Picking Up the Pieces: What Alts Can and Should Do When Daily Papers Explode

Richard Meeker often starts his day firing up OregonLive.com, where he might see this catchy headline: MaKenna Partain, Hannah VanDomelen highlight postseason awards for Banks softball (Photos).

“You’d think it was the sports paper,” says Meeker about what’s happened to the Oregonian, one of the latest dailies decimated in the name of digital by Advance Publications.

Meeker, who started reporting for Willamette Week in 1974 and has appeared on its masthead as publisher since 1983, finds himself and his paper in the bittersweet spot of a lot of alts these days, especially those sharing readership and potential ad dollars with the 31 Newhouse-owned Advance properties getting “reshaped.”

How can weeklies that have been the so-called alternative to dominant dailies fill the void when those dailies are no longer daily, when they slough-off staff and, generally, piss off the locals?

The answer is they can’t – at least not fully – but there’s clearly room for some alts to capitalize on the holes left when the big guys become a lot less big, especially when it comes to news.

News is what suffers most with mass buyouts and layoffs and when the papers delivered to doors become shells of themselves. News also takes a hit when web traffic is live-tracked and writers’ pay is tied to how many clicks their quota of posts generate. (Both are happening at the Oregonian.)

And news is something alt-weeklies can do and have done well, even with existing resources, even in the shadows of their cities’ dailies.

Meeker’s paper, for example, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting after exposing a former governor’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. That’s a tough hurdle for an alt, and it hasn’t happened at Willamette Week since 2005. But that doesn’t mean WW hasn’t been ramping up its news as well as its watchdog role on the local daily since the Oregonian started putting its money where its clicks are. In fact, Willamette Week broke the news about the pay-for-clicks situation at OregonLive.com by obtaining internal documents.

“No one else is stepping up to it in this town and so, yes, we have to seriously think about how to fill the void,” says Meeker. “That’s the challenge and we’re still figuring out how to meet it. … I do think we have the best staff we’ve ever had. There’s a good morale here.”

Alts right now have the ability to cash in some chips, including on morale. Trusted staffers know what’s going on in the dailies’ newsrooms. They’ve covered and read all about the upheaval. They’ve watched their friends over there get the slip or look for a quick exit while they remain employed – poorly paid, probably, but employed. There may never be a better time to ask more of alt reporters and editors, especially when it comes to news written for a publication that’s already established, already local and not going anywhere.

Because that’s the other chip alts have right now: their reputation. The more newspaper owners – the Newhouse family, for example – make decisions based on cheaper content delivered less often, the more readers give up and look elsewhere.

“It absolutely outrages the citizens,” says Ashley Toland-Trice, co-publisher of Lagniappe in Mobile, Ala., where the daily Press-Register got Advance-d along the lines of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Post-Standard in Syracuse and Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, among others.

“Alabama is not stereotypically stupid, but it’s also not the most tech-savvy, by any means. Readers don’t want a digital-first strategy shoved down their throats,” she says.

So Toland-Trice and her business partner, Rob Holbert, reacted somewhat drastically, which she recently explained. They took Lagniappe from a biweekly paper mostly about entertainment, arts and food and doubled production to a weekly. They added several staffers, including two who brought the reporting roster to four full-timers. Content changed, too. Lagniappe today is somewhere between a traditional arty alt and a scrappy community paper anchored by hard news and in-depth reporting.

“Investigative journalism has become more of a focus because traditional media left all of these holes there,” says Toland-Trice.

The response, she says, was “overwhelming,” mainly in terms of reader gratitude, but ad sales haven’t slouched. Each current and new hire is fully paid through ads. The paper is “sustaining itself” and trending up.

It’s a gamble to go back to the bank, to spend even more money, to go in the opposite direction of the Newhouses. Toland-Trice is confident it will pay off.

The publisher of Syracuse New Times says, “I need about four more months to know if we’re right.”

Bill Brod’s paper is one of the alt industry’s oldest, founded in 1969. What that meant in the backdraft of a diminished Post-Standard was that New Times was in a good position as a paper that had been covering central New York for close to five decades. But it also had a perception of “being stale,” says Brod.

Syracuse New Times reacted to a blown-up daily with a blow-up of its own. It completely redesigned its print product, its website and its content. New Times is now doing stories it didn’t touch before, including important reporting on a major shift in New York State education policy, hydrofracking connected to the Marcellus Shale deposit and a construction project that is to Syracuse what the Big Dig is to Boston. It’s done it by refocusing current staff, adding staff and paying a decent wage to freelancers, some of them castoffs from the Post-Standard.

The overhaul launched in April and Brod’s watching the numbers like a Wall Street trader. “It’s a bet. We’ve turned our business upside down here … but we knew we needed to go after new revenue streams and we knew we couldn’t get to them without a fresh look and a fresh perspective.”

Each month is better than the previous, he says, and cites a 12-percent growth in circulation in three months after an independent audit. He also worked with a group of graduate students from the Newhouse (ahem) School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. Seventy-five students in both communications and business worked throughout the fall semester to study the New Times and the media atmosphere where it operates. Their job was to figure out what the paper and website should do to attract younger readers.

Brod got results from 16 presentations. To a one, each advised, “do not abandon print.”

He was surprised, but it made sense to him. “Print is the only medium where the user is 100-percent in control.” With the web, users get creepily targeted or they’re forced to click off ads. TV has commercials or requires watchers get friendly with their fast-forwards. “If we do a good job in print, ads are part of the visual experience.” And they cost more, meaning they do more to keep an alt afloat. Still.

Will it work? Maybe. And it sure as hell makes more sense than what Advance is up to, at least for now. To Bill Brod and Richard Meeker, too.

“I don’t understand the Newhouse strategy. I’ve talked to dozens of people and I’ve been in business all my life. Usually I can make sense of it,” Brod says, “but their salespeople are starving. They can’t sell enough digital to live.”

Meeker’s less specific, but just as perplexed about the thinking that upended his local daily. “I don’t know why they don’t care. I can’t explain it.”

Kevin Allman, editor of Gambit, uses a restaurant metaphor to get at the same idea. Why not? He’s in New Orleans, after all.

Let’s say a restaurant where you’ve been a regular for years decides to completely revamp its menu and then close for several days out of the week. The dishes you liked aren’t there anymore. The reason for the revamp was never communicated. But the owners tell you, “Hey, you’re gonna love the new place!” and expect you to believe it.

“I just don’t understand a business, never mind a newspaper, that doesn’t listen to its customers,” Allman says.

He’s covered the now-famously mishandled changes at the Times-Picayune from the human angle, writing deeply reported stories for the Gambit about the failed fight by readers to save their dead-tree legacy and how that all played into the post-Katrina culture of New Orleans. He’s written about the people who lost their jobs in the big layoff and the ones who later jumped ship. He’s written about Baton Rouge’s Advocate coming into his city and pushing out a seven-day delivered paper in direct response to the Newhouses.

And although in other Advance towns, he sees more tangible opportunity for alts, in his, the Gambit has focused on shoring up what it’s done best for 30 years. “I would rather concentrate on the readers, making sure we’re providing them with interesting, quality content in whatever form they want it. You just can’t have a paper without thinking of your reader first.”

His approach is more measured than some. But he has one, and that’s key. Because when the big, bad daily implodes, it means the alt-weekly gets a little more light. What alts have done and will do with that light will continue to be a story worth telling.

Jule Banville is an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism and a former editor at Washington City Paper.

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