Circulation Software Makes Life Easier at Alt-Weeklies

Every circulation department at every alt-weekly faces essentially the same problems: how many copies to run, where to put them, how to best manage routes and drivers, and how to count what’s going out and what’s coming in.

Even a modest-sized weekly will likely have near a thousand stops, each with its own quirks. One might attract pedestrians. Another might share a coffee shop rack with other publications. Some stops are libraries; others are liquor shops. All this data, along with drop and return numbers, must be collected, entered and — if it is to be useful to anyone — analyzed. Clearly, this is the sort of thing computers are made for.

Considering the relative uniformity of the work that needs to be done, it’s surprising how much variation there is in the software used by alt-weeklies. A small survey recently conducted by Salt Lake City Weekly Publisher Jim Rizzi (in his capacity as a member of the AAN Board of Directors) revealed that AAN papers are using a disparate, motley bunch of applications that run the gamut from streamlined commercial packages, through jerry-rigged, homemade concoctions, to the coarsest ramshackle Excel spreadsheets.

To an extent, this might be changing. Papers owned by Village Voice Media, LLC are implementing identical circulation software, and several should be up-and-running on the new system in just a few weeks. But this is more an across-the-board update than it is a brave new vision: The program, CM Assistant 5.5, is the latest (and presumably greatest) incarnation of EXTRA! — an application that most former New Times papers were already using.

William Porter developed the EXTRA! software while working hand-in-hand with Chris Dulin, then the circulation manager at Houston Press, whom he knew because they both wrote musicals. “He came to me and said ‘we’ve got this database we’re using to track our circulation, and it’s terrible,'” recalls Porter. “He showed me what it did, and I said sure, I can redo this. … It turned out to be rather more work than I expected.”

When Porter was done, the Press liked his program well enough to buy it, and he made his second sale to the Dallas Observer in 1999. Shortly thereafter, nearly all the New Times papers adopted it.

Polytrope, LLC, a development firm owned by Porter, released two versions of the program under the name “EXTRA!” which were still being used by the former New Times papers now upgrading to CM Assistant. The former program seems to draw as many complaints as compliments. Porter himself admits that it wasn’t perfect, and says he’s mystified as to why anyone is still using it. “Talking about EXTRA! is like talking about the Nixon administration as if its problems were somehow news,” Porter says. “EXTRA! is dead and has been dead for years. I’d like people to know that CM Assistant is much better than EXTRA! ever dreamed of being.”

In fact, it was dissatisfaction with EXTRA! that inspired Chicago Reader’s IT expert Jim Crandall to create his own in-house system. Crandall says that when the Reader bought EXTRA! he “found it completely unacceptable,” so he “spent a few weeks slapping something together using [Microsoft] Access.”

Crandall’s program is fairly straightforward, even a bit simple. All the data entry takes place on one screen, allowing the user to order and reorder stops at will. The program can give detail or summary reports by route or by stop based on various criteria (e.g. Starbucks racks or grocery store stops).

“It’s a fairly straightforward problem,” he says. “There are a lot of stops, but they each get so many papers and so many returns. As long as I keep track of each of those bits of information, we can analyze it however we want. … In general what we have found in developing stuff in-house is that we end up with a more streamlined product because we’re just answering our own needs — we don’t have to build in stuff that won’t be used.”

Crandall’s program has been successful enough at the Reader that its sister paper, Washington City Paper, has adopted the program for its own use. City Paper Circulation Manager Kris Koth says that when she looked at commercial programs, she found too many unnecessary “bells and whistles.”

So could anybody just go ahead and build an in-house system like the Reader’s? Probably not, Crandall admits: “If you weren’t a programmer, it would be really inefficient.”

That hasn’t deterred other alt-weeklies from trying anyway. Dan Hardick at the Austin Chronicle uses a system he built with Access, which he taught himself to use, and over the past 5 or 6 years he’s tweaked it to his liking. Hardick customized stop description fields and created a system for alternate draws, or times when university students leave town in large numbers. He also created a special field for managing different inserts within the same issue — “Inserts,” he says, “used to be an enormous nightmare, but now I can do it in two or three minutes.”

