Alt-Weeklies Struggling — Can They Leverage SMB Relationships to Connect Online?

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altThe Boston Phoenix, a storied alt-weekly newspaper, folded last week with the plaintive tweet “Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.” Only six months ago, owner and publisher Stephen Mindich had transformed the publication, merging it with a sister publication and making it into a glossy magazine with the hopes of attracting more national advertisers, but the experiment evidently didn’t take root — a lack of national ads was blamed as the Phoenix bowed out.

The Phoenix certainly isn’t the only alt-weekly that has been trying to reinvent itself lately. While alt-weeklies really used to own the market for irreverent commentary and events listings in cities around the country, the introduction of online competition over the past couple of decades has really degraded their snarky monopolies and left them searching for news ways to connect with local markets (and with advertisers).

Two weeks ago, I discussed these issues with Tiffany Shackelford, executive director at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) during a podcast about the future of alt weeklies hosted by Journalism Accelerator director Lisa Skube. We talked about a wide range of topics related to alt-weeklies, including their evolution and their place in the media landscape, but in this article I’ll focus on a few of her thoughts about the evolving business models for alt-weeklies. In Shackelford’s view, alt-weeklies have a few key ways to shore up their business and play to their strengths.

Alt-Weeklies as Content Marketers
Alt-weeklies have historically been positioned as go-to resources for local things to do — so one of their content missions is ultimately consumer utility. Most alt-weeklies publish perusable databases of restaurants, and current movie and performing arts reviews. Shackelford comments: “If you think about it, alts were always really portable — tabloid style, easy to fold up and put in your bag — and they specialize in the happenings of a local community.”

Reviews in these publications constantly reference the community of restaurants, arts venues and businesses week after week, and in time, this content binds the relationship between publisher and SMB. Marketing by reviews is a form of “native advertising,” in which the review content acts as marketing collateral. Can alt-weeklies leverage content to better serve the needs of their ad clients? For example, perhaps they can update reviews more regularly or allow clients to contribute content.

Shackelford affirms that “there is a wall between editorial content and what we are reporting on so the local organizations are absolutely sources, though not always direct content contributors.”  But, she does see some wiggle room: “As we move into more multimedia, you will see some of that change. I think there will be an opportunity for a local organization to provide great video or audio content.”

As alt-weeklies search for new, free content sources, the publication and eventual consumer acceptance of client-created (or inspired) content will serve to further reinforce publisher/SMB relationships.

Leveraging Longstanding Local Relationships
Shackelford said that one thing she noticed at the recent Street Fight Summit in New York was that for all of the new companies offering local advertising services, their value proposition was that they can reach consumers and SMBs. But she think those relationships are harder than they seem: “I think that’s hard to accomplish off the bat without having, 1.) a trusted media that communicates with consumers and 2.) established relationships with small business. Alt-weekly publishers can develop natural partnership with marketing companies because they have a history with their communities. They have developed a loyal reader base and have built established relationships with SMBs by knocking on their doors way before the Internet emerged.”

So could alt-weeklies rebuild their brands using these longstanding SMB relationships? SMBs are overwhelmed with new marketing choices but most alt-weeklies are in a unique position to potentially move their existing print clients to, say, online directories or mobile advertising. So alt-weekly publishers need a quick plan to address three specific business challenges:

  1. Alts need to wean their clients from print ads, and push them into new marketing solutions like directory listings and social media marketing.
  2. Alt publishers, many of them tech challenged, must become providers of what are essentially technology solutions for publishing and advertising. Simply put, they need to find technologies that work for their clients to maintain credibility as a marketing resource.
  3. Alts can’t do this in a vacuum or trial-by error, they need to collaborate to identify best practices in an increasingly diverse marketing landscape that includes coupons, daily deals, mobile ads, native advertising, and directory listings.

The business challenge is essentially leveraging technology. Associations, like AAN and the similar Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers can play a prominent role in defining the technology landscape and offering solutions their members need to succeed. The most obvious way is to develop vendor relationships that can be leveraged by an alt-weekly’s sales team. AAN identified a set of vendors and uses listservs and online meetings to share information.

Similarly, Dylan Smith, Chairman of LION Publishers, says: “We use private Facebook groups of our members to manage conversations around technology, marketing and sales best practices. Technology is not the end-all. On the sales side the best advantage all local publishers have is to show the business community that you are one of them, not a corporation like Clear Channel.”

Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email ([email protected]).

Top image courtesy of Flickr user zbowling.