How some alt-weeklies are innovating their way out of a crisis

Maybe it's because their revenue streams are small compared to dailies, maybe it's because many of them focus on entertainment content, but for whatever reason, alternative weeklies don’t come up much in discussions of innovation. But these free tabloids, which faced extinction not so long ago as local advertising slowed and Craigslist began pillaging their classified-ad revenue, are still around. And even if they’re not all thriving, many are adapting to the new terrain.

“We were slow to get into the digital space because we always were free and print had always been our product,” Tiffany Shackelford, Executive Director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), said in a telephone interview. “Then we took a nosedive when the economy went bad and with Craigslist on the scene. We began innovating because we didn’t have a choice. Our survival depended on it.”

Just like many major dailies, the newsweeklies often have well-established brands in the communities they serve. But lots of alts seem to be doing a better job at finding new uses for their content. For example, bar and club listings are a staple in alternative news publications’ classifieds sections. Rather than cede that money-making territory, a group of newsweeklies is leveraging that painstakingly compiled information and weaving it together with location-based technology in a mobile app called Cocktail Compass that helps users find the “happiest happy hours” around town.

Individual papers use the app, which The Stranger and Portland Mercury owner Index Newspapers developed with Night & Day Studios and license to other papers, differently. The Charleston City Paper, for example, has a full database of local bars, sortable by geography, complete with staff content and crowd reviews. Bars that want to be featured pay a fee for their listing to be highlighted and to feature their specials, said the paper’s co-owner and advertising director, Blair Barna. Some papers may choose to only load paid advertisers onto the database, “but we choose not to,” he said.

Innovation has also meant the weeklies had to start taking risks and changing the way they do things -- some of which might have seemed anathema in the past. The Stranger, for instance, also sells tickets on behalf of local clubs, concerts and other venues.

The weekly’s website acts as a ticketing platform a la Ticketmaster, for local clients. Tim Keck, publisher of The Stranger and Portland, Oregon’s Mercury, said the same editorial wall that exists for advertising sales exists for the ticketing platform.

“We don’t write favorable or unfavorable reviews about events because someone is ticketing with us,” Keck said in a telephone interview. “Just like with regular advertising, we keep it separate from editorial."

The Arkansas Times has developed a full-fledged social-media marketing service. It started by posting photos to Facebook pages for clients who weren’t comfortable with the platform, and now it runs Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for clients like a local bakery and a theater company. A two-person team responds to questions posted on Twitter or Facebook, posts photos and status updates, but also pulls in the paper’s central production team, when necessary, to help make Facebook pages look professional, said Kelly Ferguson, the Times’ social media director.

“News organizations have an advantage because we have a full production team, photographers, and writers who can create content on deadline,” Ferguson said. “We have a lot more to offer than a social media company that may not have a real expertise in content creation.”

The service began a year ago with just a handful of clients, now it has 20 and growing (it recently signed three more clients, and Ferguson said it's about to hire another employee). Last year the service brought in about $15,000 a month in revenue, Ferguson said, and they expect it to bring in twice as much this year.

But don’t close associations with businesses pose conflicts? Ferguson says so far they haven't. When the Boise Weekly faced the same question, it decided to erect a virtual Chinese wall.

“Say we write about an Arcade Fire show coming up in town and as part of their ad package the show’s promoters do a ticket giveaway. We found that many of them wanted to do social media promotions but selling our Tweets wasn’t OK and selling Facebook posts seemed icky,” said Rachael Daigle, the paper’s editor.

“To give advertisers access to our online audience while removing the editorial coverage from the equation we created the Promo Page, which, ideally, advertisers are paying to be on rather than just getting it as an add on,” Daigle said. “That allows us to tell readers we’re giving away tickets to the show they just read about and sort of laterally gives advertisers the eyeballs they want in the digital world because we Facebook/Tweet everything that goes up on the page.”

Editorial departments, too, once accustomed to heaving out a product one time a week, are taking digital experimentation more seriously.

“We look at digital as not simply a new and increasingly important editorial avenue, but as potential revenue streams,” said Daigle. “I don’t think we have yet to really capitalize on the potential we’ve created, but we’re getting there.”

As examples, Daigle pointed to works the editorial department is doing in terms of online content/promo pages, video and slideshows.

Daigle said using video to tell stories is a necessary component of the paper’s editorial vision, but it is also a sales opportunity. “We’ve run some pre-roll, not as much as we’d like to, but I think the demand is there if the sales team is really behind it." The paper is also considering doing more with inserting ads into its slide shows. “I think just about every major news outlet does it—out of a 25 picture show there may be three ads inserted among the content,” she added.

The Charleston City Paper began a new special section called "Dirt," a Lowcountry food guide that focuses and capitalizes on the eat local, buy local movement.

Stephanie Barna, who is editor and also co-owns the paper with her husband Blair, said the first edition hit its goal and the second issue, which is currently in production, saw a 25 percent revenue increase. Once published, the information becomes available on the paper’s website, which is accessible via mobile. “It’s a great opportunity for us to tell specific stories about farms, farmers, etc. and increase our ties to that community,” Barna said.

The paper also started beach and bar guides, adding a "Hottest Bartender" component to them. “We work closely with the sales department on this,” Barna said in an email. “We ask bars to nominate a male and female bartender, submit pictures and then we circulate those and narrow it down to the hottest men and women. Once we have our finalists and once Swig (the bar guide) is published with really awesome high-quality pictures of the bartenders, we launch an online vote contest, which gets gobs of traffic. It’s been a great promotion. We’re planning to add a cocktail party next year, now that we have a promo person on staff.”

Sometimes the old-fashioned stuff works editorially, too. Getting their content online has given national distribution to alt-weeklies' traditionally strong long-form journalism about local stories. The Stranger’s Eli Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize recently for “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” a feature about a grisly local rape and the trial that followed. That’s one more Pulitzer than The Washington Post took home this year.

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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