September 14, 2006

Alt-Weekly Readers

In the year 2006, some of the best-known brands in the alternative weekly universe are getting a little long in the tooth. The Village Voice is 51, The Boston Phoenix and San Francisco Bay Guardian celebrate their 40th birthdays this year and the Chicago Reader turns 35.

Alternative weekly newspapers – which began flourishing when Vietnam was the controversial US war and Bob Dylan was still decades away from AARP membership – may have been launched as stylistically freewheeling and politically opinionated alternatives to the mainstream media. But with the genre now well-established and firmly ensconced in middle age, a recent survey finds that its readership is adopting a more traditional and settled lifestyle as well.

“Damn it, we’re getting more mainstream,” says a half-joking Mark Hanzlik, executive director of the Alternative Weekly Network (AWN), an alt-weekly national sales cooperative. “Is that good or bad?”

A national telephone survey conducted for the network entitled Media Audit National Report—which tracked readership trends from 1995 through March 2006—found that compared to a decade ago, alt weekly readers are now wealthier, more likely to be married with children and less inclined to catch a movie or a concert 1.

Fully half of alternative weekly readers are now married, compared with only 37 % in 1995. The percentage of those with a child at home jumped to 43%, up from 35%.

The readers are also getting richer. Even given inflation, the percentage of alt-weekly users with an average household income of more than $75,000 a year nearly doubled in the past decade — from 17% to 33%.

But after the congratulations over the marriages, the babies and the raises comes the bad news. These readers don’t seem be getting out as much as they used to. The percentage who attended films frequently dropped from 57% in 1995 to 50% now, while a similar drop – from 43% to 33% — occurred in the category of seeing a concert in the past year. (Earlier, we reported on data from this survey that revealed that 41% of the alt-weekly audience is now 45 and older.)

And all that staying at home is a potential problem. The traditional proclivity of the alternative audience to spend money and time on entertainment not only helped drive the alternative press’s heavy emphasis on arts and lifestyle coverage, it also was the key to their revenue base—the entertainment ads and even the personals.

Alternative Newsweeklies: A Changing Readership

Alternative Weekly Readers
Source: Media Audit National Report conducted for AWN, Jan 1995 – March 2006

“This is a classic bottle half full, bottle half empty situation,” says Kenneth Neil, the publisher of the Memphis Flyer and president of the board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. “The fact is that your audience is getting older…People in coffins aren’t loyal readers…We’re very cognizant of it and we’re very cognizant of our staff getting older.”

Neil and Hanzlik attribute some of their graying readership to problems besetting the daily newspaper industry, which has been retrenching, cutting costs, and generally losing customers. And while both welcome this more traditional audience, they say the challenge is to remain independent, and alternative. The real test, adds Neil, is “how do you keep yourselves fresh and relevant.”

Hanzlik says that in many markets, established alt-weeklies have been challenged by two other types of papers: startups with more attitude and a higher hipness quotient clearly aimed at a younger audience and entertainment-oriented papers spun off by bigger media companies that are disparagingly called “faux” weeklies.

“Every alt-paper in the country, in every market, one or the other is nipping at their heels,” he says. “They’re all facing the same challenge.”

Hanzlik asserts that the changing reader demographics have created opportunities for alt-weeklies to attract more mainstream and family-oriented advertisers such as department stores. But there is a flip side to that change that adversely affects the bottom line. Alt-weekly advertisers are realizing that the readership is getting older, he adds, “and they’re going to look at newer, edgy, start-up publications.”

Footnote

1. 1995 report examined 52 papers in 46 markets, Jan. 2005-March 2006 report looked at 120 papers in 71 markets.