When he was a kid in the mid-1970s, Ben Eason hung around his parents’ newspaper office in Atlanta, running errands, delivering bundles of papers, burning press plates and everything in between. Creative Loafing was a hip, young alternative weekly paper then. His parents, Debby and Chick Eason, had launched it on a beatnik budget in 1972 and scraped by for years.
Fast forward 35 years. Ben is in charge now, and Creative Loafing is no longer an eight-page listing of arts events. It’s a chain. And it just bought two of the most respected alternative weeklies in the country, the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper, increasing the company’s stable of alternative papers to six.
Ben Eason embodies the new breed of alternative weekly owners.
“In some ways, these alternative newsweeklies are now middle-aged, and many of the dynamic young founders are beyond middle age; they’re reaching their dotage,” said Charles Whitaker, an assistant professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and director of Medill’s Academy of Alternative Journalism.
Ben Eason puts it simply: “There’s a generational shift going on.”
The new generation of alternative press leaders spans the country from Tim Keck at the Stranger in Seattle to Brad Mindich at the Boston Phoenix. They’re roughly the same age as the founders of the Reader, the Bay Guardian and other 1960s and ’70s alternative stalwarts were when they founded their papers.
But the new generation started — or took over — their papers in a vastly different environment. Haight-Ashbury is a tourist attraction now. War protests are limited to two teenagers walking alone across the country. And only half the Beatles are even alive.
But the biggest difference has nothing to do with the counter-culture; it’s the Internet. The new generation of alt weekly owners is facing a competitor that their long-haired predecessors never dreamt of. Handling that competitor — even making it a partner — is the challenge of this generation.
The impact of the Internet on the alternative weekly community is seen in three issues: a loss of classified advertising to free sites such as Craigslist; a splintering of readership to ever more narrowly niched media, which are widely available online; and a consequent move toward consolidation among papers.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, urban alternative weeklies were THE place to read classified ads about housing and dating. If you moved to a new city and needed a cheap apartment, you didn’t read the Gannett daily, you turned to the Chicago Reader or San Francisco Bay Guardian or Village Voice. Its classies were packed with ads from individuals seeking roommates, landlords with space available and brokers handling buildings. After you found your pad and wanted a date, you again turned to the Reader, Guardian or Voice, this time for the personals. Gay? Bisexual? Swinger? You’d never see ads for those options in the square Tribune or Daily News, but in the Reader they were neatly broken into their own categories, nonjudgementally given the same emphasis as “Men Seeking Women.”
Then along came Craigslist in 1995. It started as a modest, free e-mailed list of events in San Francisco but now boasts sites focusing on 450 communities around the world, which combined get 30 million individual visitors a month.
Craigslist sites are like a giant church bazaar: simple, no-frills design; tons of items for sale, all posted by users; and millions of job ads, personals ads, discussion groups and just about anything else you’d expect to find in a community meeting place.
The catch? With the exception of some of the job ads and some of the housing ads, all the listings are free. And since Craigslist is now so well known, in many communities it serves the purpose previously served by the alt weeklies’ classifieds.
Why would a landlord pay $50 to put an ad listing a vacant apartment in the Washington City Paper when he can do it for free on Craigslist?
“Craigslist caught us all flatfooted,” Eason said.
Louis Black, editor and owner of the Austin Chronicle, echoes Eason.
“We’ve really suffered because of online classifieds,” he said. “Our help-wanted ads, our sex ads … have definitely lost an appreciable amount of business to the Web. Right now we’re fighting a rear-guard action.”
The Internet isn’t just a classified revenue killer; it also sucks readers out of the alt papers. If you wanted punk rock concert info in 1976, you picked up the alt weekly. Now, a young emo fan is more likely to go to her favorite Web site to get the scoop. Not only can she get up-to-the-minute info, but she can probably scalp tickets on the site, too.
Music fans are just one niche group, of course. Counter-culture folk in general found a comfortable home in the alt weekly, reveling in leftist columns, kinky sex advice and weird news items they couldn’t find anywhere else. Well, now all that info is a few clicks away.
The Internet is not the only medium hurting alternatives. There has also been a flood of other print publications, including corporate-owned faux alternatives such Red Eye from the Chicago Tribune and niche papers for gays, Hispanics, commuters and other groups previously served exclusively by alternative papers.
“Our papers are general interest, and all the other publications are cutting into our readers. We used to be the niche publication; now we’re being niched,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a trade group with 130 member newspapers. “It has made our business a lot harder.”
With the Internet and numerous new print pubs pounding alt weeklies from both sides, the smart owners realized they had just one choice: Start their own Web sites and try to get some of those readers, and revenue, back.
Black was early to the game, having started a site in 1994. The paper’s site (www.austinchronicle.com) is typical of alt paper sites: It’s packed with local news, arts listings, restaurant reviews and classified ads. It’s a potpourri intended to attract readers away from Craigslist — which is just ads — and other niched Web sites and publications.
Despite its smart appearance and volume of banner ads, Black said the site still generates only 2 percent to 3 percent of the company’s revenue.
“When we started the paper, we felt our best salesperson was duration, so I think we’ll eventually start making money from the site,” Black said.
