In the wake of the Boston Phoenix shutdown, alt-weeklies face a grim future
By Al Diamon
“Are you still writing for the Portland Phoenix?”
It’s a question I get so often that I’ve almost gotten over the ego-deflating nature of the (possibly) unintended insult.
“Yes,” I usually reply, “but you obviously aren’t reading it.”
I said I almost got over it.
What bothers me most about this query isn’t that the people making it aren’t interested in what I write. It’s that they’re often the sort of people I’d expect to be reading the Phoenix: young, educated, engaged in the community. Instead, the majority of my readers, who pick up the Phoenix or most of the other (less alternative) papers that carry my weekly political column, tend to be older. Not the sort of folks who read the music columns or the club listings. I’m talking about people who can barely manage e-mail.
When I worked for the now-defunct Casco Bay Weekly, our average reader was 35 to 40 years old. In the decade since that paper folded, the readership for alternative weekly papers appears to have aged a similar amount. Meanwhile, the younger generations show little interest in what they consider to be publications aimed at wrinklies.
Which means alt-weeklies (and perhaps more conventional weeklies) are facing much the same problem mainstream dailies have been struggling with for years: their customer base is dying off.
This assessment is anchored in more than chance encounters with pimply faced brats. According to the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2013,” the 20 largest alt-weeklies in the country saw their circulations decline an average of 8 percent in 2012. That’s better than the 14 percent decline in 2011, but it’s hardly good news, particularly since it was accompanied by other alarming developments. Struggling alts in Chicago and San Francisco were bought up by mainstream dailies. Creative Loafing, once the largest chain of alts in the nation, went out of business. The Village Voice, until recently the highest circulation alt in the U.S., went through a round of layoffs and resignations as its numbers plummeted. On Long Island, the alternative paper went from weekly to monthly. In Birmingham, it went dark.
Much of this was due to lost advertising. Craigslist long ago ate all the classifieds. National companies found more effective platforms. Big-box stores reduced the number of local shops. But underlying this ad trend is another one concerning readership. There simply isn’t as much of it as there once was, and what remains isn’t as attractive to advertisers.
Rick Edmonds, a media industry analyst at the Poynter Institute, said alternative papers have been losing ground for the past decade. “They have not been more successful than the dailies in replenishing the audience,” Edmonds said. “Young people don’t trust the mainstream, but they’re able to get their local information from a variety of digital sources.”
The change in reader demographics is most obvious in the big cities. As David Carr, who writes the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, pointed out about the Village Voice, it “has a hard time standing above the metropolitan clutter.”
Carr went on to say, “The idea of the alternative weekly — that news would be covered absent the agenda of mainstream media and that truths would be told without paying heed to any kind of formal balance or objectivity — has all but been overwhelmed by the Web.”
Young urban dwellers watched with seeming indifference last month as the Boston Phoenix (circulation down a whopping 29 percent between 2011 and 2012) folded. They appeared unmoved by the loss of what Charles P. Pierce, writing for Grantland, called, “the outlaw spirit of Boston journalism, the one that went back to colonial pamphlets and the Liberator.”
The situation is dire, but not yet terminal. Even in Boston, the Weekly Dig is still alive. Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Oregon are among the places that still have two alt-weeklies. Most of the nation’s second-tier cities, such as Providence, and third-tier ones, such as Portland, have reasonably healthy alts, even if they are owned by the same company that couldn’t make a go of it with the Phoenix in Boston.
Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (formerly the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies), said the nature of these surviving papers is changing to meet the challenges posed by online competitors.
“The alt-weekly you grew up with is probably on its way out,” Shackelford said in a phone interview. “But the ones in small markets are becoming the newspapers of record. They’re evolving from newspaper companies to media companies.”
In some places, Shackelford said, the papers are becoming “niche publications,” catering to specific groups, such as extreme liberals. In other cases, the alts are emphasizing “long-form narrative,” in-depth pieces on local issues.
It doesn’t appear either of those options is under consideration in Portland.
Portland Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis isn’t sure how the paper’s future will play out in the wake of the closing of its owner’s flagship publication in Boston. But Inglis isn’t planning on doing anything drastic. “We’re going to keep going here in Portland just the way we have been,” he said. “I don’t expect to see major changes in the Portland Phoenix.”
There’s something to be said for that hold-the-course approach. The Boston Phoenix didn’t meet its demise because of poor content. In the flood of obituaries, even its critics admitted the paper produced quality journalism. The problem, as Boston magazine pointed out, was revenue. The glossy Phoenix introduced last year was designed to attract national advertisers, thereby boosting revenues 25 to 30 percent to cover the extra printing costs. That never happened.
“There is plenty of high quality content available in print and online. The problem is paying for it,” said Peter Kadzis, until last month executive editor of the Phoenix papers. “The problem isn’t a journalism problem. It’s a publishing problem: how to pay for the words and images that appear online or in print.”
In smaller cities such as Portland, national ads don’t figure heavily in the budget (although local distributors of national brands have lately been under pressure to reassess their advertising strategies), so drastic changes in format may not be quite as necessary — at least so long as there are enough of what Edmonds, at Poynter, only half-jokingly called “aging hippies” to sustain readership numbers.
“You don’t want to blow off your existing base of customers and advertisers to become something new and different,” he said.
But if alternatives don’t do something, they risk becoming as irrelevant as mainstream papers. As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it in his blog, “Look, there are bigger factors at play here — alt weeklies, like their rival dailies, thrived in an environment of limited publishing choice, when both readers and advertisers had fewer options available to them. The model is in varying degrees of trouble everywhere, no matter what kind of paper stock they’re using. But the [Boston] Phoenix’s closing hints that, for advertisers, the issue is less newsprint vs. glossy and more print vs. digital.”
For now, anyway, my weekly political column is still running in the Phoenix. Thanks for asking … kid.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.