From the earliest days of the Pitch as we now know it, it’s been an uphill slog. I began transiting the Pitch from record store rag to alternative newspaper in the mid to late 1980s. Back then the sky was the limit, although most players in the industry – starting with St. Louis‘ Riverfront Times – had passed on Kansas City, thinking the town wasn’t urban and hip enough to support an alt weekly.
One need look no further than the Pitch‘s 2004 “Best of” issue with 144 ad-packed pages to see they were wrong. But that was then.
Before print pubs morphed into money pits.
I picked up a Pitch the other day – a scant 40 pager – barely half of it ads.
Not only is that not a recipe for success, it’s not even a pathway to survival.
“For the nation’s alternative weekly newspapers, 2012 proved to be another year of contraction and churn as the industry sought new ways to build better revenue models,” begins a Pew Research report on The State of the News Media 2013. “Some papers engaged in substantial experimentation on the digital side in 2012, but at this point, monetizing the online business remains largely an elusive goal. There were other efforts to generate new revenue as well.”
How ugly is it? How suddenly could Kansas City come face-to-face with the prospect of losing it’s one and only true alternative newsweekly?
“In March 2013, one of the largest papers, The Boston Phoenix, announced it was ceasing publication after nearly a half century,” Pew continues. “This followed a recent move to shift the alt weekly from traditional newsprint to a glossy magazine format. In recent years, nearly a dozen alt weeklies have made the same move, which is designed to make them more attractive to advertisers.”
If you recall, the company that bought the Pitch two years ago, SouthComm, employs that model in its Nashville Scene print pub. The thinking early on being that not only would SouthComm clean up a cluttered and unappealing Pitch (which it did), it would convert it to a magazine or coated stock paper.
Too much money probably.
Let me tell you guys something, the Boston Phoenix going toes up is the equivalent of the Chicago Tribune buying the farm. No matter how you cut the cake, it’s not a good sign for the industry.
One bright side to the tailspin alt weeklies now find themselves: their bitter arch rivals, daily newspapers, are starting to buy them.
But how can that be a good thing?
As the term “alternative news weekly” implies, the entire mission of the alt weekly was to attack the monopolies mainstream daily newspapers had become and attempt to keep them honest.
Not to hop in the sack with them, just to bail out a publisher like Southcomm from having made a bad investment.
Village Voice Media – the Pitch‘s former owner – has been up to its eyelashes in troubled times since fire sale-ing Kansas City off. Not only did its hippie founders bail last September, it dumped its San Francisco and Seattle weeklies earlier this year. And now for the first time in modern history, the Village Voice ceded its title as the country’s largest alt weekly following a 15 percent circulation drop and the departure of a certain former Pitch editor by the name of Tony Ortega.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is no blip on the radar – no recession induced malaise as former Star publisher Mark Zieman liked to characterize it. What’s happening today is a sea change in how news is delivered and what if any money is to be made from delivering that news.
In 2003 online ad revenues for newspapers versus print revenues stood at just under 3 percent. By the end of 2011 that number had risen to 15 percent, “but print losses far exceed online gains,” Pew reported a year ago.
Now imagine trying to survive with the printing and distribution overhead of a paid circulation newspaper but sans any of the income in print or online from subscribers.
The publication celebrated its year anniversary and Her’s editor had just written a column celebrating the mag’s birthday in its new issue. A party was held for Her and Pitch staffers to celebrate the occasion at Renee Kelly’s Caenen Castle farm-to-market restaurant in Shawnee.
Right before SouthComm lowered the boom on the mag and its staff, leaving editor Jessica Marshall with little recourse other than to choke out an email blast decrying that she was “devastated” that Her didn’t receive enough “advertising support” to keep it going.
That’s how fast these deadly accounting chickens can come home to roost in the alternative newsweekly world today.
One minute, you’re mugging for a photog at a celebratory bash, the next you’re wondering when your last paycheck will arrive.
Like the dailies, alt weeklies continue to struggle – mostly in vain – to find ways to make money online but, “Despite these innovations, few papers are seeing the kind of turnaround needed to counter the revenue losses racked up in the last decade,” Pew reports. “Their predicament was summed up by former Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, who noted in an interview with Net News Check that alt weeklies ‘are terribly stressed in trying to figure out how to make money either from print or from digital.’ ”
Sorry to say, things are that bad…