Circulation: An Eternal Preoccupation

Circulation is an eternal preoccupation for alternative newsweekly publishers, who keep an especially wary eye on the competition in this stagnant economy.

The daily newspaper industry remains mired in the same stubborn slump as the rest of the economy. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report for the six months ending March 31 shows daily papers’ circulation slipped a notch overall, down 0.1 percent. At the same time a recent Readership Institute study confirms that young adults, the bastion of the alt-weekly’s readership, remain tuned out to daily newspapers. The dailies aren’t taking that lying down and are beginning to focus more intently on the 18-to-34 demographic.

In this context, alternative newsweeklies in both large and small media markets discuss circulation with AAN News. Trends such as Internet competition and big box retailers driving out the smaller shops that welcome alt-weekly distribution racks have created some challenges for circulation managers, but most of the 11 newsweeklies interviewed say they have been able to replace lost distribution points and have kept circulation relatively steady.

Boston Phoenix

At the Boston Phoenix, one of the few large-circulation AAN publications that does not hire an independent auditor, Publisher Stephen Mindich says the 37-year-old paper has maintained its 109,000 weekly circulation through a variety of methods.

Until four years ago, the Phoenix distributed free papers only in and around Boston; those going to parts of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut were paid copies. In 1999, the Phoenix became one of the last AAN papers to go completely free of charge, largely because the paper’s content was going online, Mindich says.

“When you can get it for free, there’s not much incentive to go out and pay a buck-fifty for it,” he says.

Instead, the Phoenix tucked its wings closer to home and increased the number of copies at each distribution point. News boxes and racks are strategically placed not only downtown but also on the 36 college campuses in and around Boston. The number of street news boxes has shrunk from 3,000 to 500, but whereas only a few copies used to sell each week at paid locations, now anywhere from 25 to 100 copies move from each distribution point, both on the street and inside clubs and stores.

Getting permission to stock boxes at densely populated apartment complexes has been a more recent circulation booster. The Phoenix staff also sends automatic e-mails to Web site subscribers each week to give them a taste of what’s inside the paper and is working on a program that will customize each message based on a recipient’s preferences.

Many alt-weeklies, especially in larger cities, are increasingly challenged by ordinances regulating placement and appearance of news boxes. In Boston, for example, the move is on to cut down on paper waste downtown by strict regulation of boxes and racks.

“These are aesthetic judgments versus First Amendment rights,” Mindich says.

However, to give the devil his due, Mindich says that moving to the modular racks has enabled the Phoenix to establish more distribution points in pedestrian-packed transit stations.

Chicago Reader

In the Windy City, Chicago Reader Publisher Jane Levine reports the city prohibits individual boxes in broad swaths of downtown, where modular racks holding a variety of free publications have been installed. They hold far fewer papers than the Reader’s racks, which has hurt circulation somewhat.

Still, while the Reader’s circulation is down to 133,000 (ABC 12/02) from a peak of 137,000 in the late 1990s, Levine says she’s moving “a ton of papers” from 1,400 distribution points in Chicago.

“The Reader never tried to have the biggest circulation it could,” she says. “It’s not that the glass is half-full; the glass is 98 percent full.”

She says the Internet has siphoned off some readers, but first-rate editorial work and a strong real-estate classified market have combined to keep circulation relatively steady.

“If they didn’t need (the paper) to find the apartment, they wouldn’t read the cover story,” Levine says.

Retail trends have also affected circulation. Bigger chains — with some notable exceptions such as Borders — are typically less welcoming to free publication distribution in Chicago than smaller businesses such as mini-marts, coffee shops, independent bookstores and natural-food stores. Another curb on distribution has been the closing of music retailers around the city.

Philadelphia City Paper & Philadelphia Weekly

Philadelphia is one of the large media markets with two competing AAN member papers — Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly. Both publishers acknowledged the intense competition in a city that has a multitude of newspapers, including the free daily Metro, as well as two Knight Ridder dailies.

The Philadelphia City Council passed legislation last year regulating the locations of news boxes, but City Paper Publisher Paul Curci played an active role in helping draft the law, which helped mitigate its impact.

The 22-year-old City Paper has a circulation of 90,000 (VAC, 12/02) with 1,000 distribution points in an eight-county market of 2.8 million. At 102,000 circulation (VAC, 12/02), Philadelphia Weekly’s press run has been cut in the past year or so from 120,000 only as a cost-saving measure, publisher Nancy Stuski says.

Both papers circulate at all the standard locations such as retail stores, gyms, and clubs and bars, as well as in restaurants, where lunch diners can pick up their weekly fix. They also have racks at all subway stops and train stations and at locations outside the city limits.

Like many free papers, Philadelphia City Paper pays to place copies on racks in grocery stores. Occasionally store managers will give the paper a hard time about taking shelf space from paid publications, but it rarely becomes a serious problem, because Curci appeals directly to the corporate office.

“More often than not, we’re able to work something out with them,” he says.

LA Weekly/OC Weekly

In Los Angeles, Mike Menza, circulation director for both LA Weekly and OC Weekly, believes the best places to move papers are theaters, music stores, bookstores and independent food stores. The papers took a hit recently with the closing of the Wherehouse Entertainment chain, losing 40 distribution spots in one week. LA Weekly boasts a circulation of nearly 214,000 and OC Weekly, 68,000 (both VAC, 9/02) with a total of 7,000 distribution points.

Publisher Beth Sestanovich notes that indoor distribution points work much better in cities like Los Angeles, where automobiles rule and pedestrians are an endangered species. “People don’t walk by the racks like in New York City,” she says.

