Alt-Weekly Thr!ves Despite Competition from Gannett

Bingo and Sally Barnes had a simple dream: to move from Las Vegas to a place with a better quality of life. A city that supported the arts, that offered outdoor activities and like minds. And they wanted their work to be fulfilling.

Following an unsuccessful job search, they thought about starting a business or buying a community newspaper. After scraping together every liquid asset they had, the couple purchased Boise Weekly in August 2001 from City of Roses Newspaper Co., the Portland, Ore.-based publishers of Willamette Week and Santa Fe Reporter. Bingo and Sally began with four months’ working capital and a staff of 20.

Then came the terror attacks of September 11th and the ensuing economic slump. The couple went through their four-month money in a month and a half. By November, they had cut their staff to seven.

“We were both working 80-hour weeks,” Bingo says. “I was acting editor, art director and circulation manager, and was delivering a couple of routes. Slowly we pulled ourselves out of a deep, dark place and have been growing every since.”

Rebuilding a brand

Bingo and Sally hired Nancy Spittle as Boise Weekly’s ad director in October 2001. At the time, Spittle says, BW was a damaged brand. “It still had a good street cred with an edgy, liberal crowd,” she says. But advertisers and heads of local community organizations weren’t thrilled with the paper, which aggressively pursued a liberal agenda and ran adult ads “somewhat without boundaries,” she says.

Faux-alt coming to your town? Bingo Barnes offers the following advice:

Be scared. Be very scared. Because fear will make you get your act together. Competition has a way of getting a publication out of the La-Z-Boy and into overdrive.

You should strengthen your relationships with advertisers. Make them aware of warning signs to look for. Force the circulation folks to think about competition and be street smart. You should make your production department provide better comps with fewer errors. Your ad reps should provide better customer service.

Editorial should become sharper, more aware. Editorial should also guard info on upcoming stories. Staff should stop holding meetings in local coffee shops where eavesdroppers may overhear strategy or plans.

Enlist your loyal readers to be “spies.” Write about the corporate history of Gannett (or the corporate paper that is launching the faux-alt) and what bad boys they’ve been in other markets. Publishers should watch costs and not do anything rash just because the competition’s doing it.

“City of Roses tried to import Portland newspaper values into Boise,” Barnes explains. “What works in Portland does not work in a small, conservative community like Boise. That doesn’t mean we don’t push the envelope; it’s just done with a little more subtlety.”

To Spittle, her first order of business was clear: Rebuild the brand.

“My first job was connecting Bingo and Sally with community leaders,” she says. “To sit down with (the leaders) and talk about the vision for the paper. (During those initial meetings) we weren’t selling them anything.”

After a few issues had been published, Spittle and the Barneses revisited potential advertisers and community leaders to show the results of their labor.

“We went back out again to show, ‘Yes, we have changed,'” Spittle says. “We treated it more like a business partnership, to say we both have the same customer in mind.”

Competition comes with deep pockets and “edgy” punctuation

In October 2002, Gannett introduced the faux-alt Thr!ve to Boise. Bingo Barnes had been hearing rumors of its development for eight months, and now that it was a reality he was anything but sanguine.

Barnes had read Richard McCord’s “The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire” three times, so he was familiar with the bruising tactics Gannett had employed in previous battles with independent publishers. “Not knowing beforehand what exactly they were going to do, and after reading up about Gannett’s history of predatory pricing and monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior, we were really scared,” he says.

“A leopard doesn’t change its spots, you know, it just changes tactics. Gannett has millions of dollars in resources and can afford to lose money for long periods of time to change the business climate in a community so that it becomes extremely difficult for start-ups and independent publishers to get a portion of the market share.”

Gannett announced the new publication in a press release, stating that the paper was not meant to compete with BW. “Total crap,” is Bingo Barnes’s reply. “Why, then, were we getting reports coming from people who participated in their focus groups that they were asking direct questions about what BW does well, what they like about BW, and how can it be better?”

On its Web site, Gannett says that its “Young Reader Publications” — as the company calls its free, youth-oriented weeklies — are aimed at twenty- to thirty-somethings. In general, these faux-alts shy away from in-depth reporting and controversial subject matter. Further differentiating Thr!ve from its alt-weekly competitor is that its content is often reprinted in Boise’s Gannett-owned daily, the Idaho Statesman.

