Alt-weeklies’ alternative options

Here’s a sneak peek at the May 20 issue of Marketing This story was updated on May 16 at 16:15. Finding new ways to drive revenue while staying true to local roots On the Friday evening of a long weekend last June, the editors of the Montreal Mirror congregated at a local pub to drown […]

Carly Lewis May 16, 2013

Here’s a sneak peek at the May 20 issue of Marketing
This story was updated on May 16 at 16:15.

Finding new ways to drive revenue while staying true to local roots

On the Friday evening of a long weekend last June, the editors of the Montreal Mirror congregated at a local pub to drown their sorrows.

Earlier that day, the 27-year-old alternative weekly newspaper’s staff had learned that the publication would close, effective immediately. The writers and editors who began the morning with story plans for the next issue and the issues after that ended the day without jobs, even locked out of their email accounts. The Mirror’s website went dark, as did its archives.

Christine Oreskovich, publisher, The Coast

Lorraine Carpenter, a former editor at the Mirror, says it was “a big shock.” The paper’s last issue was 48 pages, with a hearty number of ads. “We figured that this would happen to us at some point because it had happened to our French sister paper, Ici, a few years prior,” she says. “But we thought we had at least a few years.”

Carpenter and her colleagues say they were unaware of anything amiss because the Mirror’s parent company, Quebecor Media, didn’t loop the editorial staff in when it came to finances. She later found out that the Mirror’s sales department had been instructed to offer sizable discounts to advertisers to attract business. She estimates the discounts may have been up to 75% off the rate card price. “Even though it looked like we were really healthy, the money actually coming in was not that great.”

In a print ecosystem where major national daily newspapers are offering voluntary buyouts to its staff, outsourcing editorial work and implementing paywalls as they scramble for revenue, the alt-weekly is not only suffering from the same pressures weighing heavily on the rest of the newspaper sector, but faces an even taller challenge in finding the resources to invest in migration to digital platforms.

In addition to the demise of both of Montreal’s English alt-weeklies (another Montreal paper, The Hour, had also recently shuttered), Winnipeg’s Uptown was folded into the Winnipeg Free Press in 2012, following a 2005 sale to FP Newspapers Inc. In Boston, news of the Phoenix going out of print after nearly five decades was widely seen as the final curtain drawing to a close on an exciting era for alt-weeklies in North America.

As the night went on at that Montreal pub, the newly axed Mirror staff became determined not to wallow in an unfortunate situation they didn’t see coming. They knew the dearth of English alt-weeklies in a city with two Anglophone universities, a thriving arts scene and a rising English-speaking population would create not only a gap in cultural coverage, but a new business opportunity.

“We knew someone was going to come along and want to do something,” she says. “Whether a big company or just some people starting something from the ground up.” Carpenter and her pint-drinking colleagues took it upon themselves to become the latter, and three weeks later launched Cult MTL, a city culture website-cum-monthly newspaper staffed entirely by former Mirror employees.

Now, as Cult MTL’s editor-in-chief, Carpenter stays in “constant contact” with her ad salesman, a relationship not hard to maintain with a staff of less than 10. The site and its subsequent monthly print product are funded entirely by ad revenue, and Carpenter says she knows precisely how much money Cult MTL has to work with at all times. “A big problem with the Mirror’s sales team was that they were also selling for [another] daily paper,” she says. “They were people who lived in the suburbs and didn’t know a lot about night life. There was a big disconnect there.” Carpenter oversees Cult’s publications and says she is able to ensure the advertising and editorial make sense together.

It’s easy to blame newspaper closures on the digitization of media and a migration of ad dollars to web powerhouses like Google and Facebook, but there are other reasons why alternative weekly newspapers have hit an era of hard times. One major complaint heard from many alt-weeklies is that advertisers are showing a preference for single, tidy national media buys in commuter dailies such as Metro, Canada’s most widely read newspaper brand, according to NADbank.

Like alt-weeklies, Metro targets the urban demographic (which Metro refers to as YAMs—youthful active metropolitans) and its model involves publishing much of the same content and advertising throughout the entire country. If a national advertiser wants to reach 1.6 million coast-to-coast readers with one deal, Metro can give it that. As a comparison, Toronto’s independently owned NOW Magazine has a weekly circulation of 409,000. The pages of NOW are occupied by ads from small to medium-sized Toronto businesses and events, with the occasional full-page buy from big companies like Rogers. Of course, NOW will also point out that the focus on national ad buys can actually play to its advantage; for decades, the paper has concentrated on a local niche without having to chase down national ad clients, and fills its ad space with Toronto record shops, retail boutiques, food markets and night life venues.

