Leadership

Alt-Weeklies May Struggle, But Don't Count Them Out

By Ernie Smith / Mar 29, 2013 The Boston Phoenix, which closed down earlier this month. (photo by BartEverts/Flickr)

After one of the largest alternative weeklies in the country shut down earlier this month, many media pundits suggested the industry itself might be fading. But the association that represents the newspapers is working hard to prove the analysts wrong.

For 47 years, the Boston Phoenix was one of the country’s most-storied alt-weeklies, but two weeks ago, the publication—which ended its run as a glossy magazine after a merger with another media outlet—announced it was gone for good.

“These have been extremely difficult times for our company, and despite the valiant effort by many, many past and current staff to attempt to stabilize and, in fact, reverse our significant financial losses, we have been unable to do so and they are no longer sustainable,” wrote publisher Stephen M. Mindich.

(There is a silver lining here, however: Two sister publications that use the Phoenix brand name will continue to operate, with some changes.)

A hub for the kind of groundbreaking long-form journalism that many alt-weeklies specialize in, the newspaper ran many important stories in its day, including breaking the news of a major child abuse scandal in Boston. (Slate has a roundup of some of the best if you’re curious.)

Even with a changing model and ownership issues that have faced many publications of its type, the industry group that represents these news outlets says rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated. The Association of Alternative Newsmedia, to the contrary, struck a strong pose earlier this week with an article explaining that, despite the reports, the industry was looking to innovate and thrive even as the ground changed beneath it.

I was tired of reading the eulogies about my industry, which are far from true.

At the front of all this is the group’s executive director, Tiffany Shackelford, who says that while the industry realizes it has to change, its condition is not as bad as media pundits were making it out to be: “I was tired of reading the eulogies about my industry, which are far from true.”

In an interview with Associations Now, Shackelford explained how her association, once known as the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, is trying to set the stage for a quickly changing field. More details:

The leader’s approach: Shackelford comes from a background with ties to journalism, technology companies, and associations. On the association front, she played a key role in starting and leading Capitolbeat, a group for journalists covering state governments, and remains an active organizer for the Washington, DC, chapter of the Online News Association. And it’s this mixture that defines her approach to her position, one that’s not afraid to look at startup culture for ideas.

The strategy: When Shackelford took the job in 2010, she says she approached the role as a “change agent,” making efforts to encourage bold strategies within the organization—fully digitizing its records, for example—as well as outside of it, pushing to create ideas that member papers could use. “The trade association should be rallying the troops and should be the leading the charge for members,” she said. To that end, the group has worked with a number of tech startups, offering them a wide platform for trying new things in the form of the group’s 125 member publications.

The technology: Among AAN’s more successful collaborations is its work with Cont3nt, a company that creates exchanges for sharing and selling news content online from both staff and end users, akin to CNN’s iReport platform. (Cont3nt also powers a wire service for AAN.) That partnership came in handy during the Occupy movement, a story that many member papers covered extensively and in some cases were able to sell to other media outlets, such as The Daily Caller. “The alts owned that story,” Shackelford said. The association has also been working closely with the Norwegian data analytics company cXense, offering member papers what Shackelford calls “a giant recommendation engine with all of this great progressive news content,” utilizing semantic search, in-depth analytics, revenue sharing, and interstitial advertising.

In the end, while the focus on technology and finding new ways to monetize (using approaches like agile design and “failing fast”) has certainly changed how the organization operates, Shackelford says it’s all in service of what matters most for many alt-weeklies: the community, something that the group’s members, most of which don’t have the national profile of the Boston Phoenix, are exclusively focused on.

“As digital as everything is,” she said, “you’re still as local as your local coffee shop.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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