Alt-Weeklies in the Time of Corona

As has been the case for innumerable industries, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a significant and brutal toll on alternative weeklies.

For years now, producing, printing, and distributing free newspapers has posed a rough financial prospect. In the accelerated era of digital media, it’s been especially difficult. But with the COVID-19 crisis, widespread event cancellations and bar and restaurant closures have eviscerated much of the ad revenue that serves as the primary funding for many alt-weeklies.

By Mother Jones’s count, not quite 30 such publications have publicly reported cash flow problems in the past few weeks, with many (successfully) soliciting donations from readers. NiemanLab, meanwhile, called March 15 through March 22 “the single worst week in the history of America’s alternative press.” But while you’ll have a hard time finding anyone to argue the contrary, there have also been positive recent happenings in the world of free progressive media.

Some still-operational papers continue to distribute physical editions during the pandemic, while others have gone digital-only. In almost every case, alt-weekly staffers have doubled down on newsgathering and dissemination, and conjured up new money-raising ideas to increase their odds of reporting on the post-corona world.

No one knows the future, but if this many alt-weeklies carried on after the internet decimated their entire business model, then perhaps they can muddle through COVID-19 as well?

“We, as papers, have essentially always operated on the edge, so this is not an unfamiliar place for us,” says Molly Willmott, interim manager and former president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN). “That’s how we started, that’s how we’ve done business up to this point, and that’s how we’ll do business going forward. But each of our papers provides an essential voice in the communities that they serve.”

For individual free papers, the strength of their relationships to those communities may prove to be the determining factor in whether they survive the pandemic. And while every publication always relies on reader support to some extent, a sympathetic advertiser can be even more useful in these uniquely troubled times.

“Most [of our] advertisers have stuck around for the last two issues, running ‘We’ll be back’ and ‘Stay strong’-type ads,” writes Salt Lake City Weekly Editor Enrique Limón. “A florist shop that’s been a longtime supporter ran an ad saying ‘Get well soon’ and, well, cue the waterworks.”

Despite loyal advertisers, corona-cancellations nevertheless clobbered SLCW. At the moment, the remotely-working staff plans to continue churning out a print edition via a combination of creativity and grit. They’ve relaunched an in-house nonprofit dubbed Press Backers, which helps fund multiple independent Salt Lake City-based outlets. They’ve also pulled off at least one feat of editorial parkour—cobbling together an issue of corona-centric content completely from scratch, a mere handful of hours before it was due at the printer.

“My art director and I decided to shift gears midday on Monday (we publish on Tuesdays),” writes Limón in an email. “That meant scrapping the cover story and cover illustration we had lined up and rewriting all of the back-of-the-book copy to reflect recent cancellations. The result was a Quintessential Quarantine Fun Guide filled with brainteasers, coloring activities, and even DIY toilet paper squares, because why not?”

Naturally, SLCW wasn’t the only outlet that thought about spending time indoors, making the mental hop to activity books.

“We were kicking around ideas for The Reader’s 50th anniversary next year, so it was among a lot of brainstorm ideas far in the future,” Tracy Baim, editor of the Chicago Reader, said about a coloring-book edition that her paper is selling to compensate for losses stemming from coronavirus complications.

“Two weeks ago, as it became clear the shutdown was coming and our ads started dropping, I was like, ‘Damn, let’s do that now!’ So that Monday we put a call out to Reader freelancers and across social media, with a four-day deadline. In four days, more than 50 artists submitted one or more pieces. It was incredible.”

Clocking in at 52 pages, the black-and-white mag features loosely Chicago-focused imagery and a wide range of visual approaches—there are pieces reminiscent of street art, cartoons, abstract art, and plenty of other aesthetics. Available at $30 for a printable-at-home PDF and $45 for a hard copy, it’s generated $20,000 in relief funds within less than two weeks. That cash will be split between The Reader and the contributing artists. Baim notes that freelance creative workers have also lost piles of money and are more likely to promote the project since they’re getting a cut.

“A coloring book is very much on-brand for The Reader,” Baim said, adding that it is “a great idea [for something to spend time on] when stuck at home.”

Also thinking beyond the traditional revenue model, some AAN papers have launched membership programs—sort of like paying fan clubs, often with perks —while others that already have them have ramped up activity. In Mississippi, the Jackson Free Press established its VIP Club about 18 months ago, according to publisher Todd Stauffer. At the Gold Level, priced at $350 annually or $35 per month, the JFP VIP Club offers home delivery of the JFP print edition and early access to the Best Of Jackson Party RSVP list. While COVID-19 caused the Free Press to lose more than half of its income, 170 new VIPs have gone a long way towards making up the difference.

“We’re still in the ‘keeping the lights on’ zone,” writes Stauffer. “Donna Ladd (co-founder, editor-in-chief and CEO) and I have every intention of doing everything we can to avoid layoffs or suspending our reporting. What it feels like from last weekend to this weekend is really uplifting.”

Seven Days in Vermont has a similar program. According to the Burlington-based publication, at least 350 regular readers have become Seven Days Super Readers in these recent weeks. Seven Days also created a directory of restaurants still offering takeout titled Good To-Go Vermont.

Meanwhile, way down south, the New Orleans Gambit, which also has a membership program, is innovating around the symbiotic connection between alt-weeklies and local businesses. Readers can purchase ad space on behalf of a favorite local establishment through The Gambit’s “Adopt a Local Business” campaign, thereby supporting independent journalism and commerce.

In Boston, the publication I write for has ceased its print publication, while channeling focus and resources in a different, crisis-centric direction.

“We are not simply rolling over in the face of the pandemic,” says DigBoston executive editor and associate publisher Jason Pramas. “Being small, lean, and diversified overall has definite advantages in our current situation.”

DigBoston has shifted gears into what its staff describes as a daily online publication. Revenue from print ads is no longer in play, but there’s still cash to produce and syndicate articles via the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Known colloquially as BINJ, the 501(c3) nonprofit run separately by Dig‘s leadership has founded the Pandemic Democracy Project to foster even more independent coverage of the coronavirus crisis.

“Reports of our death, to paraphrase our coreligionist Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated,” Pramas notes. “My colleagues and I join other independent news editors and publishers in being ticked off that larger news outlets and well-funded industry-watchers that have completely ignored us for decades suddenly found the time to publish what amount to hit pieces telling the world we’re all doomed.

“We have always taken the arrogance of certain monied sectors of the national press toward the independent regional press as class-based and continue to do so.”

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