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Online Challengers Roust Alternative Weeklies From Net Slumber

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Urban weeklies helped lead the counterculture movement, only to grow fat with chains and age. After letting the first wave of online innovation go by, can they ride the second wave and recapture the youth?

In years past, if you wanted to know what bands or disc jockeys were playing your local clubs, you picked up a copy of the alternative weekly newspaper. Now, you still have that option, but if you're chained to your computer all day, you might consider the daily newspaper's entertainment site, a local online-only site such as CitySearch, or even a niche local site or e-mail list.

While the Palo Alto Weekly was the first newspaper to publish content regularly on the Web in 1994, and The Village Voice had one of the more eclectic online radio stations, alt-weeklies have largely let the Internet revolution pass them by. Classified sites such as Craigslist.org and Match.com, and content sites such as Alternet.org and Salon.com have taken their mantle online, while alt-weeklies have looked on with growing horror.

Why horror? These very weeklies were the ones that spoke directly to urban youth with edgy editorial, uncensored personals, and the best live entertainment listings in town. But the youth of today aren't staining their fingers with ink, choosing to get much of their information online. For example, BIGresearch found that men aged 18 to 34 were reading newspapers and magazines less, and watching less TV in 2003, while 72 percent of them were online. And if there's any audience that's wired, it's the audience that traditionally has had its nose in alt-weeklies at the corner cafe.

Now the weeklies are starting to awaken from their long slumber online, with the New Times chain trying to outdo Craigslist with its Back Page initiative, and the Village Voice Media chain appointing a vice president for online. And innovation is coming from the edges, with the Buffalo ArtVoice wading into online multimedia, the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press putting Weblogs front and center on its site, and The Stranger (in Seattle) and Chicago Reader pushing new "aggressively local" online personals.

What took them so long? "A lot of the owners of alternative publications are getting old, and they are not as facile with the Web, because they haven't grown up with it," said Andy Sutcliffe, a veteran consultant of 16 years working with alternative weeklies, who helped develop the new personals at The Stranger and Reader. "It was the computer geek on staff that was always talking about what they could do on the Web. It just hasn't found its way into the fabric of the entire organization. Does the sales director have any idea how to sell a Web ad? Probably not. It's an issue of familiarity, and that's changing."

Sutcliffe has been the ultimate hand-holder for alt-weeklies, helping them run their personals with 900 numbers at Tele-Publishing International (TPI), and then helping them get online with DesertNet. "The first step was getting their content online," Sutcliffe told me. "Now it's just starting to dawn on a few people that putting their content online is crashingly boring and not serving their best interests. What they should be doing is putting their listings online, and making the site a destination site to decide what to do this weekend, or tonight. That's how you can compete with the faux alternatives that the dailies are coming out with."

While Chicago has its Red Eye and Red Streak newspapers aimed at younger readers, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently launched an entertainment site, SouthFlorida.com. Other observers have been even less charitable about the efforts of alternative weeklies online. Dale Peskin, co-director of the Media Center at the American Press Institute, told me via e-mail that he wasn't impressed by any of the efforts by alt-weeklies on the Net, especially as innovators.

"Networks of special-interest communities -- the political blogs, the meet-up sites, and the audience-based entertainment sites -- have eclipsed the alt-weeklies and mainstays as places to go, weigh in, hook up, or find insight," Peskin said. "I see a number of alties in my travels -- Dallas, Washington, New York, Boston -- and none has really tapped into the interactivity, visual acuity, or potential for social connectiveness as, say, Craigslist, Open Democracy, the Daily Kos, Match.com, IMDb.com, or thousands of alternatives to the alternatives."

Chains try to think different

Perhaps the first great hope of an alt-weekly comeback online is from the New Times chain based in Phoenix, and its Back Page project. Yes, it looks familiar, because each local page has a spartan design aping Craigslist to a "T." The difference is that these ads were not placed online-only and also run in the print edition of New Times publications in San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas, and other cities, with plans to possibly franchise the technology beyond New Times pubs.

Scott Spear, senior vice president at New Times Media, told me the project was only in an initial soft-launch, and that the business model hadn't been ironed out just yet. But Spear said that free classifieds weren't alien to weeklies since they had helped build community with free print classifieds in pre-Internet days. Now, New Times is trying to focus on its potential online audience as well as its entrenched print audience.

"We've found that there are two universes out there," Spear said. "A universe that reads the newspaper in print, and there's another universe that go to the newspaper online, and there's a crossover of people who use both. Online readers are looking for something quickly, looking for convenience. A newspaper reader is into reading a story or browsing through the listings. We're trying to reach out to both types."

Many alt-weeklies let the dailies and other dot-coms try and fail online, while they waited for the Net to mature. While dailies might have worried about losing their scoops to online publications, weeklies sat back and figured their loyal readers would continue to come to them for commentary and entertainment listings. Now, only one alt-weekly has a large enough national audience even to be gauged by Nielsen//NetRatings: VillageVoice.com.

