Weeklies Bite the Dust
By Staff News & Analysis - March 20, 2013

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies … Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today's Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired. – Reuters

Dominant Social Theme: Alternative weeklies were a great business model.

Free-Market Analysis: We are not sorry that alternative media (mostly from the US) is withering away. Alternative media in the US was partly an invention of the countercultural movement of the 1960s in the US and abroad and as such the media was innately leftist.

People purchased leftist "alternative" weeklies because they were fashionable and they had an intellectual aura. Middle class people within the standard social construct saw these weeklies as "cutting-edge" – daring and even dangerous.

The weeklies themselves (most were weeklies, though some were dailies or monthlies) attracted journalists who wanted to work within a reformist framework. The idea was to attack the marketplace and suggest government was the solution. Occasionally, one might run an article about government corruption, as well, but only within the context of suggesting government could be run better and more effectively. Here's more from the article:

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn't — or couldn't — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

The formula, pioneered by the Village Voice in the 1950s, finessed by the Phoenix in the 1960s and perfected by the Chicago Reader, the Phoenix New Times and others in the 1970s, became such a cinch that know-nothing bar owners and recent college graduates (or dropouts!) eventually made millions off it. Some papers, like the Phoenix New Times, built immense chains from the links they forged and acquired. The formula connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers in both compact, urban settings like New York and Washington and sunbelt expanses like Phoenix and Dallas …

Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book …

Bob Roth, one of my bosses when I edited Washington City Paper (1985-1995), told me to watch people as they picked it up from a street box and walk away with it: Almost to a one, they would hold it in their hands or fold it under their arms as if to display the paper's flag so onlookers would know they were City Paper people, whatever that meant.

The point about readers tucking alternative weeklies under their arms is a good one. As we pointed out above, readers were attracted to alternative weeklies because they provided a countercultural perspective. One who read such hadn't "sold out to the system."

Of course, when the Internet came along, many of these readers faced a conundrum: The controlled, countercultural argument suggested that government was a favored solution to all that ailed society. But blogs and websites began to suggest – almost immediately – that a free-market approach was preferable.

These were novel ideas, appearing in the 21st century after a long drought of controlled communication in the 20th century. The ideas suggested by alternative weeklies soon appeared not so daring or challenging after all. What WAS challenging and intriguing was the idea of money controlled privately – not by the state. And competition rather than electoral fiat as a methodology of solving problems.

Initially, the libertarian/conservative position swept the field; and the Internet is still crowded with blogs and websites offering free-market economic approaches and news. The Misesian revolution was built of such.

A little later socialist and fascist-oriented began to appear, many of them funded by the same globalists that funded the alternative weeklies. But the freedom-oriented core remained and does so to this day.

This article makes the case that it was the drying up advertising that generated the downfall of alternative print publications. But one could also make the case that it was the sensibility and the information of the alternative Internet media that changed reading habits.

After Thoughts

As investors look around the changing media scene today, they will need to take into account not only a publication's bottom line but also its editorial stance and the readership it attracts, or doesn't attract.