The Listings Calendar: Alts’ Mainstay Faces Stiff Competition

Turkey Bowling at the Olympic Oval may not be Ann Poore’s idea of holiday fun, but when an incorrect starting time for the event appeared in Salt Lake City Weekly’s calendar, at least one reader let her know about it.

“We arrived at 9:10 p.m., the perfect strategic time, avoiding the initial crowds, yet allowing ample time to display my poultry bowling prowess,” the dejected reader wrote. “I was told by the friendly girl working the front desk that the Turkey Bowling contest had ended at 9:00 p.m.

“I do not know if the City Weekly was misinformed of the time, or what actually happened, but it would be nice if there were a bit more diligence in the accuracy of events reported.”

Poore’s reaction to the correspondence was a mixture of amusement at the pithy writing style and anger that the mistake made it into the paper. While the error turned out to be the fault of the event coordinators, it helped Poore — the weekly’s listings editor — refocus on her already strong commitment to accuracy, and cemented in her mind that the calendar listings, regardless of the event, are every bit as important to the reader as they are to the success of the alt-weekly.

Even readers who don’t necessarily agree with an alt’s perceived political stance will check it for the latest happenings around town. “The way I see it,” says Alistair Highet, editor of Hartford Advocate, “our calendar is that universal point of interest that draws a lot of different types of readers to our paper.

“They know that we really know what’s happening in the region. Of course, from that, we hope they read something else they like, and that gives them an additional incentive to come back.”

No longer the only show in town

Alt-weeklies aren’t the only places to go to find out about concerts, theater times and the occasional round of turkey bowling. Competition is on the rise from other weeklies, Web publications, conventional dailies and dailies pretending to be alternative papers.

In mid-October, the Advocate contracted a marketing firm to conduct focus groups. A moderator led a discussion with four groups from two different demographic areas — ages 25-35 and 35-50 — and gauged their reactions to the paper.

The calendar, Highet says, brought all four groups to the Advocate. When its listings section was put up against those of a couple of startup weeklies and the daily Hartford Courant, the Advocate’s came out on top each time.

“What we found out is that we are viewed as the authority,” he says. “Listings are our bread and butter — to borrow a cliché. Whether you’re young, old, left or right, we are your source for what’s happening.”

At OC Weekly, calendar editor Ellen Griley works with a staff of four experienced freelance writers to sort through 50 to 100 listings per day, which then fill 17 to 18 pages of the paper each week. While many competing publications target a 30-and-up crowd with entertainment listings, Griley wants her section to be inclusive enough to please those older readers while focusing on a 20-and-up crowd.

Susan G. Cole, senior entertainment editor at Toronto’s NOW Magazine, knows how important the calendar is to her paper, and spends the time and resources to make sure it shows.

On a weekly basis, the calendar is put together by a staff of four or five people, all of whom are specialists in a particular area — music, concerts, dance clubs, etc. The listings are then cross-referenced, checked and double-checked for accuracy.

There is a paper nearby, she says, that “pretends to compete with us.” To keep that competition at bay, she’s devoting more time to listings than ever before.

“Our paper was built on our listings component,” she says. “It’s a very basic need that we have to meet for our readers.

“The calendar has always been our flagship and we go the distance to make sure we don’t have to cut listings from the paper. And when we do, it’s a painful thing.”

Evolve or perish

While some alt-weeklies face competition from only a paper or two, those in larger markets, such as Chicago, aren’t so lucky. AAN member papers Chicago Newcity and Chicago Reader share a marketplace with the Sun-Times; Red Streak, the Sun-Times’ faux-alt; the Tribune; Red Eye, the Tribune’s faux-alt; Metromix, the Tribune’s Web-based calendar; Centerstage, another online entertainment index; and a host of other monthly and specialty periodicals.

Another entertainment weekly — Time Out Chicago — is slated to launch in 2005.

Faced with a shrinking news hole in an increasingly crowded marketplace, Newcity co-publisher and editor Brian Hieggelke decided that his paper’s print listings should be more selective.

