Alt-Weeklies Look to Media Rivals as Partners

Cross-promotions provides rich rewards

Some AAN newspapers have found a winning strategy in cross-promoting with other media in their shared markets, boosting readership and promoting brand awareness and loyalty.

Crossing lines to work with other print media in the same market is somewhat unusual for a newspaper, but alt-weeklies have found common cause in some cases even with the dailies that they regularly mock. Cross-promoting with radio and cable television, however, is the more frequent tactic AAN papers are using to reach a broader audience and more diverse demographic.

Turn it Up: Radio

Since alternative newsweeklies thrive on live concert and music reviews, radio is the prime partner for cross-promoting, both through ad swaps and co-sponsoring the same events

Each year, Phoenix Media Communications Group hosts its signature event, the Best Music Poll, through the Boston Phoenix, the Portland Phoenix and the Providence Phoenix. Also involved are the group’s four radio stations, collectively known as the FNX Radio Network, which reach five markets across the Northeast.

Started 15 years ago as a write-in ballot in the Boston Phoenix, the poll has evolved into an online voting system that culminates in wildly popular concerts for each city. Prominent musicians such as Sheryl Crow, the Beastie Boys, Belly and They Might Be Giants have joined local bands at the event over the years. It also attracts national advertisers such as Budweiser and Volkswagen as sponsors, along with local businesses.

“It connects the local music scene with the national music scene,” says Editor-in-Chief Peter Kadzis. “We’re pretty much an institution.”

Local television stations and even MTV give it coverage. Respect and recognition from the mainstream press “may be grudging,” but Phoenix gets it, Kadzis says.

The Phoenix group also participates in cross-promos with radio stations it doesn’t own, including those with the same “psychographic” and demographic the paper wants to reach, and supports the less-listened-to classical music station. As Kadzis puts it, a paper should sometimes sponsor something just “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Another altie benefiting from musical cross-promotion is the Hartford Advocate, which sponsors its annual Grand Band Slam poll every August. In nearly a decade the Grand Band Slam concert has grown into an outdoor street party co-promoted by local radio, drawing roughly 20,000 people this year alone. The Advocate also has used radio cross-promotions for the past three years to swell the crowd at its Black-Eyed and Blues festival each June, and is working out similar arrangements for its upcoming Jan Jam.

Why radio? It reaches a wider audience than paper alone.

“Some of them may be readers, but some people don’t read,” Publisher/Editor Janet Reynolds says of the people who tune in to FM. Radio spots remind readers that the Advocate is “cool” and actively supporting the local arts scene.

“The print brings the tangibility radio doesn’t have, and radio brings the frequency and reach print doesn’t have” to reach the movers and shakers of a community, says Michael Frischling, publisher of Pittsburgh City Paper.

Parent company Steel City Media also owns two FM stations, but it cross-promotes each product with competing media. That is, the paper works with other radio, and the two stations cooperate with other print media in the same market.

Knoxville, Tenn.’s Metro Pulse partners each year with 100.3 The River to offer Thursday night concerts in the downtown Market Square from April through October, drawing 500 to 700 people each week. The Pulse also sponsors several other local events with FM stations.

In addition, until she went on maternity leave, Arts and Entertainment Editor Adrienne Martini would appear on a station each morning to promote not only the paper, but also the local arts and music scene.

“That is something we’d like to look forward to again,” says General Manager Sharon Long.

Brad Nelson, editor and publisher of Ripsaw, says the paper is in the early stages of establishing its own signature musical event. Four-year-old Ripsaw serves Duluth, Minn., and struggled during its first year as a monthly to garner enough advertising to even keep afloat.

“We owed the printer a bunch of money, and we needed cash fast,” he recalls with a laugh. To raise it, Nelson, also a musician, asked local indy bands to help by putting on a concert in a local nightclub.

From adversity springs invention, and so was born “Undergroundhog Day,” which has been going for three years and draws roughly 500 people to two clubs every Feb. 2. Ripsaw co-sponsors the event along with a local radio station, which Nelson says creates the effect of a “universal presence” for both — readers are hit with ads about the station, and listeners learn more about the newspaper.