Fred Bye, publisher of Calgary’s FFWD Weekly, which dedicates much of its content to entertainment, admits that his paper is struggling. “We certainly are feeling the pinch,” he says. According to Bye, the paper cannot afford to venture into digital innovation, as any kind of experimental investment could jeopardize the paper’s sustainability. This also makes it difficult to tread outside the editorial norm. “We’re looking for diversity of content, but if we’re not able to cover the kind of stuff we want, we’re not offering that great [of] a product. It becomes difficult then to sustain circulation and readership, and that’s how we sell. We don’t sell on how pretty the paper looks or how great the design is. It has to be sold on the readers we reach.”

Bye says that while staff may deliberate over the angle of the paper’s editorial content during any given week, no one is losing sleep over readership, which has shown a 12% increase over the past two years. (Circulation has dipped by about 6%, currently sitting at 22,000 copies per week.) FFWD is not low on interested readers. Instead, the problem it’s facing, says Bye, is “convincing advertisers to see value in spending money to communicate with them.” FFWD is owned by Great West Newspapers, a community newspaper publishing company that manages 24 publications, most of them based in Alberta.

Convincing advertisers to stay on board is the brawl du jour of the alt-weekly world, but the ongoing success of a resilient few suggests that the business is not doomed. In Canada, many true independents are doing very well. In addition to NOW, which founding editor and publisher Michael Hollett describes as “thriving,” The Coast, a Halifax alt-weekly celebrating its 20th anniversary, is also enjoying a boost in readership (current circulation is 23,000 a week). Founding publisher Christine Oreskovich says the paper has endured a “rollercoaster of changes” and credits close ties with the Halifax community for the paper’s staying power.

“When an advertiser wants millions of eyeballs on a marketing campaign, we can’t provide that,” she says, referencing media giant Metro. “But we can provide targeted, contextual eyeballs.” Oreskovich has supported her community’s businesses since The Coast launched two decades ago and in return, her community supports her—by placing ads in The Coast. “People know who we are,” she says of herself and husband Kyle Shaw, the paper’s editor. “We go out and shop at our clients and go to the shows that we sponsor. We’re community cheerleaders just like The Coast is.” This is not to say that all small businesses loyally cling to their nearest alt-weekly. According to Bye, many small to medium-sized businesses in Calgary are instead going for cheap digital options, such as Twitter. “They create a social media presence and seem satisfied to continually penetrate a smaller, saturated audience,” he says. Digital represents about 7% of FFWD’s advertising revenue, and Bye says he is working to convince advertisers to keep directing part of their spend to FFWD because a social approach will not sustain them in the long run.

Both NOW and The Coast have forayed into the digital market (FFWD has not, and The Mirror’s online presence was minimal). Hollett says that NOW’s iPad app, which launched in 2010, has helped the paper’s overall readership become higher than ever (NOW launched in 1981). The Coast does not have plans to launch a standalone iPad app, but developed and sold a branded Happy Hour app and is currently working on an events platform which it will also sell. “We only build stuff if we think there’s going to be client support,” says Oreskovich. “We’re small, we have to watch our budgets. We have to make smart choices.”

Among other choices every alt-weekly must consider is whether to run back-page adult classified ads. Oreskovich says The Coast “gets flack for running American Apparel ads” and that Halifax is too conservative a city to have them run. NOW, which lives in a much larger market, sells about 15 pages of adult classifieds per issue. (In fact, Hollett, NOW CEO Alice Klein, her mother and an associate were charged with “communicating for the purpose of prostitution” in 1990 due to the publication of sex ads. The charges were dropped weeks later, and NOW has continued to run the ads ever since.)

The latest PMB numbers show NOW’s print readership is down slightly from the year before (409,000 from 411,000 last year) but the paper is expanding its digital and editorial operations and hiring new staff. A drop in numbers shouldn’t mean downsizing, says Hollett. “I don’t think the solution to any kind of migration of print readership is to make the paper less good,” he says in regards to the common practice of shrinking sections and staff counts. “I’ve never quite understood that. If people don’t like your restaurant, you don’t water down the soup.”

Like Oreskovich, Hollett says that he is invested not just financially, but emotionally and personally in NOW. “It’s my city that I’m writing about,” he says. “It’s all personal.” The paper’s editorial and advertising teams operate with the same local mandate. In the mid ’90s, when Village Voice Media campaigned to have NOW join its roster, Hollett and Klein rejected the offer because it meant they’d lose touch with NOW’s readership. “Personally I think that’s what happened to the Mirror,” says Oreskovich. “Maybe Quebecor didn’t understand what community they were serving. They lost touch.” Indeed, Carpenter says that Cult MTL would never again relinquish control to a major corporation. After all, the Mirror started out as an independent before Quebecor purchased it in 1997.

“We sell community,” says Oreskovich, proudly. “We sell connection. That’s what a good alt-weekly can still provide to its readership.”

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CORRECTION: This story has been updated. In the original version, Marketing reported that NOW’s Michael Hollett and Alice Klein were married. They are not, and only work together as business partners. Marketing regrets the error.