Coronavirus may spell doom for alt-weeklies

Newspaper stands for alt-weeklies. (Photo: Nieman Journlism Lab)

It was only seven days ago that we told you about The Stranger, the Seattle alt-(bi)weekly that was facing a financial crisis because of the city’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which shut down concerts, bars, restaurants, and so many other events that provide the advertising fuel for an alt-weekly. “Ninety percent of our revenue — advertising, ticketing fees, and our own events — is directly tied to people getting together in groups,” the paper wrote in asking for donations. “The coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”

But what a seven days it’s been. Since then, Seattle’s early and aggressive response to its hotspot status has spread nationwide. And the impact on The Stranger’s peers in city after city has been truly crushing. This has, without a doubt, been the single worst week in the history of America’s alternative press. They’re facing a double blow: Not only have their main advertising sources dried up, so have their main points of distribution. (Where do you pick up an alt-weekly? At a bar, at a restaurant, at a theater — all the places that have gone dark.)

Alt-weeklies have been in some version of crisis mode for the better part of a decade.

A well-capitalized company with confidence in its long-term future may have the luxury of seeing the coronavirus response as a temporary obstacle. Yeah, it’ll be painful — but eventually things will go back to some version of normal and the old revenue engines can restart. But alt-weeklies have been in some version of crisis mode for the better part of a decade, as smartphones, online events listings, and social media have each moved against their core offerings. It’s entirely unclear whether “normal” is two weeks away, two months away, or two years away. And when cities do recover, will those institutions alts rely on — those arts venues, those theaters, those restaurants — be in any kind of shape to help?

You can see the seriousness of this week in the language alts’ editors and owners are using: “This issue of the print newspaper is the last one for the foreseeable future.” “This time is different.” “It could be the end.”

We’ve written far more over the past decade about the struggles of daily newspapers than alt-weeklies — which is understandable, given that the raw power of a daily’s newsroom is, whatever its flaws, critical to any city’s news environment. But dailies have subscription revenue to rely on, shrinking in print but growing online. They still have the largest reporting capacity in just about every city. For all the trouble they’re in, you can at least squint and see a sustainable future in some deeply transformed shape. Alt-weeklies — well, it’s harder to see that.
It’s worth noting that a version of this financial virus is likely to hit city magazines hard too.

All but a few of the alt-weeklies I’ve seen are actively telling their readers about their sudden revenue shortfall and asking them to join their membership plan or to make a donation. (That request is complicated by the fact that nearly all alt-weeklies are for-profit companies, not charities for whom a donation could be tax-deductible.) Those whose cities have been hit harder are laying off staff, suspending or reducing print, or both. The majority of these cuts have been made in the past 48 hours — a sign of how quickly this is accelerating. And it’s likely that things will get worse if/when cities tighten their restrictions further — like moving from encouraging social distancing and closing institutions to shelter-in-place orders and enforced curfews.

Finally, it’s worth noting that a version of this financial virus is likely to hit city magazines hard too, as is happening at Washingtonian. And local news and arts sites, like D.C.’s Brightest Young Things, whose founder told DCist: “I have spent 14 years trying to diversify us enough that we are never at the risk of one thing going south. And in two weeks, it’s like a switch has been flipped and we don’t exist anymore as a business.” All local print and digital media will face some version of this pain; alt-weeklies are just the first canary to feel woozy.

Here is a (necessarily incomplete) list of some of the cuts, closures, suspensions, and other damage done to alt-weeklies in this very altered week, arranged in order west to east, from sea to shining sea.

OREGON: Portland Mercury. Suspending print, laid off 10 staffers, asking for donations. Editor-in-chief Wm. Steven Humphrey:

“We love our [print] newspaper, and we look at it as our personal art project — but it’s just too expensive to produce right now. We hope this scenario will change and we’ll eventually return to publishing our fun, feisty biweekly, which is our first and greatest love. That’s certainly what we’re fighting for, and time will ultimately tell if that’s possible. Fingers crossed!

“Secondly, we’ve temporarily laid off 10 members of our beloved staff, spanning editorial, calendar, sales, and circulation, while simultaneously making deep cuts to the remaining managers’ salaries. Simply put, losing these employees, even temporarily, is fucking heartbreaking…

“Will the Mercury be back in full force after all this has returned to normal? I think so. I hope so. You can bet your ass we’ll be trying and fighting as hard as we can — because this city, and everyone in it, is worth it.”

WASHINGTON: The Stranger, Seattle. Suspended print publication, laid off 18 staffers. Editor Christopher Frizzelle:

“Due to the hellscape of unforeseen economic events brought on by the coronavirus, The Stranger temporarily laid off 18 employees today. The personnel cuts came from virtually every department, including sales, ad design, editorial design, production, distribution, accounting, calendar, and editorial.

“Additionally, The Stranger is suspending production of our print issue. It is our hope that after weathering this storm, we will be able to bring back the print edition and all the staffers whose work goes into creating it…

“Though it is a challenging environment for everyone, we are up for the challenge, and we are going to be back and better than ever, damn it.”

CALIFORNIA: Monterey County Weekly. Layoffs and salary cuts. Editor Sara Rubin:

“On March 17, Weekly Founder & CEO Bradley Zeve and Publisher Erik Cushman called an all-staff meeting to deliver some hard news: To get through this radical economic downturn, the company would lay of one-third of the staff. They had to immediately control expenses in hopes of the paper’s long-term survival, they announced.

