Hearne: A Bit of Shameless Handwringing for The Pitch

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 10.19.43 AMGuilty as charged…

Regular readers know every now and so often I saddle up and take a look at what’s left of Kansas City’s one-and-only alternative newsweekly, The Pitch. And, full disclosure, I did lead the charge during the Pitch’s key formative years evolving it from a record store rag into a news and entertainment weekly prior to a certain someone breaking their word and hanging me out to dry.

However those days are long gone and at this stage of the game there continues to be a genuine concern for the well-being and survival of The Pitch, and thus the future of alternative news and entertainment journalism in KC. Oh sure, we’ve got the Internet and me and Tony and Greg Hall and Jim Fitzpatrick and a smattering of comers and goers here and there.

And while that’s likely the future in some sense, none of us – not even all of us combined – come close to providing the wide spectrum of more comprehensive, quality reporting and content that even what’s left of The Pitch provides.I say, “what’s left,” because at only 36 pages a week and a scant 16 pages of what appear to be paid ads (well under the 50 percent minimum needed for survival), the handwriting’s on the wall.

Because even as vastly improved at the vastly important print edition Pitch is – that’s where the money’s made after all, not online – there’s barely enough revenue there to support the skeleton staff of starving artists from my regime in the early 1990s, let alone the far higher paid (and greater in number) staff of the today’s Pitch.

pitchFrankly, it’s frightening and there’s no sign of things getting any better.

Even the now sexless “Back Page” ads have thinned out, for the betterment of the underage, runaway, sex slaves that populated the former regime’s back cover. But to the detriment of the paper’s bottom line because not only does sex sell, it pays well.

There’s still a heaping helping of lame sex ads that The Pitch at this point simply cannot afford to turn away. Ads that hurt it with legit advertisers who might otherwise become paying customers, and with key distribution points that refuse to carry the Pitch at the risk of offending customers.

tumblr_luyunis5Ww1qd0ln0o1_500Ads like, “Kinky Hot Girls” with a “30 minute free trial,” whatever that constitutes. Or “Guy Spy,” with the tagline, “Get on to get off.” And Live Girls, “Real hook ups, real fast.”

And while The Pitch‘s all-important fine print classifieds section has all but vanished, you can still find “an incredible body rub” or locate an “attractive, 38 DD Brunette, full-figured 43 year old” or “Horny Housewives.”

Sad as it seems, the above advertisers are helping prop up The Pitch as the sand runs out of its hourglass.  Meanwhile, its quarter page ads beseeching attractive, young locals to apply for a “multimedia advertising sales pro” position or that of a “sales & marketing assistant” ring hollow.

After all, what salesman of any quality wants to hop on a sinking ship?

I shudder when I think back to how poorly paid the sales reps at The Pitch were in the days when we were putting out 36 page issues. Thirty-six pages issues with 50 to 60 percent advertising in them though. And sans the horny housewives and genuine, all-Asian massage personnel.

print tooWhat makes it sadder is that editor Scott Wilson, taking over for the Village Voice abandon snipers has done a remarkable job of holding things together and actually improving both the print and online product despite his meager resources. Doing so with smart hires like investigative reporter Steve Vockrodt.

I hate to say it, but it will be a sad day and a loss for Kansas City if somebody at the Star doesn’t rescue Vockrodt and install him as the second coming of Dan Margolies. A kinder, gentler, hipper, harder working Dan Margolies, I might add. How much could it cost them, Vockrodt’s working at The Pitch for crying out loud and they still need to hire a few live bodies at 18th and Grand.

How bad are things in alternative journalism? Really bad.

Check out this from the Pew Research Center report on the State of the News Media 2012:

“Alternative weeklies experienced a number of changes this year, from shifts within the main trade organization, to major staff upheavals at popular papers, and an ever-increasing focus on digital media and revenue.

“Unfortunately, it was also a year that saw a double-digit decline in circulation at key papers. After only a modest decline of 0.59% in 2010, 2011 had a 13.8% dropoff in the circulation of the top 20 papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“The paper that had the largest decline in circulation was SF Weekly, an alt weekly owned by Village Voice Media. Circulation at the San Francisco newspaper dropped by 23.57%, and it no longer ranks within the top 20 U.S. weeklies. Another top-tier paper that faced dwindling circulation was Creative Loafing Atlanta. Although it had a nearly 4% increase in circulation in 2010, it declined by 14.57% in 2011.”

pumpPew’s “State of the News media 2013” wasn’t much better.

“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.

“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.

“One interesting trend in 2012 saw having larger legacy newspaper companies buying alternative weeklies. The Chicago ReaderSF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian were all sold to parent companies of such papers in 2012. While this could be viewed as a positive development, it did not work well for one alt weekly. That was The Other Paper, a Columbus weekly that was bought by the company that owns that city’s mainstream daily, which closed it in early 2013.

“There were significant changes at the Village Voice, the country’s best known and oldest alt weekly. Its circulation dropped substantially, several staff writers were laid off, its editor resigned and its parent company was sold.”

Circulation at the top 20 alt weeklies fell 11 percent…think cost cutting.

Pew’s 2014 “State of the News Media” doesn’t appear to be out yet but will likely be released shortly.

It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming – especially looking at The Pitch – with the possible exception of the Star buying it and hopefully not folding it into (yuck) INK.

Stay tuned...