As for his programming expertise, he says, “I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert. Access is sort of like writing HTML code: You get a WYSIWYG that puts things together. Access would be a WYSIWYG database editor — What You See Is What You Get.”

Still, not every paper has a Dan Hardick, and many alt-weeklies are trying to hack it with simple FileMaker Pro and Access databases. Some papers are using only Microsoft Excel. Salt Lake City Weekly is one of those papers but it will soon be switching to CM Assistant. Accounting Manager Lisa Mitchener, who enters the circulation data, is unequivocal about the Excel spreadsheet she will be parting with: “I hate it. We just have too many people who go into this report, and any little error screws it up.” As for CM Assistant, Mitchener has seen it and says it looks promising. “I’ll pay for it myself!” she says.

One advantage of CM Assistant over other commercial programs is that it was designed specifically for use in the alt-weekly industry. Porter has neatly divided the program into three different “areas.” The first consists of what happens before the papers go out: issue information, number of copies, etc. The second “area” covers the routes, allowing the user to create maps or specialized notes for each driver. It also includes a very basic module for tracking payment owed the drivers, which can create an Excel report to be handed over to accounting. The third “area,” in which circulation managers will likely spend most of their time, deals with returns and drop histories. CM Assistant can generate a number of detailed, highly specific reports — for example, all the drop sites that over a period of six months have at least six weeks with zero returns. The program includes a feature called “Smart-Adjust” that makes recommendations for tweaking drop numbers based on criteria the user enters, such as how much average waste there should be before the drop goes down, or how many weeks of zero returns before the drop goes up. The program even looks for anomalies or “tie-breakers,” situations where there might be a few weeks with zero returns and suddenly one week with a big return (perhaps a box got snowed in).

Most of these features are offered in some form in every distribution application; anyone interested in buying should go through the demos and apply them to their own paper. But CM Assistant has another clear advantage over most commercial applications: it’s cheap. Although the licensing fee for other commercial software is often only slightly higher than that for CM Assistant (in the low four-digits), most companies charge a hefty fee to set the program up. Porter’s charges for data conversion are low (multiple hundreds) and his fee for continued tech support after the first year is in the low-to-mid-hundreds.

There are, of course, other options. Falcon Circulation is a clean-looking program developed by Lee Enterprises and in use by many of its several hundred weeklies. It offers plenty of options and reports, but its initial cost is upward of $20,000, and it is geared more toward daily and subscription newspapers. Similarly, PBS, whose MediaPlus Accounting software is used by Village Voice Media, offers MediaPlus Circulation as well, but it is high-cost and comes with features an alt-weekly doesn’t need. RouteScout, an application developed by FakeBrains, is a little cheaper than Falcon or MediaPlus, but still significantly more expensive than CM Assistant.

The cheapest product on the market appears to be the suspiciously-named Extra32 — no connection to EXTRA! — produced by Dennisoft, Inc. The owner, who is also the programmer and chief salesman, promises users “pretty much the same thing that the big boys have,” but at a lower cost. Service plans are reasonable, and, he says, “I try to make the service easy enough to use that the service policy really is an option.” Prices for Extra32 can be found on the Web.

If the Village Voice Media push to have its papers upgrade to CM Assistant is more an issue of maintenance than innovation, still there is some greater purpose behind the plan. Having the same software makes audits easier, and it also makes sharing information between papers easier. says Curt Sanders, the Village Voice’s circulation director.

The possibility of ever-larger and more useful databases resonates with John Weiss, publisher of the Colorado Springs Independent, whose initial inquiries into circulation software around the country led to the survey of AAN papers. Weiss relates a time when his paper was excluded from a local Intel store until he discovered that another alt-weekly was delivering to an Intel in San Jose. He brought it up with the manager and succeeded in getting his paper inside the store. “I have no problem sharing my list of where we distribute if I could see other people’s lists,” he says. “Let’s say I have 700 racks. If I had a database of 7,000 racks — that’s a database that has useful information.”

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