When the nation’s first and most famous alternative weekly announced recently that it will stop publishing a print edition, my initial reaction was: It’s happening.
If the Village Voice is going digital-only, the fate of alt-weeklies suddenly feels accelerated.
What about Boise Weekly? Will the familiar red racks on street corners soon disappear? How much longer will we be able to flip through a copy in a Downtown coffeehouse? Who will be the print voice of middle-aged North End guy? Kidding! (Sorta!)
Boise Weekly Editor Amy Atkins says there are no plans to go digital-only anytime soon.
“Like most every daily, magazine, weekly and alt-weekly ... we certainly discussed it,” she tells me via email, “but it doesn’t make sense for us.”
Alt-weeklies are struggling to adapt to the hot-mess media landscape. Just like dailies. Unlike dailies, however, alt-weeklies are distributed for free. Declining ad revenue has curb-stomped the business model. Staff sizes have plummeted as fast as page counts. Some alt-weeklies have tried to lure eyeballs by converting to glossy, magazine-style paper. Others, like the Village Voice, have taken a digital-only escape route that includes layoffs. The Boston Phoenix closed shop entirely in 2013. The Baltimore City Paper revealed last month that it, too, plans to fold.
Atkins says she wasn’t surprised by the Village Voice’s decision.
“When the first papers announced going to a digital-only format, it felt like a portent of things to come, a sign of something inevitable,” she says.
For those of us surviving in the media universe, the transformation to the digital model has been all-encompassing for years. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the ol’ print relic vanishes. Going digital-only made obvious sense for dailies in two-newspaper cities, hence the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s online shift in 2009. It’s better than ceasing to exist entirely, like the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
From my biased viewpoint, though, dailies have reason to keep printing longer than alt-weeklies. Subscriber money and advertising still generate significant cash.
I say that as a 100-percent digital journalist. My writing appears in print, but I have almost no day-to-day relationship with the Statesman print edition. I subscribe to the Statesman at home, but I read 95 percent of it online.
Yet I dread the idea of Boise Weekly going digital-only. I pluck a copy out of a rack pretty much every week.
It’s comforting to know the Weekly does not plan to kill print.
On the other hand, we all know what philosopher Mike Tyson said about having a plan.
Reality could punch alt-weeklies in the mouth. Or dailies. (Incidentally, the McClatchy Company, which owns the Statesman, has embraced digital media aggressively. The Statesman has no plan to end its print edition. But as the audience evolves, so will the Statesman.)
In the wake of the Voice’s announcement, the future is a tough call. I emailed Jason Zaragoza, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, but he did not immediately respond.
The Village Voice’s transition may or may not be a harbinger for tomorrow at Boise Weekly and other alt-weeklies. Daily and weekly newspapers in large urban markets have faced steeper challenges than those of us in smaller cities.
“... While one outlet’s response to changing times and tide isn’t the right move for another, we all have to respond,” Atkins says. “We have to continue to evolve, adjust and refine, and we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than ever — in print and online.”
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