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16 Responses to Hearne: A Bit of Shameless Handwringing for The Pitch

  1. StillAtMyMoms says:

    Maybe the word “alternative” shouldn’t be synonymous with the hipster label. As you pointed out, there are some good pieces once in awhile in The Pitch. But its target readership is pretty narrow. Not all of us have a sleeve or wear bowler hats and want to read a Q&A with sepia-toned art. We just like good stories from a different perspective. As grunge did in ’94, I have a feeling this hipster fad is finally fizzling out. I suggest KC’s alt weekly to consider rebranding itself.

    • admin says:

      You mean rebrand like at INK?

      • StillAtMyMoms says:

        Hell no, that’s a corporatized attempt to grab Pitch’s target readers. That mag reeks of being artificial and phoniness.

        I say keep the “alternative flavor,” which I think keeps them genuine, but stop appeasing to the hipsters. For instance, they are seeking an art writer now. Who cares about people looking like they are auditioning for the next Beetlejuice? I personally like their investigative reporting/features, such as the recent Hickman Mills audit and that one hooker sting piece. Compelling news. I guess you could say have them be on the fringe more so rather than extensive coverage of First Fridays.

  2. CG says:

    I kinda agree with ‘still at moms’ comment. I’d hate to see KC with no news worthy paper other than the Star, which also has faded big time. I noticed the story they did on the cover of the biz section on comedy yesterday. It had some comments from me on an interview I did weeks ago. Yet big story or not, mostly heard about it at my gym,Woodside from men over 40. Younger people just don’t read the paper anymore for the most part.

    I do think the PITCH could change direction and have some more hard hitting cover stories and inside scoop to up its readership. Hey I grew up with the Star, Pitch, Calendar in LA, THE READER, all that…it’s sad and tough to see them gone or going.

    • Hearne says:

      It’s a little late for directional changes, I’m afraid.

      They missed out on the trend of upscaling to a coated stock paper from newsprint. The new owner chose not to make the investment for one reason or another.

      I fear the worst, frankly

  3. StillAtMyMoms says:

    “Younger people just don’t read the paper anymore for the most part.” +1

    With the advent of smartphones and tablets and whatever the next wave in mobile technology, textual content is becoming more accessible. Print is dead. You know it too, Hearne. That’s why you made this blog. Younger people just don’t read (or watch) traditional forms of news these days. They like their snippets from tweets or YouTube clips–if they even still read, which most of my kind (revealing my age here) are apathetic in the first place.

    They’re all about literacy in public schools, but yet don’t allow kids what they truly want to read. News in general needs to become more exciting, and I don’t mean that in a sensationalist/yellow journalism context, either. As Glaze said, “more hard hitting news.” But with publications trying to keep their head above water, they can’t venture out too far; for that will piss off the advertisers.

    That whole audience philosophy is bullshit, too. I believe if you can pique a reader’s attention, then you can gain a lot more readership. But now the obstacle: Going through all these former (traitorous) journos who became lap dogs for corporations and organizations that stonewall you from getting a story.

    • admin says:

      Unfortunately, the money’s on the print side, not the online.

      Therein lies the problem.

  4. John Altevogt says:

    I have far more respect for The Pitch than The Star. They have followed investigative stories without regard to race, creed, or party affiliation and while we all know their editorial tilt I can’t recall interviews of even the most conservative of folks that were hatchet jobs. Indeed, when Sam Zeff attempted the hatchet job on Phill Kline that got him canned from KCTV5, The Pitch was the only KC media to expose the shoddy logic and ethical problems with 5’s investigation.

  5. As a show producer, I was often was told by “major” sponsors that I could not run an ad in The Pitch. They did not want their brand in the “entertainment” section because they would end up next to porn or strip clubs. The point is that the money they get from sleeze drives away the real money.

    But print is not dead. News in print is dead because it is always old news. Life-style magazines are doing well. Niche market magazines are doing well. Celebrity magazines are doing well. People still like to touch a story, feel the paper. They just don’t need news they already have seen.

    • StillAtMyMoms says:

      Duly noted.

    • admin says:

      Mark, we at The Pitch and The New Times learned this lesson; that the porn ads, however profitable, ultimately were costing us. And at different strategic points in the existences of the new competing alt weeklies one or the other did away with the sex ads to gain the upper hand on the other.

      But ultimately when there was but one weekly, they went for the money and the rest is history.

      The flip side of all that is that for many years, with no real competition, The Pitch was making so much money nobody seemed to notice or care. They never got the Tivol and mainstream, high end advertisers, but they didn’t appear to need them.

      Now that things have been whittled down to a nub and INK is actually getting some of those prestige advertisers, it makes The Pitch look even worse. Because while there are fewer sex ads as well, they stand out more in the lesser page count.

      I think The Pitch is somewhat on the right track with its “news” because the content is so original. Then again, once it goes on line its so-called target audience can get it for free without dirtying their hands on the print edition.

      However they make almost nothing online by comparison and most of the mag’s core advertisers are not served online.

      What part of the online Pitch does one click on to see all the bar and concert ads, for example?

  6. Steveo says:

    Traditional journalism has moved left and taken the air out of the “alternative” weeklies. Back in the day, the KC Star supported local job creators like Koch Industries, would have denounced the rabble that polluted the city parks during the Occupy movement, and generally would have taken conservative positions on the social issues of the day.

    Today, the agenda is green, subsidize, victimize, legalize. Anyone disagree? You are part of the Man (now know as the Bigs-Oil, Walmart, Wall St, Bankers) keeping us down. Big anything (except government) bad. Little (the people), good. No different than what the hippies from the heyday called for. What are the differences between the few remaining print entities?

    Why would’t someone try a Fox News like newspaper? Especially considering the demographics that still read these?

    • admin says:

      Interesting point…

      However the way things are with print, even a cheat sheet for aging elephants seems highly risky.

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