The Alternative Weekly Network is moving quickly to face the challenges created by the impending merger of Village Voice Media and New Times Media, LLC. In AWN’s December newsletter, Sales Director John Morrison announced that “each of the five VVM markets already boasts existing or new publications locked up and ready to include on AWN sales presentations.” AWN is also in negotiations with Seattle’s The Stranger.
The October press release announcing the merger agreement made explicit that Village Voice papers would join the Ruxton Media Group, an advertising sales agency owned by New Times. As a result, AWN lost member newspapers in five markets: New York (Village Voice), Los Angeles (L.A. Weekly and OC Weekly), Seattle (Seattle Weekly), Minneapolis (City Pages) and Nashville (Nashville Scene).
To fill the gaps in those markets, AWN has added three publications: Minneapolis’ The Rake, New York’s L Magazine, and Nashville’s All The Rage. The three additions are not alt-weeklies and will not be AWN members; AWN sells advertising into more than 75 affiliated non-member publications as well as its 104 member papers. “I think the new papers are up-and-coming and have a real edge,” said AWN Executive Director Mark Hanzlik.
The Rake is owned by Tom Bartel and Kristin Henning, the husband-and-wife team who founded City Pages in 1979 (and sold it to the Village Voice in 1997). Bartel and Henning founded their new magazine, a sophisticated glossy monthly, in 2002. In a profile on Foliomag.com, Bartel describes The Rake as a magazine for people “who used to read alternative weeklies but have grown out of that demographic.” Adding a further point of interest to the Twin Cities competition, Tom Bartel’s brother Mark is the current publisher of City Pages.
Although AWN was already selling advertising into three papers in the New York market — Long Island Press, The Weekly and Aquarian Weekly — the departure of the Village Voice left a Manhattan-sized hole. The addition of L Magazine brings to AWN a two-year-old digest-sized arts and culture bi-weekly, with a 100,000 circulation, a median reader age of 27, and, according to Morrison, “street cred.”
The Nashville market is somewhat different — it doesn’t offer a surfeit of alternative publications. All The Rage, a Gannett-owned arts and entertainment weekly, joins five Gannett-owned weeklies already associated with AWN. Morrison described it thusly: “You won’t find alt-style hard-hitting stories, but otherwise the weekly Rage has the look, feel and format of AWN papers.” (AWN also has affiliated publications owned by Knight Ridder.)
In the Los Angeles market, AWN already boasted four existing members other than the VVM papers, including L.A. CityBeat. Morrison promises that those publications will see more ad buys “with budget-sucking LA/OC Weekly now on someone else’s proposal.” There are no immediate plans to add additional AWN newspapers in the L.A. market, Morrison said.
And in the Seattle market, AWN is affiliated with Weekly Volcano and AAN member Bellingham Weekly, but neither paper serves the Seattle core market. In his newsletter article, Morrison was somewhat coy: “What we are really hoping for is to land an amazing standard bearer alt weekly of the highest caliber that will not only compete but completely dominate the Seattle market for national ad sales. Stranger things have happened.”
Hanzlik confirmed, “We are talking with The Stranger.” The Stranger is presently represented by Ruxton. Its parent company, Index Publishing, also owns the Portland Mercury, which competes in the City of Roses with current AWN member Willamette Week. Meanwhile, Chicago Reader Inc., which is affiliated with Ruxton, owns a minority stake in Index.
“It is an unknown future, but it’s hard for me to hear things that are doom-and-gloom about the end of alt-weeklies or the end of AWN,” Hanzlik said. “AWN has climbed from obscurity to where we are now. I think we are just turning a corner, and I’m optimistic.”