wouldn’t touch.

Nowadays, though, listings are available on the Web and elsewhere. As music has fragmented, alternative papers struggle to cover the many forms of music that thrive. And since many dailies have loosened their collars a bit and cover a broader spectrum of issues, the alts have less to distinguish themselves by.

Alternatives now sound more like the dailies, John Sugg, a senior editor at Creative Loafing, ranted in a recent column after his paper made practically the same political campaign endorsements as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In its quest to be relevant, the paper has
become more formulaic and less passionate, he wrote. “The ‘alternative’ press has … forgotten its roots as the ‘underground’ press that championed civil rights and challenged the media lies during the Vietnam War. Now our raison d’etre is, as at the AJC, cash flow — not The Truth,” Sugg wrote.

Readers, too, have changed. While listings and ads may be the biggest draw for readers, editors say young people have less use for political coverage than they once did, and activists have other sources of information, on the Web and elsewhere.

Boston Phoenix Senior Managing Editor Clif Garboden sees the sense of mission that used to energize the newsroom when he started there 20 years ago missing in young staffers today. “The old guard like me are keepers of the flame, but there are no acolytes,” says Garboden, also vice president of AAN. For papers that lean left, the pool of potential readers may be smaller.

“Young people have really changed,” says Cleveland Scene‘s Kotz. “When I was young, there was no such thing as a young Republican. Now, they’re everywhere.”

McDonald, the former Philadelphia Weekly publisher who now runs Philadelphia Metro, a daily freebie that’s popular with young adults, also believes 5,000-word cover stories don’t jibe with reader preferences for shorter stories.

But it may not be all that dire for alt-weeklies. They are a long way from being confused with dailies. They still write with more opinion and attitude, and take more risks, often making the editorial and ad content too racy for some advertisers. Since they’re not trying to be the papers of record, they have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what they cover.

And fears that corporate ownership will dull alternatives’ edge are so far unproven. Executives at Hartford-based New Mass Media, owned by Tribune since mid-2000, say their new owner leaves them alone, although some complain that corporate practices somewhat stifle creativity. When New Haven (Conn.) Advocate writer Paul Bass criticized top Tribune execs in print for selling stock options, corporate higher-ups called to voice their displeasure, but didn’t pressure him to tone it down.

While the editors may be in their 40s and 50s, plenty of staffers in their 20s and 30s help keep many of these papers cutting-edge. And the papers are growing. Which means alternative weeklies will be nibbling away at mainstream dailies for some time to come.

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