On May 19, 2004, AltWeeklies.com debuted. It was a modest Web site with large ambitions. The story-sharing site was to be a place where Association of Alternative Newsweeklies editors could buy and sell articles, earning, if not gazillions, then a tidy three figures a year. At the same time it would be a source of alternative news for people who browse the Web.
AltWeeklies started off with 100 articles from member papers that then Assistant Editor Joshua Barlow and I had posted. After its existence was announced in an e-mail to our members, articles began trickling in. A few adventurous editors took the plunge and posted six stories the first week.
I tried, often in vain, to coax members to visit the site. Then, on May 27, Marc Eisen, the editor of Isthmus, posted this message to AAN’s Editing listserv (reprinted with permission): “Hey, guys, we may be near a major success. If Altweeklies.com proves as helpful and user-friendly as it seems for AAN papers to buy and sell stories among ourselves, a major step will have been taken by this organization.” He noted that the idea of developing a “self-help and mutual packaging of stories” had been talked about for 25 years. Now that the hope had been realized, he encouraged everyone to take a look.
Eighteen stories were posted by members the next week, 29 the next. Participation continued to grow incrementally. Lately, in a typical week, 75 to 115 stories from about 30 papers are posted on the site. All together more than 4,400 stories are on the site, two-thirds of them posted by members and the other third by AAN staff.
The first week of June 2004, the site underwent a slight redesign to make stories easier to find. After a few months, the story database was robust enough that the site seemed ready to be introduced to the public. That happened Sept. 1, when AAN Director of Sales & Marketing Roxanne Cooper sent out press releases and started advertising AltWeeklies.com on several political blogs. The public debut coincided with the last few months of the presidential election campaign, and interest in an alternative perspective of the battle was strong. After News & Features, Politics was the best read section of AltWeeklies from September through November 2004.
A number of stories brought readers rushing to the site, according to traffic reports. Among them was last December’s Iraq war veterans’ package. Two stories that captured the attention of bloggers each brought thousands of visitors to AltWeeklies.com.
One, “Porn, Hypocrisy, Plagiarism: The Dark Side of Jacksonville’s Daily,” became a hot item on Romenesko’s journalism blog. Another, “Lesbian Student Shut Out of Tradition,” about a young woman banned from her high school yearbook because she chose to wear a tuxedo rather than a drape in her graduation photo, became a topic of discussion on numerous feminist-oriented blogs. Folio Weekly editor Anne Schindler posted both stories. The Jacksonville, Fla., altweekly’s own Web site is bare bones, devoid of editorial content. The opportunity to post the two stories directly on AltWeeklies.com gave the topics a life outside the Jacksonville area.
A marketplace for stories
AltWeeklies.com has saved the skin of more than one editor whose cover story fell through at the last minute.
Because many buyers circumvent the sales tracking process offered on the site, it’s unknown how many stories have been sold through AltWeeklies.com. Two-hundred-thirty-eight requests to purchase stories have been tallied since last May, representing one request for every 20 stories posted. Sales occur in all categories of news and arts coverage. The section in which selling papers are most likely to receive inquiries from buyers is Health & Science, followed by Books, Culture (especially wine, food and video game reviews), and News & Features.
Four papers that post their content regularly to the site, The Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Austin Chronicle and Missoula Independent, together receive more than a third of the requests for purchase.
Only AAN members who are logged in to the site can access detailed reprint information about stories that intrigue them. But nonmembers also go shopping on AltWeeklies, launching a purchase by contacting the selling paper’s editor directly.
The Boston Phoenix has received more than a dozen requests to reprint the work of one of its writers, media critic Dan Kennedy. Kennedy hasn’t kept close track of where his work was reprinted, leaving it to others at the Phoenix. But, he says, “I think for any reporter or writer it’s always beneficial to reach more readers.”
AltWeeklies.com also serves to raise the profile of AAN papers. “The alternative press is increasingly becoming such a force and a different voice compared to the mainstream media, and this is a good way of amplifying that voice,” Kennedy says.
Blogs and AltWeeklies
Once in a while I get an unsigned message telling me a link on AltWeeklies is bad. And who is it from? A kindly blogger.
AltWeeklies, I’ve discovered, is a regular stop for a number of bloggers looking for material in their area of interest. How much easier it is for them to check out one collaborative site than to wade through 123 different alternative-weekly Web sites in their quest for hot items. These news hunters are generally looking for very fresh content and will pass up stories that might otherwise be good blogger bait if they are more than a day or two old.
