July 20, 2017 Last Updated 3:06 pm

As one alt-weekly finds a new owner, the Knoxville Mercury says goodbye to readers

‘Even a human fossil must concede that the smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer,’ wrote one observer regarding what was behind the death of so many local alt-weeklies

The same day that the East Bay Express was acquired by a local magazine publisher, Knoxville Mercury said goodbye to its readers, closing after a less than three year run. The news of another alt-weekly closing is always sad, but the trends have not looked good for the category for a while now.

“We knew going into this adventure that we were swimming against the tide,” said publisher Charlie Vogel.

Just a month ago, Vogel had told local CBS affiliate WVLT “we have special things that we do.” He was still thinking forward. “You’ll read pieces that will set you back. Give you a little jolt, both in the wording, the language and even the subjects,” said Vogel.

But Vogel knew it would be a struggle to keep the paper going.

“We had great people, some working capital, and an award-winning product—but we misread the market,” Vogel said a little over a month later.

Looking through the last issue via Issuu, one could see the problem. There were plenty of ads, but they were small ads. And the editorial to advertising mix may have looked appropriate for today’s reader, but it was a far cry from what other alt-weeklies looked like in their heyday.

When I entered the newspaper business professionally after securing my J degree, I worked at Hearst’s daily in Los Angeles. We were struggling, but in the central areas of Los Angeles, especially Hollywood and West Hollywood, we held our own against the giant Los Angeles Times.

Our Hollywood sales rep was a legend who always came in with full-page ads from the Hollywood camera stores, mattress stores, etc. Every week she would come into the office on Friday and remind the rest of the staff to go out a buy a new bed mattress in order to make sure her client got response. We laughed, but we understood where she was coming from. Selling ads in a dying newspaper is hard, you can’t afford to lose one due to lack of response.

As big a rival as was the Times, there were still others such as the LA Weekly.

The LA Weekly ran well over 100 pages or more a week, and it was 60/40, with advertising being the “60”. But LA is not Knoxville, of course, and so there were plenty of full page ads or even two-page spreads every week for the latest films being released. Los Angeles is movietown, of course, so there were plenty of reasons for the studios to want to advertise beyond just filling theaters.

But there were lots of club ads, sex ads, used car ads, and apartment ads, as well.

You couldn’t blame an advertiser from choosing the LA Weekly, everyone read it. In any coffee house, restaurant, bar or Tower Records there were copies everywhere. It’s not Apple’s fault that they launched the iPhone and changed the way everyone reads while eating — or maybe you can.

The most famous weekly in the country has always been the Village Voice, but that is not a good example of the category because it was a paid publication. Locals paid to read Andrew Sarris and Nat Hentoff. Those writers didn’t appear in the LA Weekly, though they had damn good writers. People picked up the paper for the ads.

I always tell the story told to me by the former classified manager of the LA Weekly:

Sitting in a management meeting he was arguing with the editor and blurted out that “half of LA Weekly readers read the paper for the ads!” The editor said that he was “full of shit.” The publisher spoke up in defense of the editor. “You’re right, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. It is not true that half of our readers pick up the paper for the ads. Our research shows that 80 percent of our reader pick the paper for the ads!”

“After two years of hitting our heads against the wall, we were running out of money and out of ideas for new ways of asking for money or selling ads,” editor Coury Turczyn told readers yesterday. “Each fundraiser we held collected less money than the one before it.”

The paper had resorted to what a lot of papers do these days, begging readers to fund the paper. Despite the lack of evidence that this works, editors continue to promote the idea. And going digital-only simply is not an option for a local alt-weekly.

“In our experience, online revenue at a local level is inadequate to pay a full-time staff of journalists. As a niche publication in a small market, our site had nice traffic numbers but not the scale typically needed to make good money on Web ads.”

Jack Shafer, when he was writing for Reuters, had a good feature on what was going on at alt-weeklies.

“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,” Shafer wrote in 2013. “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 over-leveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.”

Shafer understood that what made an alt-weekly tick was not just the editorial.

“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,” Shafer said. “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. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.”

The alt-weekly was the web before the web. That is, it was a free medium that could undercut its paid circulation daily competitors simply because it was free. And like the web today, the ads were cheap compared to those in daily newspapers.

At Hearst’s Herald Examiner we knew what it was like to sell against the LA Weekly. Our rates were three times as high, and our circulation was barely a quarter more. Volume was the key, just as it is today for Google and Facebook.

But today, when you are having a coffee at Starbucks, you can read your local alt-weekly, assuming it is there, or you can read The New York Times, The Atlantic, or even Le Monde. The big media guys have finally found a way to lure readers away from the alt-weeklies. They just can’t lure the ads away from Google and Facebook.

Comments are closed.