Just who reads those free alternative weeklies lying near bank ATMs, stacked inside bookstores or left in club entrances?
The profile of the typical alternative weekly reader is changing. Once the preserve of footloose hippies and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, today's alternative weekly newspaper reader is older and more upscale. According to International Demographics, a Houston-based market research company, the average age of a regular alt-weekly reader in 2001 was 46, compared with 38 in 1995. The reader's average household income has risen to $60,597 in 2000, from $50,583 in 1995. â€œTheir readers are looking a lot more like daily newspaper readers,â€? says Catherine Nelson, president of publishing consulting firm Nelson Associates, who has been hired by 30 alt-weeklies. â€œThe average age is older than we like to think.â€?
This shift in the demographic profile has created both a challenge and an opportunity for the nation's alt-weeklies. On the one hand, it offers them a chance to boast of a more sophisticated and upscale reader to advertisers. On the other hand, it diminishes the value of alt-weeklies' core reader: the coveted young crowd of 18- to- 34-year-olds. â€œWhat alternatives typically do is reach people who are hard for other print media to reach,â€? says Robert Broadwater, managing director of Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York City-based investment bank that represented Stern Publishing when it sold The Village Voice to its current owner, Village Voice Media. â€œThese are the people that the dailies are struggling to reach.â€?
Now, as readership of traditional and alternative newspapers blurs, the nation's alt-weeklies are taking divergent paths in an effort to find a demographic profile that will be most effective in seducing advertisers. Some publishers, such as Jane Levine of the Chicago Reader and City Paper in Washington, D.C., have embraced the new, older, more affluent reader. The median age for the City Paper, for example, is now 36, up from 31 in 1987. Meanwhile, others, such as New York's The Village Voice, prefer to retool editorial and distribution to attract a younger readership. The median age, which had crept well into the 30s in the late 1990s, was pulled back to 34 last year. At The Village Voice, just over half of readers are between 18 and 34. Explains Greg Goff, executive vice president for strategic planning for Village Voice Media: â€œIn order to remain relevant, the challenge is to continually bring in the new 18- to 25-year-old.â€?
Still others, such as Creative Loafing, based in Atlanta, are targeting a broader readership of 18- to 54-year-olds. The median age for the weekly paper has shifted during the past 10 years to 38 from a low of 32. Forty-six percent of its readers fall in the 18- to- 34-year-old range, while another 46 percent are 35- to 54-year-olds. Ben Eason, president and CEO of Creative Loafing Inc., which owns five papers in the Southeast, is more concerned about the attitudes of his readers than their age. â€œOur readers are looking for a little more out of life,â€? he says. â€œWe're not targeting any particular demographic.â€?
But targeting a specific demographic has become more crucial as publishers face growing pressure to boost circulation and broaden their ad base. National ad spending on alcohol, the traditional mainstay for alt-weeklies, has slowly declined as ad dollars shifted to radio and cable TV. The demise of four alt-weeklies during the past year and increased turnover in the upper ranks of sales staffs are forcing papers to identify their greatest assets so they can build up their bottom lines. What's more, the industry has drifted along with its original reader base, says Hazel Reinhardt, director of market research at Northwestern University's Media Management Center. Most publishers didn't think about making the transition to a different generation and a different set of tastes, she says. And many seem reluctant to abandon their first readers: Boomers. However, in order to expand their ad bases and evolve, publishers ultimately face tough choices: Do they continue to serve old readers or court new ones at the risk of losing the oldies? â€œIn smaller markets, that's a pretty high-anxiety decision,â€? says Reinhardt. â€œBut if you don't make clear distinctions about who your reader is, it weakens your unique selling proposition. It also says that you are a very small circulation quasi-mass product.â€?
Instead of capitalizing on its targeted reach, if an alt-weekly tries to be all things for all people, according to Reinhardt, it runs the risk of becoming a daily newspaper â€” and not a good one, either. It would never be competitive, says Reinhardt, because it wouldn't have the mass reach of a daily.
This small-fry reputation is exactly what alt-weeklies are trying to change. In recent years, alt-weeklies have branched out beyond local ads for futon stores and laser hair-removal services to include more national buys. Two sales networks, the Ruxton Group, founded in 1984, and the Alternative Weekly Network (AWN), founded in 1995, have attempted to give advertisers access to multiple alt-weekly markets. The former, for example, represents 24 papers in such major markets as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; the latter represents some 124 alt-weeklies around the country.
Overall, national ad buys represent an estimated 10 percent of all revenues for the industry. Over the past few years, alt-weeklies have attracted national businesses such as Sprint PCS, Pontiac and The Discovery Channel â€” a move that has helped boost gross revenues to a high of $27 million for the Alternative Weekly Network in 1999, up 101 percent from $13 million in 1997. Mark Hanzlik, executive director of the AWN, credits the dot-com boom and big tobacco billings for the growth.
