The scramble for survival is on…
The good, old days of the alternative publishing industry are behind it. Ahead lies an uncertain future. A future former Pitch – and until recently East Bay Express publisher – Hal Brody has placed in the rearview mirror.
"These papers can’t really survive like they used to just by having the world’s best calendars and a few good feature stories," Brody says. "You really have to be imbedded in the community. You have to get to the point where the community wants you to survive."
After three years of layoffs, cutbacks and incredibly-shrinking issues, Pitch editor C.J. Janovy and top reporting gun Nadia Pflaum not only left, they bailed from the biz.
"All the money for singles ads is gone," Brody says. "All the money for classifieds is gone – and they’re never gonna get that back again. And what was that? Like 50 percent of your income and 60 to 70 percent of your profits back in the ’90s. You’re left now with the hardest part of the business to try and survive with. The gravy is gone -everything you do now you have to earn – all the easy stuff is gone and it’s never coming back."
The bottom line on alternative publishing today: "It’s a very tough game and you have to be really good at it," Brody says. "Print is not dead yet and it may never be dead, but…"
Brody got out of that game, selling to his business partner at the East Bay Express five months back.
"We did very well, actually," Brody says. ‘It was losing $1million a year when I walked in the door and three years later it was turning a six-figure profit."
With Village Voice no longer buying up alternatives but divesting itself of them, it’s a new game, Brody says.
"I think more and more of these alternatives are going to get back into the hands of local people. Because that’s what it takes to be successful. And I like what’s happening; that they’re going to have to become more locally owned and locally controlled."
Brody thinks the buyers of the Pitch from Nashville get it and have a good shot at keeping the Pitch’s ship afloat.
"My favorite line always was, I don’t know anything about publishing, except you can lose a lot of money at it," Brody quips.
Brody’s take on the Pitch churning out paltry 32 and 36 page issues of late:
"Jesus Christ, you remember those days. You can’t make money at that level. When you left the Pitch, I think you were doing 56 pages every other week. When we started getting up to 56 pages a week, we were starting to break even and make a little money."
Is there any hope whatsoever for online advertising to make up for the lost print profits?
"No, the model is totally different," Brody says. "And now it’s totally broken."
Village Voice was never able to assemble a team to make the Pitch truly successful, and it’s been quietly for sale two years that Brody knows of.
The $64 million question: did Village Voice offer to sell the Pitch back to Brody?
"Yeah, we talked about it," Brody says. "But who wants to live in Kansas City?"
Brody didn’t reveal the offering price, other than to confirm it was between 10 and 50 cents on the dollar of what he sold it to Village Voice for a dozen years earlier.
"I sold it at the peak," Brody says. "I sold it at a good time."
The online world is an intriguing one, Brody says.
"The beauty of online is if you can figure it out, it’s self-sustaining," Brody says. "It’s a slot machine of money. But publishing online is a tough one because it’s not self-sustaining. Because you’ve always got to produce more content. The advertising will come and go – that’s always in a state of flux – because people are always figuring out new ways to do their advertising."
How long has the Pitch been a distressed property? Four years or longer probably, Brody says, pointing to figures Village Voice released in 2007 showing that the Pitch was "a little under breakeven."
"You know, they never really grew it much beyond what I had it at," Brody muses. "They need to do $8 million a year and the Pitch never really reached that level."