“One thing that really irks some of our readers,” Barnes says, “Is that [Thr!ve does] not cover or have listings for any Gay Pride events or issues along those lines, but they’ll give front-page coverage to the Christian activists in the community. It seems they avoid controversial subjects like the plague.”

Representatives of the Idaho Statesman did not respond to requests for an interview.

Though readers won’t mistake Thr!ve for BW, the two papers are nevertheless in direct competition for advertisers.

By the time Thr!ve hit the scene, Spittle and the Barneses had already built relationships with local organizations and independent businesses in Boise. In addition, BW has a “kick-ass ad designer,” Spittle says, an asset not to be taken lightly. Spittle also calls BW’s ad team the “Saturn of ad sales.” “We sell to the rate card, sell to the rate card, sell to the rate card.”

Thr!ve’s team, on the other hand, began cutting deals right out of the gate. “We knew about advertisers that were given free advertising for an extended period of time,” says Barnes. “These advertisers were already advertising in the daily and in [the Statesman’s] weekend entertainment insert, and [Thr!ve] was referred to as ‘added value.’ But, in effect, they were free ads.”

BW’s ad team pointed out these tactics when they went on sales calls. “We informed some of our clients [who weren’t getting the same deal from Gannett] … about these ‘free’ ads and [told them] that they should ask if they could get a similar deal from their Gannett rep,” Barnes says. “[Gannett wasn’t] too happy with us telling their advertisers that they’re giving away [free] ads.”

Since 2002, BW has lost just a couple of clients to Thr!ve, according to Barnes.

Building the ties that bind

Both the Barneses and Spittle believe that being part of the Boise community is important.

“We join groups,” Spittle says. “Places where people wouldn’t think we’d be” — like the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary, for instance. Spittle and her ad staff also take part in the Boise Advertising Federation, attending events where they get to mix with their peers. Spittle hasn’t seen anyone from Thr!ve at any of these Advertising Federation events.

BW’s marketing efforts also reach out to readers at unlikely venues. “A huge portion of our readership loves country music,” Spittle says. So BW has sponsorships with a local rodeo.

The paper also supports the ballet, literary events, and the annual wine festival.

“We get tickets to events and have a client gathering,” Spittle says. “We’ll have a pre-party in the lobby before the event opens to the public, just to socialize with our clients.”

Looking into the future

Upon launch, Gannett stated a three-year commitment; October 2005 will mark Thr!ve’s third year of publication. Will the paper continue to publish after that date? Barnes is dubious.

“We’ve seen their rate card over time and it keeps going down,” he says. “Based on paper costs and what they’re charging (for ads) you can’t help but think they’re not making any money.”

Barnes also notes that Thr!ve has drastically reduced its weekly circulation, from 30,000 when it launched to 17,000 today.

In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter whether Thr!ve, well, thrives — because BW is thriving as well. After jumping 30 percent in 2002-03, and 20 percent in 2004, revenue is on track to increase again by 25 percent in 2005, according to Barnes. In addition, weekly circulation has increased since 2001 from 17,000 to 32,000, almost an inverse mirror image of Thr!ve’s decline over the same period. Finally, BW’s staff size is back up to 16 full-time personnel, and the paper is planning to triple its workspace when it moves to new digs this summer.

What now most concerns Barnes is the fight for future distribution space. In Greenville, S.C., where Gannett also publishes both a daily and faux-alt, the company created a distribution network that obtained exclusive control over many local retail outlets and charged its competitors a pocket fee to distribute from within those locations. Barnes is concerned about the implications of such a move.

“I think the current direction that Gannett is going with creating their own distribution networks, offering businesses interior module racks and then re-leasing them to local publications barring any other free pubs from distributing is very scary,” he says.

“Already most strip-center property managers don’t allow publication boxes outside, which has forced us inside the stores. What happens when we can’t distribute inside anymore without spending every last cent for leasing spots?

“I believe it’s another tactic Gannett is using to stifle the small publisher,” he says. “We haven’t witnessed them doing that in this market, but we’ll keep our eye out for it.”

Amy Souza is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area.

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