“We can’t be all things to all people anymore because of all the other products out there,” Hieggelke says. “It’s about being a more critical and selective guide rather than a data dump onto newsprint.”

Newcity’s print edition features highlights: the top five shows you have to see, for example. Rather than giving readers everything in print, they try to give them the best of what’s out there.

Hieggelke said Newcity is taking on increased competition with “extreme fortitude” and the knowledge that not all alt-weeklies can fit into the same picture. And while competitive conditions forced Newcity to be different, Hieggelke says the listings model could have a ripple effect on alts nationwide.

“I think time will tell what effect what we’re doing will have in the future,” he explains. “I’m not going to be smug and say it’s a proven model, but I do think the old days of being different simply because you have listings are over.

“I think the quality of the information we select for the print edition, rather than quantity, will mean something to people.”

Facing increased competition, including a weekly the Salt Lake Tribune is rumored to be developing, Salt Lake City Weekly hired Poore a year ago to oversee every aspect of the listings calendar — except for music, which is still handled by associate editor Bill Frost. A 20-year veteran of writing and editing, mostly at the Tribune, Poore brought a dedication to accuracy and section improvement to the job.

She produces and edits the section on a weekly basis, and plans to formulate more listings categories to accommodate more events. She wants to add a section for public service events; and a section that details locations and times for auditions, art classes and other events of possible interest that don’t fit well in existing categories.

Further, she is planning a monthly gallery column that not only lists art galleries and artists, but also offers descriptions supplemented by photos and artwork.

“I think this is an area that weeklies can take over,” Poore explains. “Because [daily papers] seem to have really cut down on the number and types of art stories that they do, it’s a place where we can come in and do something different.”

In Toronto, each listing is more detailed then ever before, Cole says. If it’s about an art exhibit, it lists the genre of painting. If it’s about a band, it includes information about the music’s genre.

At Creative Loafing (Atlanta), editor-in-chief Ken Edelstein says his paper has expanded listings to include recommended restaurant listings and wine events. The paper also added a two-page spread of event highlights called See & Do. Civic listings from meetings to protests were grouped into a Public Agenda section.

In Hartford, Highet says, a reformatting of the paper better highlights the listings section. Rather than run page after page of listings, the Advocate uses the week’s art stories to introduce listings. For example, a dining review is followed by restaurant listings and a concert preview or music review is followed by live music listings.

Listings go online

Papers are taking their comprehensive listings to the Web to better carve a niche in competitive markets. Regardless of whether papers have a good system in place now, most agree online listings are the rapidly approaching future.

Newcity and Salt Lake City Weekly both have tremendous searchable listings sections online. Other papers say it’s vital for them to make the same leap.

Cole says NOW Magazine is acutely aware of the possibilities inherent in an increased Web presence.

“We do understand the need to provide up-to-the-minute listings because online content is the wave of the future,” she says. “While we are studying our Web options, it’s going to be important for us to maintain the high standards we’ve set for our listings. They still need to be fact-checked and corrected in the same fashion [as those in] the print edition.”

OC Weekly’s Griley says that providing her paper’s readers with more user-friendly Web listings is her top priority in the coming months and years. She has submitted a wish list of features to company higher-ups in L.A. and New York. The current online listings use a simple drop-box format that reads just like the print edition. And that system, she says, isn’t the best for online use.

“We have to keep up with our competitors when it comes to online content,” Griley says. “But I think once that happens, the biggest frustration for the print edition will be more people turning to the Web because it’s easier to use.

“To be competitive we have to be attuned to what people want and give it to them in a format that is easy to use. That’s the challenge.”

Taking a broad view of the industry, Highet says, “Like a lot of alt-weeklies, we struggle from time to time to figure out what it is we actually do and spend a lot of time trying to define ourselves — because a lot of what we do is now being done on the Internet and even in the dailies.

“Especially through our listings, we’re the reader’s porthole into potential experiences. The more you have to offer, the stronger your brand becomes. And the fact that you’re known as the best at anything is critical.”

Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer who lives near Pittsburgh, Pa.

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