Marketing Campaign for AAN’s Story-Sharing Site to Begin

A year ago, AltWeeklies.com existed only in the collective imagination of alternative newsweekly editors who wished that the next time an assigned story fell through, they’d have a way to quickly get their hands on a substitute that was both alternative in tone and well-written.

Now AltWeeklies.com is a story-sharing site that some editors in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies visit several times a week, not just to troll for stories but to see what their colleagues across North America are publishing. And on Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, the site will have its public launch.

Marketing effort aimed at increasing traffic

Roxanne Cooper, AAN’s director of sales and marketing, will place ads for AltWeeklies.com on 18 Weblog sites. Half of the blogs cover politics. The others concentrate on music, arts, culture, and gay and lesbian issues. The most well-known of the sites are www.juancole.com, which covers the Middle East, and Eschaton, a political site at atrios.blogspot.com. The ads will run for a month beginning Sept. 7.

In addition, Cooper will send out a press release to bloggers, journalism schools and editors of Web sites that cover media trends. The release will also go out on PR Newswire to reach a larger audience.

The public launch reflects AAN’s dual strategy for AltWeeklies.com. “We want to find ways to enable our papers to sell more stories, but we also want to drive a larger audience to our members’ Web sites,” Cooper says.

The benefit to the public is that readers can find content from AAN newsweeklies at a “one-stop shopping source” instead of having to make their way down a list of Web links to 125 papers. For the participating alt-weeklies, the benefit is that they’ll “break the boundaries of geography and fully utilize what’s unique about the Internet medium,” Cooper says.

Pioneering editors drew others to site

AltWeeklies.com made a quiet, unpublicized debut on May 19. It began with 100 stories collected by AAN staff and catalogued in eight sections: News & Features, Politics, Health & Science, Opinion, Movies, Books, Music and Culture. AAN members learned of the site through a mass e-mail, and a handful of editors started posting articles. One of the early participants was Alisa Gordaneer, editor of Monday Magazine, a newsweekly in Victoria, British Columbia, that has limited content on its Web site. By posting stories directly to AltWeeklies, Gordaneer brought attention to the paper’s writers, reviewers and sex advice columnist Ringo Wilde.

Another steady participant is Clif Garboden, the president of AAN and senior managing editor of Phoenix Media Communications Group. Garboden and an ad hoc committee of editors developed the vision for how the site should work last fall, and their plans were implemented by DesertNet, AAN’s Tucson, Ariz.-based Web development firm. In May, Garboden began posting The Boston Phoenix’s news coverage of such issues as same-sex marriage, the media and the presidential campaign as well as music, movie and book reviews.

Cartoonists and freelancers discovered the site and, with the assistance of their editors at alternative newsweeklies, got their work posted. One freelancer, Paul Rockwell, resold stories on the impact of the Iraq war to several papers.

Interest grew gradually over the summer, sales went up, and so did postings. The number of stories on AltWeeklies now approaches 1,000. So many new stories are added on Thursdays, when many papers come out, that a single day’s postings won’t fit on the home page. Visitors must click on Moreā€¦ at the bottom of the page, visit each section individually or use the Advanced Search tool to find the full day’s stories.

Visibility can matter more than sales

Missoula Independent editor Brad Tyer, who has posted 28 stories, says he sold several articles through AltWeeklies: two columns by political writer George Ochenski, three or four food columns by Chef Boy Ari (Ari LeVaux); and two book reviews. Sales of reprint rights enhance the freelancers’ income. When you consider all the time involved, a reviewer’s hourly rate “is almost certainly pretty pitiful,” Tyer says. But when the review the Independent bought for $60 is resold for another $45, “that’s a $105 book review. It’s a little closer to real money.”

The exposure on AltWeeklies is also good for the Independent, the only AAN paper in Montana. “We let other papers know we’re here and the quality of the work we’re doing,” Tyer says.

Marjorie Baumgarten, film editor of the Austin Chronicle, also posts regularly to AltWeeklies. She has put up 78 movie reviews and, although she’s received a few inquiries, hasn’t sold one yet. “It’s not so much to make money,” she says of her effort, but to further the goals of the paper. “Ever more with each passing year, we’re becoming as much an online publication as a print publication.”

The appeal of AltWeeklies is that it has the potential to draw readers from Delaware to Washington State to the Chronicle’s Web site. “I adore my writers and believe in their writing, and they’re producing stuff that’s of national-level quality,” Baumgarten says.

Although no one has raked in enough to acquire another publication, some editors report their papers have earned a few hundred dollars from reprints arranged through AltWeeklies. Eighty requests to buy articles have been recorded on the site. Editors report that many more sales have been negotiated by phone without being noted on the individual papers’ sales-tracking pages.

To meet the needs of visitors and editors, adjustments are made to the AltWeeklies site on a regular basis. DesertNet is currently working on adding a “hot topics” section and an e-mail newsletter, and making several design modifications. Suggestions and questions about the site should be directed to the editor, Ruth Hammond.