Wondering about the fiscal solvency of free weeklies

Here in the Pittsburgh area we have The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an every day paper with local, national and some world news. They’ve laid off or offered early retirement to many columnists and reporters, and raised the price of a daily paper from 50 to 75 cents. So they’re hurting, but I don’t know if they’re in danger of shutting down.

The other big Pittsburgh paper is the Tribune Review. I believe they’re owned by a conglomerate that also owns other newspapers. I don’t like the Trib and don’t read it, so I don’t have much information on it.

There is the Valley News Dispatch, a daily paper that covers a small area way to the NW of Pittsburgh. They cover mostly local news, used to be owned by Gannet (the company that publishes USA Today), but were bought out at least 5-10 years ago by the Tribune Review Publishing Company. I think they’ve been facing cutbacks too, and I know their printing plant closed a couple years ago, and their printing is now done on the other side of Pittsburgh at the same plant that does the Trib. They still have a local office for reporters, circulation and whatnot, but I’d be surprised if they lasted another 5 years.

There is a free weekly paper, City Paper. It does not seem to be undergoing as many problems as the dailies, but it does have (and always has) very heavy advertising, mostly from local restaurants, bars, and small clothing shops. On a side note, it features News of the Weird and Savage Love, but not The Straight Dope :mad:

The problem with the Post-Gazette is that their editorial stance is just so goofy. I expect that they’ll be liberal - but the arguments they bring to bear in support of that position are way too often an embarrassment for liberalism or the city.

The news coverage is okay - their sports page has some of the best sports columnists in the country. I’ve always liked Gene Collier in particular.

Particularly when it is an itch to wrap some fish, line the birdcage, or spraypaint anything without making a horrible mess.
If this goes on, hardware stores are going to have to start carrying sheets of newsprint!

It is a darwinian time, I agree, Xap. But the real issue here is, as someone pointed out, which model has the legs to get through it. I believe (unsurprisingly) it’s mine. Small, focused papers with local flair can survive. It just can’t be the fat newsrooms of the past.

That said, there’s several big chains and holding companies trying to acquire these weeklies to move their portfolio to those instead of dailies. Landmark in one of the biggest with more than 100 acquisitions in the last ten years. It’s an interesting move on their part and one I wouldn’t mind imitating if I had the cash.

Well being free works in their favor in that it drives up the circulation numbers. One of the big reasons that mainstream daily papers are shedding readers (especially the 18-34 crowd) by the gross is because a lot of people aren’t going to pay 50 or 75 cents for something that they can get for free online. A couple of papers tried charging for online access in the early part of this decade, but only the Wall Street Journal was able to successfully pull that off, and I suspect that’s largely because a lot of businessmen, to whom the paper is geared toward, are able to just expense their online subscriptions.
Alt-weeklies, by virtue of being free, never had that hurdle to overcome.
They may not have as desirable a demographic as the large dailies (ie middle to upper class families in the suburbs), but because they’re free they’re able to cast a pretty wide net. Their audience also consists of many young, hip, single urbanites, a group that large papers have tried, with only limited success, to cater toward. And their advertisers reflect that.
Nightclubs, which might at most take out only a quarter page ad in the weekend entertainment sections of daily newspapers, will regularly take out full page ads in the alt-weeklies. Furthermore, the alt-weeklies get a lot of revenue from businesses that don’t advertise in the dailies at all - strip clubs, head shops, escort services, etc.
Also dailies rely heavily on car, real estate and department store ads, and when those businesses hit the skids, they took a big hit. Alt-weeklies, with the exception of apartment ads, never did much with those businesses. That’s not to say that they haven’t taken a hit as their other advertisers tighten their belts, but the hit hasn’t been as drastic.
Also as Jonathan Chance mentioned above, alt-weeklies have a lot less overhead than the dailies. They usually contract out their printing, which means they don’t have to worry about maintaining a large and expensive printing plant. A lot of their content comes from freelancers, which means they don’t have to pay benefits to a large group of newsroom employees. And those full-time employees they do have are often wear many different hats (they may be a reporter/copyeditor/photographer), something that newsroom employees at many large daily papers would scoff at (the practice is somewhat common in small town daily papers, though).
And I also believe alt-weeklies are in many ways better plugged in to certain segments of their communities. As I mentioned above, the large papers have had trouble getting that crucial 18-34 demographic. The alt-weeklies, with their heavier emphasis on music and the arts, are just natural magnets for those people. And their writing just tends to be sharper even on investigative stories about say the school system or police brutality. They’re not constrained by the same standard of objectivity. Granted that can be a bad thing, and many times it is, but just often it works well for what the alt-weeklies are trying to do. And unlike the dailies, you don’t feel that they’re trying too hard to be hip when they’re writing for a younger audience.