These days, nearly every alternative paper has a Web site. No owners interviewed for this story reported more than single-digit revenue, but many are optimistic.
“I have lofty goals for our revenue online,” said Don Farley, group publisher of four alternative newsweeklies owned by Times Shamrock Communications in Scranton, Pa. “We’re going to put Web salespeople on staff in every paper in 2008.”
Farley said papers’ current sites earn 2.5 percent of the total ad revenue.
“In rough dollars, it’s grown from $60,000 four years ago to $240,000 this year (2007), in just the Baltimore City Paper.”
The challenges of the Internet, and the advancing age of some of the original alt paper founders, has stimulated consolidation.
Eason, whose purchase of the Reader and Washington City Paper exemplifies the consolidation trend, had anticipated forming a southeastern United States chain of papers, until the growth of the Internet convinced him that geography didn’t mean all that much anymore.
To an Internet user, whether the content was produced by a chain of papers based in Atlanta or Alaska didn’t really matter.
If the content was good, it could come from about anywhere.
“The Internet economics changed my thinking on how you have to be postured going into the future,” Eason said.
What it meant for his business plan was that a southern chain didn’t make as much sense anymore. What mattered was solid editorial content and broad readership base.
This changed his acquisition focus. An obvious new target: the Chicago Reader, which also owned the Washington City Paper. Eason started pursuing Bob Roth, principal owner of the Reader.
“I would call Bob from time to time and ask if he would sell, and he’d say no,” Eason said. “Then, last December (2006), I finally got him to say yes.
“It was a crazy time at the Reader. I think New Times (now called Village Voice Media) had come knocking earlier, and the Reader guys sort of listened to them and turned them down. But the classifieds were hurting, so the Reader guys realized they had to develop a new business model and decided it was time to turn it over to someone with a fresh perspective.”
Eason bought the papers with help from BIA Digital Partners, a private investment firm.
The alternative weekly world was surprised by the move — after all, the Reader and the City Paper were giants in the field. But Eason has big plans, and those papers will play a key role.
“The Reader and the City Paper gave us a critical mass to develop some national Internet plays,” Eason said. “The audience numbers for The Reader and the City Paper are unbelievable.”
The Reader’s circulation is 135,000, and the City Paper’s is 85,000. Creative Loafing’s other four papers total 275,000 circulation. With those numbers, and the wide geographic reach, Eason believes he can make the Internet a profitable part of the deal.
But isn’t consolidation antithetical to the alternative newsweekly world? How can a chain-owned Reader possibly be an alternative to the Chicago Tribune?
Many wonder about that. After all, a chain-owned paper may not be as responsive to local issues, the thinking goes.
If the suits start calling the shots, who knows how the editorial content will suffer?
At least 18 media companies in the United States own two or more alternative weeklies, including Review Publishing, which owns the Philadelphia Weekly and Atlantic City Weekly, and Village Voice Media, which owns 16 papers, including the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, Westword in Denver and New York’s Village Voice.
“Does the corporatization of those papers mean there will be less enterprising reporting? I’m not sure,” said Medill’s Whitaker. “In the corporate model, there is an emphasis on producing a lot of stories, which can hinder enterprise. People can become concerned with filling space. But it hasn’t played out yet.”
A related issue: If an alternative paper owner sees other papers selling out for big dollars, he may switch his focus from improving editorial content to improving the bottom line in hopes of attracting a buyer.
“Once papers started being bought, every first-generation owner got their paper ready to sell,” Black said.
That being said, readers of the papers now owned by chains would be hard pressed to say the quality has slipped. Sure, today’s alternatives differ from the garage-produced, underground weeklies of the ’60s and ’70s, but that type of exciting, anti-establishment journalism has a home online these days.
Rarely does a 20-year-old rebel start a newspaper now; she starts a Web site and blog instead.
The print newspapers retain some of that edge, but the quality of the reporting is different, usually more mature.
After all, the alt weeklies are a bona fide business now — Village Voice Media’s annual revenue is reportedly $180 million — and the new owners rarely want to mess with a successful product, other than to improve it.
Often, successful editors and publishers teach their techniques to their brethren.
For example, Michael Lacey, executive editor of Village Voice Media, is known for his focus on editorial quality and for spreading his style to acquired papers.
Like any publication, alternative newsweeklies can go stale after a while. The Chicago Reader, for example, is beloved, but some say the content could use a new spark.
“I think Creative Loafing’s (acquisition of the Reader) is not going to be a problem,” Black said. “The Reader is the biggest steamship ever built in terms of turning; they could use a bit of spontaneity.”
The bottom line may be that consolidation is simply the best way for some of the old papers to survive in a new media environment.
“I think the (older owners) have had difficulty adjusting and figuring out the new media landscape, particularly the Internet and things like Craigslist,” Whitaker said.
“At the same time, a group of new owners said, ‘We can do this as a chain. We still have our alternative press sensibilities, but by pooling our resources we can run these papers more efficiently than they had been run in the past.’”
Ed Avis is a freelance writer and editor in Oak Park, Ill. He first wrote about alternative newsweeklies for Quill in 1991.