Who Says 2008 Was a Washout? Here Are 10 Papers That Bucked the Trends

By: Jon Whiten

It seems like anytime you visit Editor & Publisher or Romenesko these days, it’s all doom and gloom, all the time, regarding the newspaper business. Aging readers, slumping sales, declining circulation, salary freezes, unpaid furloughs, layoffs, bankruptcies, liquidations — it’s a veritable Moebius strip of woe.

In the old days, when the media reported on problems in the newspaper industry, alternative newspapers weren’t included. But alt-weeklies are immune no longer: In 2008, many Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) papers faced some of the same issues afflicting their mainstream brethren in the print media.

However, if you look to small- and medium-sized markets, you can still find alternative newspapers that had a pretty good year in 2008.

In the space below, we’ve written about 10 AAN papers that increased revenue last year. Most of the increases were in the single digits, and for a few of these papers the growth was less than they had grown accustomed to. However, in the final year of the disastrous Bush presidency, when the economy reached depths unseen since FDR was in office, any growth at all must be considered an accomplishment.

1. The Athens News in Athens, Ohio, finished 2008 with revenue up 3.14 percent over the prior year with profitability also growing by 7.75 percent. While the paper took a hit in insert advertising due to the loss of one major client, classified and display sales were up a combined 4.19 percent and special-issue sales were up 11.67 percent, according to publisher Bruce Mitchell.

He says he remains optimistic about opportunities in the new year. ?It?s all in the people you hire and work environment you create,” Mitchell says. “Try to overlook the doom and gloom and look for opportunity and great people.?

2. Boulder (Colo.) Weekly ended up growing its top line by about 5 percent in 2008, after being up by 11 percent at mid-year and 8 percent at the end of the third quarter, publisher Stewart Sallo says. He says the paper’s profits grew substantially more than revenue, and may have doubled. (The Weekly’s year-end financials are not yet complete.) The growth was mostly in special issues, with a newly added Annual Manual accounting for about half of all special-issue growth.

“It appears that our 15-year-old paper has finally matured to the point where we are doing a much better job in most areas,” Sallo says. “Our organization has never been as stable as it is right now in terms of attrition — particularly in our advertising department — and the local community seems to finally be taking notice of our longevity.”

3. The Illinois Times grew its top line by 1.5 percent in 2008, according to publisher Sharon Whalen. She says the Springfield, Ill., alt-weekly grew via a combination of new special issues (e.g., a winter guide), new niche products (e.g., a wedding planner) and an influx of revenue from legal ads from foreclosures.

The paper changed printers late in 2008 and as a result expects to cut printing expenses in 2009, even though it went to a larger page and a stitch-and-trim format. The Times also hopes its new look will help it land regional advertising accounts that have thus far eluded the paper.

4. North Carolina’s Mountain Xpress was up 3 percent last year, due to growth in display advertising and two new standalone publications — a green-building directory and a dining guide, publisher Jeff Fobes says. “It helps [the Xpress] to be in a small market and to depend almost entirely on local advertising,” he notes.

Fobes also notes that the Xpress may have been boosted by other factors unique to its market that have allowed the paper to expand its role: “Whatever success Xpress has had might … be tied in part to our historic effort to approximate a paper of record, which has given our daily, increasingly, a run for its money.”

5. “It’s easy to be negative right now,” Josh Schuler says. “But negativity in the sales force can lead to sloppiness, laziness. The ‘economy excuse’ can be somewhat self-fulfilling.” The director of sales and marketing at the Indianapolis alt-weekly NUVO says sales are up more than 5 percent in its fiscal year 2008 (which ends in March), with most of that growth coming from local display advertising. The paper also increased web revenue by 100 percent for the second year straight.

Schuler says that NUVO has succeeded by “reinforcing the consultative approach.” It has increased its page yield by about 25 percent since this time last year, so while his account executives may not be selling as much volume, they are earning more in less space. The paper has also increased the number of accounts purchasing multi-platform packages encompassing print, web, email, and texting services.

6. In Spokane, Wash., the Pacific Northwest Inlander increased sales by 11.6 percent and also boosted profitability in 2008, according to editor and publisher Ted McGregor. He says that local display advertising grew, but the biggest difference was in the free glossy magazines the paper publishes. The Inlander now publishes a bimonthly health magazine in addition to an annual manual, and they both added to the bottom line.

“We need to make sure we don?t get dragged down with the Titanic,”McGregor says. “Many people want to link us to dailies since we are all print, but we — as an industry — saw the problems in the daily model long ago, which is why we have personality, loyalty and were free way before the internet made it cool.”

7. Maine’s Portland Phoenix grew the top line by about 3 percent in 2008, and also increased profitability, according to associate publisher Marc Shepard. He says that most of the growth came from local display and niche publications and events targeting new demographics and new advertisers. The Phoenix increased the publication frequency of its local fashion and style guide from biannual to quarterly, launched a series of DIY arts & crafts fairs, and opened an online auction site targeting new businesses.

8. Central California’s San Luis Obispo New Times moved the sales needle up slightly from 2007, but it also increased profitability, publisher Bob Rucker says. The growth came from local display ads, and from new publications. Rucker says the paper took four special sections — best of, brides, holiday guide and student guide — and turned them into separate publications, and all except the best-of tripled in revenue.

While he admits that papers on the Central California coast “tend to be a little insulated from the rest of the world,” Rucker says he still “believes there are plenty of advertising dollars out there — just work harder and stay focused on print products.”

9. “Keep the faith,” says Santa Fe Reporter publisher Andy Dudzik. “Print is not dead.” He says his paper’s sales were up by 4 percent last year, but profitability declined as a result of the creation of two new staff positions — a special-sections editor and a web editor. The sales growth derived from increases in both local display and classified advertising, as well as a boost in revenue from events like a block party, a Valentine’s Day party, and a free drive-in movie series.

10. Seven Days co-editor and publisher Paula Routly says the Burlington, Vt., alt-weekly’s annual growth is usually in the 10 to 20 percent range, but that it will settle for a revenue increase of 1 percent in 2008. “November and December eroded all our growth gains,” she says, “but if we hadn’t gotten creative earlier in the year, it would have been much worse.”

Seven Days launched an annual student guide in 2008. It also created a new revenue-generating event, Vermont 3.0, which was “basically a job fair for creative technology companies.” In addition, web ad revenue was up 50 percent. “Try to figure out ways to be useful to your advertisers that go beyond a weekly eighth of a page,” Routly says. “Look for opportunities that relate to the mission but feel a little bit like a stretch.”

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