I’d bet my house on it, and I’d even offer odds for five years. It’s harder for the bigger papers to stay afloat, I think. The costs of producing paper and ink papers are rising and it’s getting harder and harder for newspapers to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of ad revenue per day.

The USA Today has a different business model, as does the WSJ, and they’ll be fine. The NY Times might survive in a much slimmer version. Maybe others will find a way to keep themselves in print, but I’m dubious. The papers that are still around have slashed staff (at least a quarter of my friends in the business are out of work, not including all of the people who worked at my now defunct paper), and that means less coverage and more wire copy/syndicated content. That kind of paper is inferior in every way.

I agree and I agree that the best model for future survival is to become a national newspaper rather than a local one. The NY Times has been trying to change itself over, and I believe that about one-quarter of its subscriptions are outside the New York metro area. I started subscribing myself because the local paper is worthless, even for local news.

That’s a hard market to crack because of the costs of delivery. The Times has to reply on a person driving from house to house early in the morning. That has to cut deeply into any profit. And it still doesn’t arrive until 8 am, after most people leave for work. That returns it to being an evening read. Every city used to have a morning paper and an evening one. Virtually every evening paper in the country is now defunct. Too many other sources for news are available during the day.

The flip side is that someone has to actually report the news. Only the Times and the Washington Post do on a regular basis the type of reporting that people all over the country care about. There is a tiny niche for real news that they can exploit.

The big question is whether they can exploit that in print. My guess is no. The costs of paper, printing, and delivery are way too high for a national product that has to be in people’s homes before breakfast. Some electronic delivery system will take over. The economics all point to that direction.

Sadly, I think you may be right. The problem I have with this is the the NYT won’t cover my local news, and I really want to read local news just as in depth as the NYT covers national and international news.

Ed

I’m currently studying all this as part of my Master’s degree and Johnathon Chance is, IMHO, right.

Small, local papers- focusing on “local issues” that no-one outside that immediate area gives a flying fuck about, to put it bluntly- will be OK because they’re catering to a small market that’s interested in the product (what’s happening locally) and the ads (for “local” businesses).

Commuter Papers are also OK because people like to have something to read on the bus/train, and with careful advertising targeting they’ll be with us for a bit (again, IMHO).

It’s the Big Dailies that have issues because everything they do is on the net. Most of the news stories you read are actually written by an anonymous staffer at Reuters or Associated Press or one of the other Wire Services anyway, and if you compare several different news websites you’ll often see the same story re-written (or not). Everything that’s in their print edition is on their website, so why pay $1 for the paper when you read it for free on Teh Intarwebs?

Something Big And Prestigious And Establishment like The Times or The Australian will probably continue to publish a dead tree edition for the foreseeable future Because That’s How It’s Done, but it’s things like The San Francisco Chronicle*, the Otago Daily Times, or the Manchester Evening News that I think will end up “On-line only” sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, I think The Sun will be with us in print format for a very long time, too- it’s a surprisingly clever paper and they know their readership incredibly well. And they have topless women on Page 3, which doesn’t hurt their circulation figures, either.

*Yes, I know the paper is a gnat’s left testicle away from being closed completely, but they still have an on-line edition which isn’t going anywhere AFAIK.

This is true of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, too.

They actually made money on the newspaper operations last year ($2-$3 million profit per week). But that was all eaten up in the debt payments to the takeover artists who bought the paper by borrowing against it’s assets. If not for that debt load, the newspaper would be showing a good profit (though still down a lot from the previous year).

Now the idiot managers are cutting staff & local reporting, and filling much more of the paper with content from the newswires & national news services – you know, the kind of stuff you can get faster and for free online. Replacing the local news reporting that is not available online, and that people want to buy. Death spiral, anyone?

I think we’re heading towards concurrance, here.

There’s simply no reason to purchase a daily that’s so hard up for copy that they’re running 75%+ wire service stuff that the reader has already heard about from NPR or CNN or whatever. It kills the dailies product differentiation and loses the reader.

While I agree with Xap to a certain extent in that a few of them will make the ‘USA Today’ jump and become national-level papers, the rest of them had better get used to the idea of faster, better, smaller pretty damn quickly.

FTR, I figure the nationals will be The Washington Post, The New York Times, and maybe the LA Times. This disregards the idea of a completely new national-level paper launching. Oi, that’s a ask that I (a specialist in pub launches) wouldn’t want to take on.

Martini Enfield, I’d be interested in seeing a copy of your research when you’re finished with it.

It’ll be a while since I’ve only just started, but I’ll point you in the direction of an interesting news story from ABC to the effect that Journalism students don’t read the dead tree edition of papers, though. In my experience Professor Knight’s findings are absolutely correct and I can attest that I don’t read the print edition of the paper anymore unless there’s a copy on the train or in the staffroom at work, FWIW.