Wondering about the fiscal solvency of free weeklies


With all the recent hand-wringing about the death of journalism and the daily paper, I found myself wondering about free weeklies. Up here in San Francisco, we’ve got two (The SF Bay Guardian and SF Weekly, neither of which runs Unca Cecil, tragically), and most major cities have at least one. Since they’ve always given their product away for free, I was wondering if they’re faring better in this age of free internet content.

Above that, how dire, really, is the state of the daily paper? I’ve heard conflicting reports, though most journalists seem thoroughly pessimistic. I’m really curious about this and would love to read any articles you’ve found on the issue—again, especially interested in the economics here.


Dire? Beyond dire. Dreadful. Decomposing. Dead. Walking Zombies. Shrunken corpses. There are no words to describe how bad the situation is. There are no conflicting reports that I’ve read. Maybe a conflict between now or next year for the collapse, but that’s as far as it goes.

Free weeklies live entirely off of advertising. Advertising is fleeing print. Do the math.

It’s fairly dire for regular daily papers. I can’t imagine what’s keeping free weekly papers alive.
Go have a look at the news section at http://www.newsguild.org/ and Google newspaper struggle or newspaper survive.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down last week.
The San Francisco Chronicle is doing all it can to scrape by and survive.
In Philadelphia, the parent company of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News has filed for bankruptcy.
The Minnepolis Star-Tribune is bleeding out money and is in bankruptcy.
The Gannett group is forcing employee furloughs.
The New York Times has suspended its first quarter dividend to conserve cash, pay the bills and stay alive.
Papers in Denver and Detroit have also shut down entirely or taken drastic steps like ending home delivery.
The LA Times and Chicago Tribune are also slashing staff and clinging to anything they can hold on to.
Other papers are forcing wage freezes or threatening layoffs.

The only way I can possibly think that the little free weeklies are surviving is their small scale. They don’t have newsrooms bulging with reporters in the Newspaper Guild union, and pressrooms also staffed with union workers and expensive presses. More likely, they contract out the printing and distribution to someone else, so they don’t have to absorb the price of building and maintaining the production facilities and fleets of delivery trucks.

Hang on a minute.

Is it a certainty that, say, in fifty years (or sooner), there will be no sizeable daily print papers anywhere in the U.S.?

Online news sources are great … but don’t always scratch that itch. Dunno … that’s not much of a marketing pitch, is it?

bordelond: See, that’s kind of where this OP came from, the inability to imagine or accept a world without dailies. It just seems impossible. I mean, radio survived the TV, right? I accept I may be being naive here, but there’s got to be a way dailies survive—less of them, certainly, but still.

Do you have any data to back this up, Xap? I currently run two profitable free weeklies and the data I have, from myself and the others in the two states I distribute in, is good. Tie that in with the information from the NAA about the profitability and acquisition curve of free weeklies and your thesis is terribly wrong.

The thing about free weeklies, as gotpasswords indicated, is their small and local size. By avoiding the large overhead of the monster dailies you avoid the pitfalls they’ve fallen into. Also, the coverage needs to be extremely local: cover your school board and city council and ignore the national stuff and wire service content.

What is dead, beyond a doubt in my mind, is the concept of the highly paid ‘important’ journalist. The idea of a Bob Woodward or a Sy Hersh. Small, local papers are staffed by one or two journalists who can cover the local angle and their impact on the citizenry.

What’s important is to drive readership by 1) giving them something they can’t get on Fox or CNN and 2) giving them information that they can actually use in their daily life. Let’s face it, all the news on the war is interesting, sure, but in terms of day-to-day impact on a persons life it’s meaningless. Whether the school board has decreed an early release for the elementary schools on Wednesday? That, they can use and need to know.

If you take care of those things, as my papers have, and you keep your expenses down, you can make a decent living at it for 4 to 8 people per paper.

Really, it’s the big dailies that are suffering. In the coverage of the Seattle PI failure I heard one woman in their management say they’d done everything they ever could to cut expenses…they’d even cut their newsroom staff down to 140! Gasp! That just shows a lack of understanding of the realities of the situation from all angles.

Agreed. And not that every comparison is perfect, but here’s another analogy – cell phones have not even yet completely eradicated the pay phone. And it’s not hard to find a pay phone in 2009, either.

How sound is the Reader?


Actually, the newspaper business isn’t as bad off as most people think: they still make money selling ads (Craigslist has not hurt them all that much).

Most of the problems aren’t with the news, but with other side projects they’ve gotten into. The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, is bankrupt not because of losing money by selling the news, but by real estate losses.

Creative loafing the owner of the reader filed for bankruptcy last year.

Indeed, they got in over their heads on debt, near as I can tell, for the acquisition of The Reader and The Washington City Paper.

It’s these sorts of things that are knocking them over. If they hadn’t got carried away with debt burden they’d be in great shape.

I can only speak for the one that I used to write for. It’s gone now. Out of business completely. The publisher has been considering bringing it back to the Internet exclusively, but from what I’m hearing, that’s probably not going to happen. Ad revenues are just not there.