LA Weekly and OC Weekly are working with a local media coalition and the county to amend a 1984 ordinance to regulate the placement of news boxes in Los Angeles County. Menza explains it has languished unenforced for so long that the only way to enforce it now is to update it. The amendment would actually allow larger groupings of boxes in one spot — eight instead of only three — but keep them off of historical avenues, such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


In the Denver market, Westword’s circulation has inched up to nearly 100,000 in May from just over 99,000 in December (ABC 12/02), says Circulation Director Curt Sanders. The publication boasts 2,900 distribution points in the metro area, which includes most of five counties. According to Sanders, the area’s best distribution points are classics such as upscale fast-food eateries, bagel and coffee shops and grocery stores.

“The places that worked five years ago still work now,” Sanders says.

The 26-year-old paper, however, sees considerable volatility in its access to distribution points, losing anywhere from five to 50 spots every month while gaining 50 or more new ones.

“As we take hits and lose locations, we’re back on the horse getting new ones,” Sanders says.

Reasons for losing a point vary, including vandalism and occasional complaints on content. “Occasionally, I’ll have a driver piss somebody off,” Sanders adds.

He notes that Westword will not stick with a distribution spot just because the business is an advertiser. If circulation isn’t brisk, he’ll pull the copies and explain to the advertiser it is in their best interest. If papers aren’t being picked up, their ad is not being seen by enough people.

A Denver city ordinance, which took effect in April 2002, specifies distance setbacks for boxes in certain neighborhoods, including placing them 40 feet from bus stops, which, Sanders believes, is too far. As a result. Westword has lost four zones in Denver alone, he says, including the Capitol Hill neighborhood, formerly an easy place to move papers each week.

Because of the ordinance, Westword is moving to more indoor locations, and, for the past three years, has nearly doubled circulation on college campuses from 4,500 to 8,600.

Fort Worth Weekly

In Texas, Fort Worth Weekly typically fluctuates between 53,000 circulation during the summer and 60,000 in the winter, when college campuses are bustling, says Publisher Lee Newquist. The seven-year-old paper serves Tarrant County with 1,500 distribution points.

The best places to give away FW Weekly are bars and clubs, restaurants, groceries, bookstores and large music chains such as Best Buy, as well as the downtown area, says Newquist. The paper’s management is also not afraid to experiment with new locations, placing papers, for example, at several commuter train stations when they opened a year ago.

“We take good care of our boxes,” says Newquist, a 20-year veteran of the alternative newspaper industry. “A lot of times, smaller papers don’t know how important the circulation is.”

He knows. FW Weekly’s general manager and circulation manager will literally walk the streets to find out what local pedestrian traffic patterns are. Having worked in markets around the country, Newquist reports the best distribution points vary from city to city based on its environment, climate, and culture. For example, in a coastal city like Miami, boxes along the beach will empty out faster than anywhere else. In a city with a vibrant downtown life, that’s the place to put the stands.

C-Ville Weekly

C-Ville Weekly of Charlottesville, Va., has a circulation of 20,000 (VAC 12/02), up from 17,000 in 1997. Circulation has held steady for the last few years, according to Publisher Rob Jiranek.

He distributes at approximately 300 locations and says his best movers are grocery stores, coffee shops and libraries. Recently, he added Blockbuster video stores as a distribution point, and circulation picked up three percent.

Mountain Xpress

Covering a nine-county area around Asheville, N.C., the Mountain Xpress has 660 distribution points serving a population of 205,000. Circulation hovers around 27,000-28,000 (VAC 12/02) depending on seasonal tourism influx. Over the past winter, Publisher Jeff Fobes estimates circulation grew two to three percent.

The health food store in Asheville moves about 400 papers a week, according to Fobes. Bars and downtown boxes in high-traffic areas are also good distribution points.

“Large chains just aren’t too interested in local papers,” he says. “They’re not really interested in local dialogue.” That said, he admits Wal-Mart will carry his newspapers even though it occasionally pokes at the company editorially.

Fobes rewards delivery drivers for suggesting new, viable distribution locations. He estimates he’s picked up maybe six new spots this way. Another circulation booster was a contest the paper sponsored urging businesses to carry the paper. Participants had the chance to win free advertising space, and the Xpress picked up about 20 new distribution points that way.

The Xpress loses one or two locations a month, when businesses close or run out of space for the boxes. And every now and then, a business will kick it out because of perceived bias in coverage.

“We don’t get thrown out because they don’t like the paper, very often,” Fobes says.

Salt Lake City Weekly

On the other side of the country, Salt Lake City Weekly has held weekly circulation around 60,000 for two years (62,000 VAC 12/02), serving the six-county Wasatch Front region of 1.4 million people.

With more than 1,600 distribution points, Associate Publisher Jim Rizzi describes the best as coffee shops, record stores, restaurants and downtown boxes. The Weekly is also preparing to add 100 more paid racks in grocery stores and increase its press run this fall.

“We’re kind of banking on that,” Rizzi says of increasing velocity through the groceries.

Recently, the Weekly did lose a few spots inside the state-owned liquor stores because of its adult ads, but not enough to worry Rizzi. The paper’s Internet presence also hasn’t cut into circulation, though he admits its online program is underdeveloped right now. And Salt Lake City’s ordinance regulates only how a box should be painted, so it has not pinched distribution.

The only real threat to circulation is the occasional slow press run, which can put drivers a day behind delivering to businesses that close early, Rizzi says.


One circulation constant these publications agree about is that if they don’t produce a paper worth reading, nobody will pick it up.

“(We) just try to make a good paper,” said Chicago’s Levine.

“Having a compelling newspaper,” says Mindich. “That’s what works.”

Ann Hinch is a freelance writer based in Knoxville, Tenn.