The Voice, which also owns the LA Weekly and other alt-papers, has tried to lead online, with e-mail alerts for classifieds and a streaming radio service (now shuttered). While the Web helps its writers reach a much larger audience, the Voice gives its readers a special "Soapbox" section to air their political views online and in print -- starting at $50 for 180 characters. Its Citypages.com site in Minnesota is awash in Weblogs from staffers.

Kara Walsh was made vice president of Village Voice Online this past March in a reorganization at the company aimed at giving the Net a bigger role in the business. "I think it's been a challenge for all print media to figure out how to embrace the Net, and for most publications, it's still a work in progress," Walsh told me via e-mail. "For weeklies in particular, it's challenging to figure out how to be relevant to an online audience that has become accustomed to getting their news and entertainment reading throughout the day, every day, when the staff and their workflow are entrenched in a weekly mindset."

Walsh was impressed with Craigslist and its simplicity, but she also saw one glaring weakness. "The advantage that leading alternative weeklies have is award-winning content," she said. "Given what we know about a site visitor who is reading a particular type of feature or column, we can determine what they may be interested in the community, and we can cross-promote community listings and activities accordingly."

A devilish, personal touch

Personal ads have always been a big income-generator for weeklies, but one of their more endearing qualities has been lacking recently: entertainment value. The problem has been that many weeklies outsourced their online personals to national services such as Spring Street, taking out the local flavor and quirkiness. Consultant Andy Sutcliffe joined forces with The Stranger in Seattle and the Chicago Reader to create a new style of local personals that reflects the local color.

Sutcliffe says the standard questions for each personal ad are what make it more readable, with humorous religious affiliations ("Travolta-ist," Christian/Wacko, I am The Christ) and political leanings (Hard Left, Soft Left, Nothing Left). But they're also laughing all the way to the bank. The Stranger's publisher Tim Keck, an original co-founder of The Onion, says that money from personals is up seven to eight times per week what it was under Spring Street -- after only a month after the personals were launched.

"Six years ago, personals were a huge income for weekly newspapers, but the Internet killed it," Keck told me. "Going aggressively local so far has worked better than a national approach. I think most alt-papers will go to noncommercial ads for free. Craigslist is a little freewheeling, and anybody puts up whatever they want. There's some value added when actual humans can help you classify your ad. Craigslist works great on a small scale, but if it gets bigger, it doesn't work well."

And in editorial innovation, nothing is as radical as Buffalo's ArtVoice.com, where all text articles have been placed into full PDF issues of the newspaper, ads and all. The spotlight is instead on AVTV, a streaming online video channel, and movie trailers and videos of local restaurants.

In Jackson, Miss., the weekly Free Press was launched in print and online simultaneously in 2002 with Weblogs as a big community builder. It helped that publisher Todd Stauffer was a tech writer, having written a book about blogs, while editor Donna Ladd had written about technology for The Village Voice.

"We don't like static sites, such as what many publications have," Ladd told me via e-mail. "I think it's useless for your print content to just lie there online, boring and stale. It needs to reach out and grab people by being interactive. You have to use the site to drive people to the print publication, and the print publication to drive people to the site. I think it's safe to say that our site is more political, more progressive, more in your face than our print edition because that's what our bloggers make it."

The main site has one big blog down the middle, marked as "Web Exclusives," with many posts containing hundreds of comments from readers, while a sidebar has running posts to the LoungeBlog, SportsBlog, MediaBlog, BusinessBlog, etc. One online discussion led to a petition to get Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" shown in Jackson. Ladd said she just put up a quick blog post about how the film was only playing in one theater in Tupelo, Miss.

"I put up the original story," Ladd said, "other folks blogged about it, Knol Aust (a blogger and Web guy) did the petition, I e-mailed my list who passed it on, I sent out a press release. Voila: A campaign was born. You could just sit and watch the petition numbers tick up. The film might have come here anyway due to its national success. But, if you follow me, using the Web to create that excitement is helping publicize our print edition and our brand."

That's the type of online synergy that has ignited many progressive activists, but has been largely missing from the alt-weekly world of late. But perhaps it's not too late for them to learn from the innovators among them, start to monetize their local content, and become a true alternative to the mainstream online.

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Related Links
AVTV
BIGresearch: Study Unearths TV's Missing 18-34-Year-Old Male
Buffalo ArtVoice
Chicago Reader
CitySearch
Jackson (Miss.) Free Press
Jackson Free Press: JFP Readers Want Film in Jackson
New Times company
New Times' Back Page
Palo Alto Weekly
Palo Alto Weekly: Weekly Web site marks 10th anniversary
SouthFlorida.com
Spring Street Networks
Sutcliffe Associates
The Media Center at the American Press Institute
The Onion
The Stranger
The Stranger's Personals
Twin Cities Babelogue
Village Voice Soapbox
Village Voice release: Web site expands management team
VillageVoice.com
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Andy Sutcliffe, consultant, Sutcliffe Associates

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Donna Ladd, editor, Jackson (Miss.) Free Press

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