This past year, Ripsaw started what Nelson hopes will become another signature event, the Greenman Festival, in August. The fest consists of a 48-hour outdoor music festival in a park, where people camp overnight to the tune of continuous song by both established and experimental bands. The 2003 event will add a “12 Hours of Green” mountain bike ride.

Nelson said a local television station has expressed interest in co-sponsoring, and though the festival was supposed to have been piped out live by a local pirate FM station last year (technical difficulties prevented it), he also advertised on one of the local FCC stations. Roughly 600 people attended, and while he lost money, Nelson says he will do it all again.

“For a newspaper, we really have a cult-like following,” he says. Circulation is at 11,000 and steadily growing. Ripsaw also trades promotional ads with the public radio station in town, and Nelson thinks this helps “legitimize” the edgy paper’s image with the middle-aged demographic.

“For us to be on those stations, those people think ‘Well, other people are doing it (reading Ripsaw) too, so that must be okay,’” he says.

Not all radio is a willing partner to newspaper promotion. Isthmus Associate Publisher Linda Baldwin says the Madison, Wisc., paper annually partners with a local soft rock radio station and also Entercom-owned outlets, even sponsoring an annual Blues Fest each August with the latter. However, she says it’s been “very tough” thus far to do anything with the Clear Channel group unless a charity fund-raiser is involved.

Further, even with stations that are amenable to cross-promotion, Baldwin warns other publishers to demand equity, such as specifying ad size, frequency and the like in a co-sponsorship contract.

“It’s very difficult to get radio to promote anyone but themselves,” she says. “It’s just hard to get the corporate guys to play in any co-promotion.”

Frischling agrees that publishers sometimes have a tendency to give too much of their paper’s support away in exchange for relatively little airtime. He recommends papers use knowledgeable salespeople or managers to hammer out such details in agreements ahead of time.

“You can’t start early enough, and you can’t plan enough,” says Matthew Spaur, president and co-publisher of Local Planet Weekly in Spokane, Wash.

The Planet cross-promotes with local stations, including Citadel Broadcasting. An alt-rock station even renamed its Sunday show “The Local Planet Music Spotlight.” Spaur himself is often a drop-in guest on its Friday morning talk show during the busy drive-time, chatting about what’s in the news and promoting his publication. In exchange, the paper gives the station a quarter page of space each week.

In addition, a new AM talk station invites Planet Editor Tom Grant to co-host for an hour every Thursday on “The Local Show,” which focuses on local news issues to supplement their national, satellite-fed programming.

“We trade them airtime for print space, an 1/8 page,” Spaur says. .

You Ought a Be in Pictures

Television, especially local-access cable channels, also offers newspapers the opportunity to reach a broader audience. It combines the reach of radio with visuals and, sometimes, the coattails of a national network label.

The Planet works in concert with the Spokane WB affiliate, a fairly new venture in the area by Belo Corp., which also runs the local CBS affiliate. In exchange for promoting the WB affiliate’s new ownership in the newspaper, Belo runs commercials advertising the paper on WB.

“Other media here, at least, are much more willing to do cross-promotions of their own projects,” Spaur says, acknowledging the inherent competitiveness that makes media cooperation so difficult.

He knows, however, that it is possible. In his previous career as a technical writer, Spaur saw what he calls regular “co-opetition” among software companies. Two companies might compete to sell the same type of product, but if one offered a program the other did not, they might partner to market that product and at the same time, play up each other’s strengths. So it goes with cross-media.

“I’m print; I can’t offer electronic (advantages) on my own,” he points out.

The reality is that television will reach a broader audience, which enables him to “sell” the Planet to more potential readers through trade-out promo spots.

Baldwin finds television more cooperative than corporate radio groups. Specifically, she said Charter Communications is usually willing to provide favorable cross-promotions, such as co-sponsoring “Comics Come Home,” an annual charity comedy event sponsored by Comedy Central in the memory of the late comic and Madison native Chris Farley.

Also, Charter and Isthmus worked together at the March Wisconsin Film Festival to provide a cable Internet demo truck, in which attendees could log online and post their own reviews of the movies being shown. Although there were technical difficulties with the first year, Baldwin is hopeful for future success.

