AWN Holds Strategic Planning Retreat

Organizational Structure a Primary Issue.

Earlier this month in Minneapolis, 21 members of The Alternative Weekly Network (AWN) Strategic Planning Committee met to chart AWN’s future.

Formed only four years ago, AWN now books over $20 million in annual revenue for its member papers. According to Eric Benjamin, AWN President and New Mass Media, Inc. Associate Publisher and Director of National and Regional Sales, the organization’s meteoric ascent has left it with unresolved issues that must be addressed. “Any business that goes through that much rapid growth [needs] to take a look at itself to determine whether it was still geared for future growth,” he says.

The relationship between AWN and its administrative arm, Hanzlik Media Management (HMM), was one of the major issues broached at the meeting. According to AWN Executive Director and HMM principal Mark Hanzlik, AWN is presently reviewing HMM’s original contract, which was executed in January 1996 and has been periodically renewed since then.

Hanzlik says that many AWN members are confused about the nature of the relationship between the two organizations. “Many of our members think [HMM staff] are employees of AWN. I think the outside world believes that HMM and AWN staff are one and the same, so it’s hard to draw a hard and fast contract when costs, responsibilities, and work are all melded together.”

One member who isn’t confused is AWN Strategic Planning Committee member and Willamette Week VP of Sales and Marketing Russ Martineau. Martineau says AWN is a “pure cooperative” that is owned by its members, while HMM is an independent contractor hired to “facilitate all the billing and the orders to the papers and also to help put together the sales proposals for new business.” Martineau adds that HMM has performed its duties “exceptionally well,” and has been “a reliable and good resource.” Hanzlik says he feels the meeting went well, but that there are still some lingering concerns. “I think [HMM] did get a strong vote of confidence, but there is still some concern about the structure of the organization, which has — over the years — strayed slightly from its original cooperative model.”

Although no concrete decisions were reached at the strategic planning session, Martineau is confident that AWN is headed in the right direction. “We will have a much more organized sales structure than what we had previously,” says Martineau. “It really is a testament to the strength of AWN that it has grown the way it has without the structure present in most companies. And now, everyone is ready to take the next step to become more strategic and organized.”

In a recent press release AWN expressed “frustration” with “alternative industry purchases by New Times and other chains that have stripped [AWN] of several key papers.” However, Hanzlik insists that the defections are not a major concern and had nothing to do with the meeting. “It is disappointing to see New Times scale a little bit of the midsection of our organization,” he says, “but we’re still growing by 20 to 25 papers per year. AWN is an organization that is still growing from the bottom up, continuously.”

AWN Treasurer and Nashville Scene Director of Sales and Marketing Jackson Vahaly says AWN’s biggest challenge is to attract advertisers outside the tobacco industry. “[AWN’s] general overall health is going to be determined by the ability to diversify the account categories. They’re certainly trying to do that, but they’ve got to be more successful at it, so if tobacco ever dies out, it would not be a big deal.”

Benjamin says AWN will hire a consultant to help sort out some of the organization’s structural issues. “AWN’s next steps will include a review of the structure and function of AWN and appropriate actions to sharpen AWN’s sales focus, while still maintaining the original mission of a cooperative that exists for all of its members,” he says. The consultant’s report is due prior to next AWN Board of Directors meeting, which will be held at AAN West.

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