AWN Members Speak Out About Changes

Opinions differ greatly from paper to paper as VVM's departure nears

Ever since Village Voice Media (VVM) announced that it would pull all eight of its papers from the Alternative Weekly Network (AWN), there has been no shortage of speculation about the organization’s future.

Earlier this month, AAN News spoke to several small-market or independent AWN publishers about the changes. Just about all of them agreed that the pending separation will have an impact on the 97 member papers that will remain at AWN after VVM departs on Jan. 1. But very few agreed about the likely nature of that impact.

Several publishers said there’s a good chance it could force the organization to improve. “This may make AWN focus more on our needs,” said John Weiss, publisher of Colorado Springs Independent, a 36,000-circulation paper. “It may have good, long-term ramifications for us … There is a potential for small papers to band together and do well. While I want to commend AWN for what they’ve done, I think they have a lot more they could do.”

Meanwhile, some small-market publishers receive so little advertising from AWN they are fairly nonchalant about the VVM hullabaloo. “I’m far more concerned … about what to do about the voice personals loss,” said George Thurlow, publisher of the 41,000-circulation Santa Barbara Independent. “For us, [national advertising is] barely on the radar. We have lost more in the last six months in personals’ revenue than we’ve made in the last three years in national.”

Likewise, C-Ville Weekly Publisher Bill Chapman said his 22,000 circulation, Charlottesville, Va.-based paper is rarely a recipient of AWN lucre, a fact he attributes to national advertisers’ lack of interest in small markets. Chapman said he relies solely on local and regional advertising to turn a profit at his paper.

Sioux Watson, publisher of Raleigh, N.C.’s 50,000-circulation Independent Weekly, also said her paper hasn’t been getting much business from AWN. Watson said when VVM leaves AWN, she would like to develop a non-exclusive relationship with both ad networks. “Why can’t we put more papers in a better position to earn some national bucks!” Watson stated in an e-mail message. “Especially us [because] we’ve been saying no to tobacco for all these years!!! I want duo- or tri-citizenship!”

Bill Towler, publisher of City Newspaper, a 45,000-circulation paper in Rochester, N. Y., has already had experience with a non-exclusive relationship, participating in both AWN and the ad network operated by his state press association. Towler said there’s nothing preventing AWN from developing this type of relationship with VVM after it launches its national advertising group. And even if AWN’s membership becomes a network comprised mainly of smaller papers, it could continue to prosper, Towler said, because when the representation of a network changes, the way ads are bought and sold will also change.

Last week, AWN hired consultant Neil Skene as its interim CEO to hash-out some of the pressing strategic issues the organization faces. In AWN’s monthly newsletter, Skene hinted that he was working with VVM representatives to build the type of relationship desired by publishers like Watson and Towler.

“We need to recognize the rise of ownership groups that have dedicated national sales staffs (including VVM) and make more of that opportunity,” Skene wrote.

Nevertheless, a few AWN members aren’t waiting to see how the transition pans out for the small guys. Lael Morgan, publisher of Portland, Maine’s 30,000-circulation Casco Bay Weekly, has created a network with two other New England papers to compete with AWN-member Phoenix Media Communications, which secures most of the area’s national advertising. The Phoenix Media group, which owns alternative weeklies in Portland; Boston; Providence, R. I.; and Worchester, Mass., earned more national ad revenue in 1999 than any other AWN member, according to figures provided by AWN.

“Our Casco Bay Weekly recently formed AlterNExt with the Boston’s Weekly Dig and the Worcester Magazine to attract national buys to New England, because AWN has long ignored small, independent alternative weeklies although we provide excellent markets,” Morgan said in a recent e-mail message. “I hold out some hope [the VVM departure] may force AWN to at last pay attention to the majority of its membership; small independents that have a ready audience with perfect ‘alternative demographics’ in America’s heartland.”

Meanwhile, some AWN papers feel pretty good about their chances for success no matter what happens when VVM leaves. Robert Camuto, publisher of FW Weekly, a 40,000-circulation paper in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, said that since his paper is located in a major market, he will find a way to get national advertising into his newspaper, “whether it is through AWN or, if that option goes away, one of the alternative rep firms.”

And some members have faith that the cooperative nature of the organization will see it through. “[AWN is] much different from a rep firm. It’s a clearinghouse. It’s a success by the virtue of its members” said Erik Cushman, vice president and director of operations for Coast Weekly, a 42-000 circulation paper in Monterey, Calif. “This is not the last change that will face AWN. But we have the ability to adapt. We’re scrappy. I think we’ll figure it out.”