“The Weekly absolutely relies on local, independent businesses, and while our advertisers are shut down, we made the difficult decision to reduce staff across all departments in order to weather the storm,” Zeve says. “Our whole business model is about bringing people together. And right now, people are physically isolated …

“Another three staff members’ hours have been reduced. Zeve cut his salary to zero, and Cushman also took a significant pay cut.”

CALIFORNIA: Sacramento News & Review, Chico News & Review; NEVADA: Reno News & Review. Suspended print publishing and laid off nearly all staff across all three sister papers, “we hope only temporarily.” CEO Jeff vonKaenel:

“It costs us roughly $45,000 a week to produce SN&R; that’s a little more than 10 cents for each of our 433,000 readers. The bulk of that cost is labor. This week we have less than $20,000 in expected revenue to cover $45,000 of expenses. That is our problem…

“There is a misperception that content somehow just exists on the internet. That content needs to be created first. And that is our business. We are appealing to anyone who wants to help keep our journalism alive.”

CALIFORNIA: Coachella Valley Independent. Asking for donations (“The strength of the support we get from readers who can afford it may very well determine whether the Independent makes it or not”), more announcements coming. Editor Jimmy Boegle:

“I belong to a couple of organizations of smaller, local independent media, and the overriding sentiments among the editors and publishers I know are 1) a push and desire to cover and serve our communities better than ever during this unprecedented time; and 2) complete fear over the fact that almost all our organizations are facing an existential threat right now.

“Virtually overnight, the Independent lost about three-quarters of our advertising revenue, maybe more. I know of newspapers around the country that have suspended their print versions, because almost all the ads are gone. I know small online news publishers who work from home and are taking about not being able to pay their rent…

“I’ll share more info with you in the coming days about the Independent’s plans, at least as they stand now. (I will tell you this, though: We are gonna be here serving this community. We aren’t going anywhere.)”

ARIZONA: Phoenix New Times; COLORADO: Westword, Denver; TEXAS: Dallas Observer, Houston Press; FLORIDA: Miami New Times (all part of Voice Media Group). All staff salaries cut at least 25 percent (35 percent for executives), layoffs “will very likely be necessary.” From a staff memo (shared by the new Voice Media Guild, which organized Phoenix and Miami in January):

“The calendar says it will soon be spring. But our country is bracing for a long, cold winter…

“Because of this, layoffs will very likely be necessary at VMG. We can’t yet tell you how many because we don’t know where the financial bottom will be in this ongoing crisis…

“To be clear, [immediately cutting all staff salaries by 25 to 35 percent] will not make up for the current or anticipated decline in revenues. And let’s be frank: They may not be enough. If the environment gets worse, if the downturn lasts longer than we’re assuming, if our performance declines, we’ll have to reassess and make further moves.”

TEXAS: San Antonio Current. Laid off 10 staffers.

“This is absolutely brutal — the worst-case scenario. Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate this, and we are heartbroken to have to let go of these hardworking and talented people,” Current Publisher Michael Wagner said. “My hope is that in the very near future, we can go back to business as usual. Until then, our very small but scrappy staff remains committed to San Antonio, our advertisers and to delivering journalism for the city we love.”

TEXAS: Austin Chronicle. Cutting from weekly to biweekly in print, asking for donations. The Chronicle was already hit hard financially by the cancellation of SXSW. And last night, a member of its staff tested positive for coronavirus, shutting down its office for 14 days. Editor Kimberley Jones:

“What we’ve been doing at the Chronicle is likely what the rest of you have been doing — assessing the most urgent needs and focusing on those. For us, that’s mostly meant the breaking news stuff, reporting on the latest guidance from health authorities, the new rules on gathering, all the cancellations and closures and modified hours, and the restaurants reinventing their service models overnight to become takeout operations…

“In these trying times, we’ve made the difficult decision to go to an every other week printing schedule. That means, for the first time since our first seven years of operation, you will not see a Chronicle on stands next week. But you will see us online, every day…

“In this time of social distancing, staying connected matters now more than ever. If you aren’t doing so already, follow us on social media. Share our stories. Sign up for our newsletters. Find a community on our message boards. Buy a subscription to get the paper delivered to you, or support our work with a one-time or recurring donation.”

MISSOURI: Riverfront Times, St. Louis. Laid off “nearly our entire staff.” Editor-in-chief Doyle Murphy:

“It turns out, COVID-19 also makes for a nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies. Across the country, papers are announcing salary cuts, layoffs or anything they can imagine to keep the lights on. That’s where we are today. We laid off nearly our entire staff this morning with the hope that if we act now, we can rebuild and bring them back later. It’s horrible and unfair, and it’s bad for St. Louis. I have worked in a lot of newsrooms, and this is the first where I have liked every single person on staff. They are smart and funny and talented in ways that make me jealous. We’re a better city when they are at work….

“We could see it happening, but the speed has been stunning. One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of your ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return…

“It sucks. It does. But alt-weeklies have always been the underdog, and the RFT is one of the best in the country. Even after staffers learned the news today, they have continued to forward story tips and text me with ways they can help. They’re so dedicated to this city and telling its stories that I have been in tears off and on all morning. So we’re going to take the example of their tenacity and talent, and we’re going to continue to cover the Metro, eagerly anticipating the day they can come back to write those stories, too.

“We published a newspaper today, and it’s a good one. We won’t have a print edition next week, but we’ll be online every day, and hopefully we will be back on newsstands — and in thriving bars, coffee shops and restaurants — soon.”

Editor’s Note: Joshua Benton is director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which he founded in 2008 and where this story originally appeared

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