Weekly newspapers in crisis 

Can "alternatives" beat Craigslist?

SAN DIEGO-The poster of a smiling man's face in a red circle with a diagonal no-parking-style slash through it hung on walls at the most recent convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. Meeting rooms at the Westin were jammed with editors and publishers anxiously hatching plans to defend themselves from this fiend. Down the hall in the exhibitors' hall, vendors offered products guaranteed to help make him go away once and for all.

The pudgy face terrorizing newspaperdom belongs to Craig Newmark, the 51-year-old founder of craigslist.org, a Web site that features classified ads from jobs listings to threesomes with randy couples. Craigslist posts about five million new ads per month, but only charges for 160,000 listings for jobs-for now. Craigslist's profits and capitalization are somewhat of a mystery, but where their business is coming from isn't: people who used to advertise in newspapers. Thanks to Craigslist and other online listings services, print classified revenues are plummeting, both in traditional dailies like the Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune and in the alternative weekly papers favored by readers under 40, like the Seattle Weekly and the Chicago Reader.

"Some analysts," says a BBC business report, "are already predicting that newspaper classified advertising could vanish entirely [because of Craigslist]." Since classifieds amount to as much as 40 percent of a paper's income, that could force many to shut down.

Before Craigslist, weeklies were killing dailies. Noting that adult readership of daily newspapers dropped from 78 percent in 1950 to 65 percent in 1995, Jeff vonKaenel, owner of the Sacramento News & Review and other weeklies, predicted the end of dailies by 2007: "Within the next 10 years [he wrote in 1997], most local daily newspapers across the nation will be out of existence. Or they will be losing so much money, they will wish they were out of business." Even after 9/11 prolonged the recession, vonKaenel's forecast still looked realizable. The average weekly was taking in roughly a third as much advertising revenue as the average daily in 2002, but with less than a tenth of the staff or overhead. Meanwhile, weeklies were trending up-in total number, ad listings, page count and respectability. Panicked dailies, trending the opposite direction with fewer, older readers, launched so-called "faux weeklies"-corporate-owned tabloids designed to appeal to the weeklies' Gen X and Y demographic.

The Craigslist phenomenon has changed all that. Dailies and weeklies are facing similar drops in ad revenue, but, unlike so many dailies, few weeklies are owned by deep-pocketed corporate parents capable of weathering sustained losses. And alternative weeklies are given away free, so they can't fall back on subscription revenues. In my hometown, NY Press has become a study in page-count entropy. "Is that thing still in business?" is a standard comment when the ever-skinnier weekly comes up in conversation. The Greenville, South Carolina MetroBeat, Las Vegas Mercury and Spokane, Washington Local Planet have all ceased publication during the last year.

No one wants to speak for attribution about the crisis in the weeklies, but staffers sing the same sad song. "We're dying," the editor of a major weekly confides. "We have all these meetings to deal with Craigslist, but no one knows what to do about it. It's too late for our [newspaper] Web site because the Web readers are gone and they're never coming back."

Another editor at a smaller weekly is more sanguine: "We'll survive for now, but only because we've got one staffer doing the work of the other two we've let go. But I don't see how we'll be able to expand, to get better."

Weekly newspapers do important work. They publish music reviews, edgy cartoons (I got my start in one) and cultural coverage that matter to young adults-and get ignored by the dailies. They pride themselves on their scrappy coverage of local news and politics. In July, for example, federal prosecutors filed criminal medical fraud charges against a California doctor as the result of a series that appeared in OC Weekly. Most are editorially left-of-center at a time when the mainstream media is running right. Whenever one of these vibrant publications goes out of business, it's a loss for the country.

Unfortunately the current standard formula for alternative weeklies-youth-oriented pop culture plus local news features-appears inadequate to meet the formidable challenge of vanishing classifieds.

How can they survive?

As classified ads go away, display ads become the last game in town. Media buyers for big advertisers find it easier to buy display ads-the big ones with pictures-from chains of dailies that can offer exposure from coast to coast than to purchase them from one weekly at a time. Independently owned weeklies and those in mini-chains could compete by banding together to offer group buys to these customers.

Editors and publishers of alternative weekly newspapers have long disappointed readers who thought "alternative" meant they offered another outlet for national and international news and politics. After the national media embedded itself in the Bush Administration's post-9/11 propaganda machine, media observers expected weeklies to fill the void by publishing exposes and points of view that differed from "news" transcribed from official statements and choreographed press conferences. They should have hired journalists and pundits to work beats in Washington, Kabul and Baghdad. Sadly, weeklies have largely failed to exploit this opportunity to differentiate themselves and thus to make themselves essential to their readers.

Finally, weeklies should consider the most radical change of all: charging a newsstand price. Nothing worth having can stay free forever. Just ask Craig Newmark in, say, 2007.

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