Another benefit many bloggers have bestowed on AltWeeklies is to give it a permanent link as a news source in their left-hand or right-hand navigation columns. Among the blogs that link to AltWeeklies are the Vancouver-based vanramblings.com; the Minnesota-based Norwegianity.com; Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media; and Sister Novena’s PortaPulpit.
Curiously, a Chinese-language site that features interesting images from the Web, www.yisou.com, also links to AltWeeklies. That’s because AltWeeklies once displayed a photo of Chinese prostitutes to highlight a Seattle Weekly story about evangelicals’ crusade against sex trafficking.
John Banks of DesertNet, AAN’s Web developer, introduced RSS feeds to AltWeeklies last month, an addition that had been long awaited by a number of readers. RSS feeds are an easy way for individuals to get updated headlines from their favorite Web sites without visiting each one.
Even more important to building traffic are the free AltWeeklies teasers that can be added to any Web site just by cutting and pasting the code supplied on this page. The teasers display headlines and abbreviated summaries of the latest stories posted to the collaborative site. The teaser’s content changes whenever new material is added to AltWeeklies.
The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore., and Tucson Weekly were early users of these teasers, and those two papers accounted for a good share of traffic to our site. Specialized sites outside the AAN network have also scooped up our free teasers. For instance, HSJournalism.com, a site for high school journalists, has a teaser on its resources page that features the latest AltWeeklies media stories.
On May 6, Boise Weekly editor Bingo Barnes plastered teasers to AltWeeklies all over his paper’s redesigned Web site. On the home page, he put a teaser to stories from the Opinion section and the overall site. In his Arts and Entertainment section, he put a teaser to stories in the Culture section; and in his Noise section, he put a teaser to AltWeeklies’ Music section.
In a week’s time, Boise Weekly managed to increase AltWeeklies’ traffic by two-thirds, from an average of 725 daily visits to 1,213, helping the site recover almost overnight from a slump that occurred after I had to turn much of my attention away from updating AltWeeklies to administering AAN’s editorial contest.
At the same time, Boise Weekly’s traffic grew significantly. The addition of content channeled from AltWeeklies helped Barnes further his aim of making Boiseweekly.com a local Web portal, Idaho residents’ first stop from which they travel to other parts of the Web. “Because Boise is somewhat isolated regionally, it gives them an idea of what’s going on in other parts of the country,” he says of the headlines from other alt-weeklies that pop up on his pages.
Although the teasers aren’t what drew readers to his site initially, he believes they might encourage return visits because the content is always changing, enriching readers’ online experience. “I like going to my site and seeing them there. It’s in my face.”
People who want to view any of the stories featured in the teasers click directly to that alternative newsweekly’s site, so AAN papers that post to AltWeeklies should be the main beneficiaries of Boise Weekly’s enhancement of its site. Traffic goes to AltWeeklies.com only when visitors click on the nameplate at the top of the teaser or click on, for example, “More Culture from AltWeeklies.com” at the foot of the teaser.
Barnes thinks it would be great if AAN papers could all drive traffic to each other’s sites via AltWeeklies teasers. “The Web is the future,” he says.
Developing stronger content
Of course, it would be fruitless to send more readers to AltWeeklies.com unless the site delivers worthwhile content and does so consistently. Every week when I glance at the newsweeklies that have been mailed to the AAN office, I see good stories that I wish I hadn’t overlooked when I went searching for extra content for AltWeeklies.
Several newspapers faithfully post valuable content each week. Editors who find the movie reviews they need owe a particular debt to Lea Holland of Creative Loafing (Atlanta) and Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle, who post several reviews from their respective papers each week.
Instead of posting their work themselves, some editors send me links to the stories they want posted. Others grant me blanket permission to post from their papers; and others respond to specific requests.
Most papers that post to AltWeeklies do so on Wednesday or Thursday. Other days of the week I’m hunting for content and trying to fill out sparse sections. For editors who aren’t sure what stories are appropriate for AltWeeklies, below are some guidelines.
I need more photos to run with articles worthy of highlighting in each of our eight news and arts sections. If I’m not able to put up a new photo in each section once a week, the site looks outdated. I also like to change the photo on the home page every weekday. Photos must be of good quality and should be large enough that I can run them at 260 pixels wide. Send them to me as jpegs, along with the credit and caption. If I get more than a few photos for a section, it means I can change the highlighted item a few times a week, which is all the better.
