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Challenged by disruption, alternative weekly newspapers share strategies, optimism at Utah convention

First Published      Last Updated Apr 15 2017 08:19 pm


Newspapers » Representatives of U.S. and Canadian publications meet, talk about innovation.

Alternative weeklies — the scrappy and irreverent champions of independent journalism and mavens of city nightlife in many U.S. urban markets — are getting used to disruption.

Like major daily news outlets, they face unprecedented changes in what their readers want and how they want it, driven by technology. Revenues from advertising and other sources continue to fluctuate wildly or fall. Media startups and large corporations hope to chip away at some of their core franchises, such as events listings, dining reviews and dating personal ads.

Yet these small, sometimes give-away newspapers at coffee shops, laundromats and taverns have a long history of experimenting and enduring economic cycles. It has forced innovation virtually into their DNA, judging from an industry gathering in Salt Lake City this week.




About 325 folks from a cross section of U.S. and Canadian publications attended the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention, which ends Saturday.

"I'm happily surprised at the optimism I'm hearing," said John Saltas, CEO and publisher of Salt Lake City Weekly, host of the three-day event at Little America Hotel.

"Business models are very difficult these days," Saltas said. "But most of us have always been incredibly innovative, risk taking, willing to adapt and seekers of new information that can propel us forward."

Hot topics at the convention ranged from audience metrics, native ads, mobile platforms, social media, diversity and new calendar listing systems to writing, journalism and good stories with civic impact.

Just as alternative weeklies and their online sites reflect the distinct flavors of their cities, after more than a decade of radically reshaping their operations, each seems to have its own hybrid way of remaining in business.

"Success stories with new local and regional business models are happening, but it's still early," said Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher with Pew Research Center. "We're in this protracted period of immense change in the information ecosystem."

News consumption is evolving at different rates among different age groups, Holcomb noted. But that pace of change also differs by U.S. region and even city, he said, due to varying access to technology and the staggered rates at which readers are adopting Web and mobile news delivery.

Exactly how crucial their watchdog journalism will be in helping alternative weeklies survive is a matter of intense debate, as it is in mainstream newsrooms.

While it serves a key role in shedding light on public issues, "journalism does not make money," said Eric Bright, vice president of e-commerce with Salt Lake City-based Deseret Digital Media.

"You have to figure out a way to make money so you can subsidize the really important need of journalism," Bright said.

Simply offering readers compelling online content in hopes they will click on adjacent display ads no longer works, he said.

Deseret Digital Media, which oversees the digital sides of KSL-TV and the Deseret News, has replaced that legacy approach with one more centered on e-commerce and turning readers into customers.

To others at the event, journalism — particularly of the iconoclastic, crusading kind that has long been a mainstay of alternative papers — will hold a more central place in the overall mission.

"I agree that content is not a business, but you must create something of unique value," said veteran editor and media consultant Elizabeth Osder. "We need to keep doing what we do because it's important to our communities."

Osder urged alternative weeklies in disparate locales to collaborate in a kind of a national journalism network, even a movement.

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