What will be the future of alt-weeklies?
Health care, education, manufacturing, politics—they all face the same question. The big keep-you-up-at-night question. Even though you have been doing something for years, decades or centuries, the way that you used to do things may not be working anymore. So, how will you do it in the future?
Alternative-weekly newspapers like SN&R are struggling with this very issue. It came up repeatedly at the 36th annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia Convention held in Miami earlier this month.
Publishers and staff of about 100 alternative newspapers from all around the country were there. Most papers are doing better this year. Sales and profits are up. We are hiring more staff.
But we all wanted to know: “How will we create journalism in the future?”
We found no clear answer. However, some things were clear.
One: Stories still rock. Internet or no Internet, good stories make great journalism. Elected officials being kicked out of office. New musical groups being discovered. Scandals revealed. Issues explained. Good stories have power and magic.
Two: Online may be the future, but online revenue has not yet arrived in the present. This convention, like most of the industry’s conferences over the last 15 years, focused on new media. And, yes, every year there are many new online developments, but little revenue.
Michael Crystal, who analyzed the financials of 37 newspapers, estimated that only 5 percent of alternative-newspaper revenue was coming from online.
Nevertheless, numerous speakers had the magic bullet, the marvelous app or the wondrous software that was rumored to create real online revenue for weekly newspapers. Some of the would-be magicians have represented different companies over the years. Each year, they are very confident about their new product.
What I’d like to see is them returning with a product that is working.
Three: The future of alternative weeklies will include new partnerships. SN&R has received money from the Sierra Health Foundation and Sacramento Emergency Foodlink for poverty and food-access coverage. I expect there will be more of this in the future.
And, finally, there is a new generation of young people joining the wild and wacky, dysfunctional alternative-newspaper family. There was quite a contingent of young people who were thrilled to be at their first alternative-newspaper convention and were excited to have a career that could mean something. I was thrilled and inspired to see them.
I left the Miami convention with the belief that they will be able to create a future for alternative journalism. They will be the answer to the big question of the future.