“When you can have a win-win situation like that, you can take advantage of multiple resources,” she adds. “The Charter folks really see the value in cross-promotions.”

Even lesser-known television offers advantages. For example, prior to the recent election, the Phoenix sponsored prerecorded debates in Portland, Maine, on a local-access television channel. While not as glamorous as a live network broadcast, the station aired the debate several time, keeping the paper’s name in the minds of viewers and reminding them of the civic benefit the publication had provided.

“From a sheer marketing point of view, when you do something with a local cable station, it tends to be repeated,” says Kadzis.

Other AAN papers have seized the opportunity for cooperation in coverage. Two years ago Isthmus put together an editorial cooperation package with the local NBC station to “co-cover” certain timely issues, Baldwin says. Several of the paper’s writers are frequently invited to participate in local talk shows, both on radio and TV. The editor of Knoxville’s Metro Pulse is also a regular guest on local TV shows.

Charities and Other Promotions

Sponsoring fundraising events for charity and the arts is one of the best and least risky ways for a business to get its name out into the community.

For example, Colorado Springs Independent supports local charities with its Independent Community Fund drive, set to kick off again this Friday. The annual event partners the paper with a broad spectrum of local media, including cable provider Adelphia, Clear Channel radio and The Gazette. The daily paper devotes space on its Web site to advertise the fund-raiser — and, by default, the Independent.

“Other papers have had donations to charities and community funds, but we’re the only ones to get other media (so) involved in our drive,” says Publisher John Weiss.

Indeed, the paper’s contributions to Habitat for Humanity as well as other organizations devoted to social change — from groups that monitor legislation to prison reformers — would likely be noticed in any community. In its first year alone, the Independent raised $64,000 in cash and donated $75,000 in media; this year, it is aiming for $100,000 in each.

The Phoenix Best Music Poll has grown into a formidable tri-city event, which raises a great deal of money for various charities, especially those dedicated to fighting AIDS. Even in today’s slow economy, Kadzis says the Poll “is one of those things. Even in bad times, you work harder at it and say ‘Thank God we have this.’”

The Phoenix also co-sponsors fine arts events, such as museum exhibits and film festivals, in each of its cities. For example, once a month, the Boston Phoenix holds a highly visible singles night at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Pittsburgh City Paper also keeps busy with co-sponsorships. Besides creating the handout for all media at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival each year, it partners with a local radio station and the Pittsburgh Filmmakers to host the monthly Film Kitchen, devoted to showcasing local filmmakers in two theaters.

City Paper was also the first media partner years ago willing to take a chance with Ground Zero, an organization of young professionals dedicated to revamping Pittsburgh’s empty buildings into centers of art and nightlife. It has done so well the organization is now branching into St. Petersburg, Fla..


“No thing is too big, and nothing’s too small,” advises Phoenix’s Kadzis on cross-promotions, adding that alternatives are in a unique position to concentrate on areas neglected by mainstream media.

“Just look around at what’s right under your nose. [Daily newspapers] don’t take anyone seriously, including their readers, which is why daily newspaper numbers are dropping like flies.”

Reynolds enjoys getting the Advocate in on the ground floor as the exclusive print sponsor of new events and helping grow them into something bigger and better-known, so that the paper is credited as having taken that risk.

“I think you can’t measure, necessarily, the value of doing things like this,” she says.

Persistence pays off, too.

For example, Metro Pulse regularly sponsors symphony and art museum events, but for years, the local Scripps-Howard daily, the News-Sentinel, kept a lock on media sponsorship of the downtown Dogwood Arts Festival, one of the South’s most popular events. Last April, Metro Pulse was finally allowed to co-sponsor the event after a festival board member insisted on opening it to the alternative newsweekly.

Perhaps part of this is that Metro Pulse, like other alties, occasionally skewers the local media, especially the dominant daily.

Isthmus also rags on its competition, the very ones with whom Baldwin has worked out cross-promos.

“You have to be prepared they won’t play,” she says. “There’s not a thing you can do it about it.”

“It really can’t be avoided,” agrees Frischling. “Editorial needs to put out the best product they can, and sometimes that upsets advertisers or other media … and you just have to tell your salespeople they’ve got to deal with that.”

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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