Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mise en Scène

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2009 at 12:43 PM

There wasn't room in my piece about the SouthComm purchase of the Scene in this week's dead-tree edition to tackle the broader question of the future of alt-weekly papers in general. Several people interviewed for the story opined that alt-weeklies are headed for the dustbin of media history given that their historical wellsprings of value and revenue -- classified ads (especially of the personal variety) and entertainment listings -- are no longer reasons to pick up a paper.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks alt-weekly trends as part of its coverage of the state of the news media in general. Here are a few of Pew's 2009 findings:
Circulation: down.The 130 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies reported a combined weekly circulation in 2008 that was down a little over 5% from the previous year.

Revenue: down. Revenue for the 130 AAN papers declined by about 5% in 2008. Papers in small and mid-sized markets are doing better than papers in large cities. For instance, the Boulder (Col.) Weekly saw a revenue gain of 5% in 2008.

Readers: aging. Alt-weekly readership by people aged 18 to 24 grew a bit to 14.1 percent from 13.6 percent. An estimated 43 percent of the readers are aged 45 or older (up from 41%).
A graphic snapshot of the longer-term trend in alt-weekly circulation through the middle of this decade shows a clear leveling off of the genre's print readership.
click to enlarge altweeklycirc.jpg
Online readership may be compensating for declines in print circulation, but is there on the horizon a sustainable business model? In 2008 the second largest alt-weekly chain, Creative Loafing, went Chapter 11 and was recently sold to a hedge fund.

The SouthComm deal pulled the Scene out from under the Village Voice Media-New Times chain, and that looks like a good thing. Shortly after those two chains merged in 2006 one alt-weekly publisher participating in a Pew roundtable on the industry observed:
Alt-weeklies...are becoming more professional, but less distinctive...The predictable character of the New Times papers will encourage rivals to compete in those markets with more distinctive content that forges a deeper personal connection with readers. Six or seven years from now we might be noting the irony that New Times' push to consolidate control of the free weekly business nationwide led directly to increased competition and a proliferation of alternative voices in their markets.
That sort of deeper local connection is part of the theory behind the media strategy that led SouthComm to add the Scene to its portfolio. The launch of the (literally) shiny, new Scene today puts the firm's experiment fully in play, but does it save Nashville's alt-weekly future?

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