A reporter for our local paper said classified ad money is way,way down due to free sites like craigslist. That was a good source of cash for papers and it’s mostly gone now.

The Metro in San Jose, which does run Unca Cecil, seems fat with ads to me - not a whole bunch smaller than it was a few years ago. It has one or two writers, a movie reviewer (unlike the Murky New these days) a few columnists, and a restaurant reviewer. It has nice big restaurant and entertainment lists, and seems to run tons of restaurant ads, movie ads, escort service ads, and body sculpting ads. For all I know it might be on its last legs, but it doesn’t look it. It never ran car, housing, or job ads, so it didn’t get hurt by that dropoff.

I bow to your superior wisdom on this for the present.

The future? I’m surprised you’re so sanguine. The major sources of advertising for all the free weeklies I’m familiar with - fewer than you, I’m sure - are classified ads, sexual ads that the majors won’t accept, entertainment ads, and small local store ads.

The first three are moving quickly to the net. I have to disagree with Chuck when he say that Craigslist hasn’t hurt major newspaper classified advertising that much. Everything I’ve read has said that the free ads are killing them. With the recent crackdown on prostitution advertising on Craigslist, they may have bought time, but that will probably just move to another site.

Entertainment ads can be more timely online and email promotions probably target audiences better.

Small businesses are still a good core market, but they’ll be hurt in the recession just when the papers need the money most.

What am I missing, JC? Where does the money come from?

For me it’s local businesses appealing to local clientele (and some touristy stuff…it’s that sort of town).

Also, there’s a difference that we should define. There’s a strong difference between a weekly NEWSpaper and an Alt-weekly like The Washington City Paper. As a true news-oriented paper we focus on being an advocate for the city. Not that we’re cheerleaders as we’re quite critical of our city councils and mayors and such. It’s more than we defined ourselves as being FOR the city and working towards that goal. The readers believe in us and we support them.

Our advertising, as I said, tends towards locally owned businesses. We compete with the local dying daily (down to 14-16 ads per day) which is owned by an out-of-town conglomerate which doesn’t pay a lot of attention to them.

Our main advertising industries (I just now looked it up in our database):

  1. Banks and Investments
  2. Boutiques
  3. Restaurants
  4. Hospitals and Doctors
  5. Service industries

We don’t do classifieds, or not much, anyway. Ohio has a law in which we can’t run governmental announcements because we’re not a ‘paid’ pub even though our circulation is higher than the dailies so that’s out.

We make it on space ads and inserts. And we keep a media push on. My editors and I do radio, speaking gigs, we hold town halls, and so forth. We have become the face of the media for our towns.

It’s more than just being a newspaper because, in the end, who cares? For it to work you have to convince your audience that you’re one of them. You’re not only covering the community but you’re a PART of it as well. No journalistic detachment when it comes to making the city thrive…we’re advocates.

Do that, focus locally, keep overhead down (for instance my designer also writes feature pieces), and make sure you don’t over commit on extras and you’re there.

One potential other difference between the dailies and the free weeklies is that, to readers, one of the main things the Internet means is not having to pay for info. The free weeklies don’t have that hurdle. I’m probably still as likely to pick up a free weekly in a restaurant or at a bus stop as I always was. And I’m about as likely to be influenced by the ads therein.

add Miami Beach SunPost to the list

I know of at least one free weekly that’s making money: Ink in Kansas City. It’s an “alt-weekly” started by The Kansas City Star to compete with The Pitch, the Village Voice / New Times alt-weekly in town. Apparently, there is a large pool of advertisers in Kansas City that want to reach a younger demographic, but won’t advertise in The Pitch for various reasons.

The Star itself is still profitable, but the staff has been slashed dramatically in the last year. I was laid off in September, in the third round of layoffs in 2008, and there have been two more rounds since. The latest round claimed about 30 newsroom employees.

The papers that are hurting the worst are the ones owned by companies that took on debt to acquire other publications in the late 90’s and earlier this decade. McClatchy, the owners of The Star, The Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee, among others, bought the Knight Ridder chain in 2006 and took on $2 billion in debt to do it. Similarly, Lee Enterprises, which was a fairly small chain of dailies and weeklies, bought Pulitzer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005. Again, while its papers are profitable, the profit isn’t enough to cover the payments on the debts.

Most papers in chains like these are announcing furloughs (unpaid leave), layoffs and pay cuts on a weekly basis. But not all papers are suffering equally. The Buffalo News, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, has not laid off any full-time newsroom employees.

I’ll have to go back and check the local equivalents to your type of papers and see what types of advertising they’re currently carrying. I admit I was thinking more of the alt-papers, the youth-oriented entertainment papers, and the various special-interest rags than the local news, people seeing their faces in print, crowd.

I’m extremely pessimistic overall about print of all types, though. Certainly some small niches will live through the coming carnage. (Warning: extended metaphor alert!) Nobody expected the mammals to live through the demise of the dinosaurs. Nobody expected them to wind up flourishing. I just doubt there are any mammals among us.