I’d like to start running single-panel cartoons that comment on current events and have appeared in our papers on the Opinion page. They must be readable at 260 pixels (3.33 inches) wide.
News & Features
Since the site’s inception, News & Features has been the paper’s most popular section. This is where you should be posting your hard-hitting exposes, your enterprise pieces, any news or feature story that is well executed and on a topic of sufficient importance that people outside your area would be interested in it. Every time you have in the back of your mind, “Maybe I should enter this in the next Alternative Newsweekly Awards contest,” post the story to AltWeeklies.
A lot of people interested in the presidential election first came to AltWeeklies for its alternative view of politics. Since last fall, the Politics section has slipped from second place to the third or fourth most popular section, surpassed by Music and sometimes Culture. AAN papers are publishing plenty of political stories that could be in this section. Whenever you expose wrongdoing or enlighten the public on legislative trends, post the story to AltWeeklies. One caveat, though: The story should be accessible to people outside your area who haven’t been following the issue. Some of the week-to-week coverage of hot local political issues that assumes a familiar audience isn’t appropriate for AltWeeklies.
Some of the stories that should go in the Opinion section are being incorrectly designated as News & Features. If you write insightful, well-reasoned opinion pieces, throw them into the mix here. Satire and advice columns are also part of the Opinion section.
This is the section with the highest number of stories — more than 1,000 — and it represents an area with the highest number of requests for reprints. With a handful of newspapers posting their movie reviews regularly, why should anyone else? A buying editor might be seeking a review with a different word count or contrary view to what’s already posted, so it’s always best to have a choice of at least three or four reviews for each movie. But it’s particularly important to post reviews of films that you see no other reviews for so the next time an editor wants a review of James Lee’s “Beautiful Washing Machine,” for instance, she will find it there. With many other film review sites on the Web, it’s important for AltWeeklies to carve out a niche, and it can do so by covering obscure, foreign and art films and political documentaries. If your paper has a searchable capsule review section, you can add it just once under the subcategory “Capsule Review Sections,” and your fellow editors will learn to go there when they’re short a brief review. Another need in this section is interviews with filmmakers and analysis of the movie industry.
Not all of our papers publish book reviews regularly, but there’s a good market for the ones that are posted on AltWeeklies. Book publicists think enough of the section to inquire about how they can get their books reviewed there. Along with more book reviews, I’d like to see more author interviews or profiles in this section.
Since March, Music has been the second most popular section in AltWeeklies. Collectively, we give good critical coverage to well-known bands and the more obscure bands that stand a chance to reach a national audience by appearing on AltWeeklies. Besides CD reviews, I look for interviews of bands that offer some insight into their lives and work, and coverage of trends in the music industry.
Certain subcategories of the Culture section — like Food & Drink, TV and Video Games — get regular contributions. But I’d like to see more postings in other subcategories like Bars & Clubs, Dance, History, Theater, Travel and Visual Arts. If there is an exhibit opening in your town that would draw crowds from outside your area, if there is a play by a well-known playwright debuting in your city, if you have an interview with a budding playwright that speaks to a larger audience, or if you’ve reviewed an art exhibit that will be traveling to other major cities, post it to AltWeeklies.
Contact information for columnists
Shortly after AltWeeklies was launched, we added links in the right-hand column to the latest work of writers who regularly cover certain issues, like advice columnists, media critics, food columnists, etc. At the time we had no way of announcing how to contact the columnist about buying his or her column. Now we’ve added a link to Reprint Terms for these writers. However, I haven’t had a chance to collect the reprint terms for most of those listed. If you’re one of those listed, send contact information and other details about your column to me. If you’d like your column to be mentioned, contact me.
A final note
In the past several months, I’ve been buried in work on the Alt-Weeklies Awards contest and have had to limit my work on AltWeeklies to about eight hours a week, where I normally might spend 30 or more. Although the site suffered because highlighted articles and photos didn’t rotate often enough, what impressed me is that the site kept going because of the devoted participation of a dozen or more papers that have been the site’s backbone.
In July, after I’ve emerged from contest and convention work, I hope to put a renewed effort into the site, improve the home page, update Hot Topics more often and give members a site that meets their needs both for buying and selling work and for raising public appreciation of the fine journalism accomplished by alternative weeklies.