AAN Editors Think Local in Adding Content

Instincts and Barroom Advice Help Determine New Features

Even in this questionable economic recovery, many AAN papers are experiencing growth. And that’s allowed them to do what many alts haven’t done since the bubble burst four years ago and tanked whole hog after 9/11. Add new content.

Papers that don’t currently have the luxury of extra space are also introducing new features that find common ground among a diverse readership, or reaffirming their commitment to covering the hell out of their community. In these cases, adding a new ingredient requires that something else get jettisoned. However, the decision as to what gets added and nixed is anything but an exact science.

A survey of editors elicited responses about feature changes ranging from adding an entire section to cover all things nocturnal, to doffing syndicated content to make room for more local media coverage.

Philadelphia City Paper devotes page to design

Philadelphia City Paper editor Howard Altman says he doesn’t believe in focus groups, though he does pay attention to fellow drinkers at Dirty Frank’s, his favorite bar.

During leaner economic times, Altman was considering temporarily cutting the Jonesin’ crossword puzzle.

“Three-quarters of the bar said, ‘You can’t cut that!'” Altman recalls. “They’re all sitting there doing the crossword puzzle. That’s my focus group, the people I know.”

Of course, not all decisions are made by Altman’s bar pals. Last year, the paper added Cityspace, a full-page feature dealing with local design and planning issues. Written in part by members of Philly’s Design Advocacy Group, a consortium of local architects and planners, and in part by City Paper staffers, the column has covered everything from parking garage proposals to development along the city’s burgeoning waterfront.

Altman says the feature, which appears at the foot of the real estate classifieds section, is well suited to local interests.

“The people in the city of Philadelphia really appreciate architecture, design [and] the planning process, and really like to have a nice discussion about it,” Altman says. “Some people question, ‘Why put it back there because you have the sex ads back there?'” But he thought readers interested in real estate would also be drawn to Cityspace. “I don’t do things to help out advertisers, but if I can help grow a section, particularly in a competitive market like Philadelphia, I’ll try to utilize the synergy in it,” Altman says.

In order to make room for Cityspace, Altman had to lose two syndicated features, Roland Sweet’s Newsquirks and the Rusty Brown cartoon by perennial AAN award winner Chris Ware.

Altman says the decision to ax these features wasn’t difficult.

“Sometimes you’d have 16 views of a pigeon on a wire, and I felt the space could be used in a much better fashion,” Altman says. “Every once in a while I still get an e-mail, ‘Where’s Rusty Brown?’ I always respond, ‘Rusty Brown is outta town.'”

Creative Loafing adds section covering club scene

At Creative Loafing in Georgia, Atlanta’s booming club scene was the impetus for a new section called Nightshift.

Editor Ken Edelstein says that the 3.5 pages of Nightshift’s editorial real estate came from good sales in 2003 and an increase in page space when the paper switched printers last spring.

Nightshift features everything from a bar mini-review (not to be confused, Edelstein notes, with a mini-bar review) to a fashion Q&A with a “playa” out on the club prowl, as well as a nightlife column and club listings.

One reason the section was launched was an editorial consensus that Vibes, the paper’s music section, couldn’t adequately cover the city’s club scene in addition to the non-live music that sustained it: electronica and DJs.

However, shortly after Nightshift was approved, Creative Loafing’s corporate offices adopted new policies for adding editorial space, thus losing half of the section’s space. Edelstein says his department was reluctant to kill any of the new section. Instead, they put the kibosh on longer front-of-the-book news features.

“Lesson learned: Careful what you ask for when you get additional space,” Edelstein wrote in an e-mail to AAN News. “The suits giveth and the suits taketh away.”

More music coverage to appear in Tucson Weekly

A host of additions at Tucson Weekly doesn’t reflect changes in reader demographics but an internal rededication to becoming more Tucson-focused, editor Jimmy Boegle says.

Having a good fiscal year in which the paper grew by an average of five pages didn’t hurt either.

Coinciding with the Weekly’s 20th anniversary, the paper launched a redesign on March 4. New features will include items that aren’t unprecedented among the alts: a local news roundup called The Range, a Rolling Stone-styled Q&A with local musicians, and a local concert review.

The big losers are syndicated features like Jim Hightower’s political column and Lloyd Dangle’s cartoon, “Troubletown.”

Boegle, who has been at the helm of the Weekly for just over a year, says most of the ideas for new features came from his staff and the paper’s vast network of freelancers.

“It was basically done by discussions with our staff, extended staff and freelancers,” Boegle says. “Just asking, ‘What can we do to make the paper better?'”

The major obstacle for a paper with only two full-time edit staffers is the coordination, Boegle says. “It’s one more thing to copy edit, one more thing to make sure you get art for.”

Ventura County Reporter grows greener

In an effort to unite readers in a nontraditional demographic (read Republican and rural), the Ventura County Reporter has gone green. In addition to its environmental column, EarthTalk, the paper added a home-and-garden column called Greenhouse. It even amended the paper’s tagline from “News & Entertainment Weekly” to “News, Entertainment, Environment.”

Editor Hillary Johnson says environmental issues are something most people care about. “Even the Republicans are environmentalists here.”

A column Johnson had to cut was a popular feature called Surf News. “It’s not the youth that surf here. It’s the establishment. The mayor surfs,” she says.

The problem with that feature was not lack of reader interest but finding a reliable writer who didn’t digress too much or delve into unexpected forms, like poetry or a casting call for a roommate, Johnson says.

Reader response gives unscientific assessment

All told, none of the editors AAN News spoke with had any calculated means for assessing how a new feature is doing with readers besides the usual suspects: phone calls, letters and people on the street. Of course, several sources noted that most people don’t write in when they’re happy with a paper’s coverage.

“When I told people I worked at Creative Loafing, people used to say, ‘Oh, love that News of the Weird,'” Edelstein notes. “More recently, they’ve been saying, ‘I love that Dirty Looks thing,’ [a feature in the Nightshift section] which is this shot of a person who’s ‘stylish’ with some snarky comments about them.”

John Dicker is a staff writer for the Colorado Springs Independent.