Yet the alternatives still face many challenges in their pursuit of a broader ad base. As in the rest of the media industry, 2001 was a disappointment. National ad sales for AWN, for example, were down 35 percent from the year before, to $14 million. Papers in major urban markets that had depended on growth in national advertising to offset declining circulation were hurt worst. And, then there's the larger problem: Mainstream retailers are reluctant to venture into new territory. What's more, some advertisers still question the legitimacy of a free paper â€” even though most of the papers are audited by either the Audit Bureau of Circulations or Verified Audit Circulation. The auditors do distinguish between papers picked up and those not.
Jeff von Kaenel, publisher of the Sacramento News & Review, says some advertisers don't see alt-weeklies as a viable option because their direct competitors aren't taking ads in them yet. Publishers also recognize that mass retailers may be reluctant to appear in a publication that contains, say, titillating sex ads. Some publishers have actually weaned themselves off the sex ads or, at least, toned them down to appease mass marketers. Also, the alternatives are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to media buys. As Michelle Laven, COO and president of the Ruxton Group, describes it, they're the â€œlast guys bought in the national arena and the first guys cut.â€?
But there are reasons why an alt-weekly buy would make sense for an advertiser. When it comes to reaching a more targeted demographic, compared with the local daily paper or the local city or regional magazine, alt-weeklies usually prove to be more cost-efficient. They're also an economical way to â€œheavy upâ€? in certain markets, says Village Voice Media's Goff. Because most brands want to over-deliver several markets, the alt-weekly sales networks are positioning themselves against a national magazine buy, such as Rolling Stone or Spin. The sales networks can maximize delivery in top metro markets, for instance. â€œNo national product,â€? claims Goff, â€œis going to give you that degree of flexibility geographically.â€?
Not surprisingly, many of the categories that are interested in alt-weeklies have distinct regional skews, such as liquor and fashion. â€œIt's a way to play to the tendencies of the marketplace that national magazines aren't quite as good at doing,â€? says Peter Gardiner, director of media services at Deutsch, a New York-based advertising company.
While the industry has matured and the papers are considered a more viable medium for mainstream advertisers than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they have not reached their prime yet as advertising vehicles, says Veronis' Broadwater. The sales networks have made some inroads into telecommunications, automotive and technology. But many areas remain relatively untouched. The AWN and Ruxton are eyeing such areas as travel, real estate, financial services and pharmaceuticals for further development.
To be sure, alt-weeklies occupy a relatively small market niche. Overall, national ad revenues for some 124 alt-weeklies with an aggregate circulation of 7.7 million amounted to $500 million last year, while ad sales for an estimated 1,480 daily newspapers with a total circulation of 59 million generated an estimated $38 billion, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and the Newspaper Association of America, respectively. Alt-weeklies typically contain edgy features, a large entertainment listings section in the middle and classifieds in back. But they vary considerably from market to market. The largest is New York's The Village Voice, with free circulation of 237,800. One of the smallest alt-weeklies is Newport This Week, with 9,400, according to Verified Audit Circulation. The majority have under 50,000 in circulation.
Alt-weeklies have been around since 1955, when The Village Voice was launched. Originally products of the antiestablishment movement of the 1960s and 1970s, many alt-weeklies now generate a few million dollars in revenue a year. Most have been independently owned, though consolidation in the past decade left the industry with two major owners: Village Voice Media, which publishes seven papers, and Phoenix, Ariz.-based New Times, which publishes 13 alt-weeklies. The number of alt-weeklies based on the membership of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has been steadily growing. Over the past decade, it rose by two-thirds, to 124 in 2001, from 75 in 1991.
The strength of alt-weeklies is that people turn to them before they head out to be entertained â€” and spend money. Historically, alt-weeklies have done well in attracting ads for local entertainment, such as music clubs, concerts, records, restaurants and movies. Therefore, advertisers eager to reach young adults who are night-crawlers may find alt-weeklies a cost-efficient buy. And as these readers age and become more affluent, they may rely on alt-weeklies for bigger purchases, such as for cars, houses or antiques. â€œThe reality of our buy,â€? says Laven of the Ruxton Group, â€œis that we hit [consumers] locally when they're getting ready to go out and spend dollars.â€?
Although alt-newspapers covet a younger readership, they have been attracting an older audience. The median age for Washington, D.C.-based City Paper, for example, is now 37, up from 31 in 1987. Almost half of alt-weekly readers are 35 years of age or older.
|*Readers of papers in the Alternative Weekly Network|
|Source: International Demographics, 1997, 2000|
OUT AND ABOUT
Alt-weekly readers* are prone to consuming an alcoholic beverage or two while they're out on the town.
IN THE LAST 30 DAYS:
|Consumed alcohol at a bar||67%|
|Visited a bar with live music||49%|
|Gave a party||39%|
|*Refers to readers of the the Ruxton Group's alt-weeklies.|
|Source: MediaMark Research, Inc., 2000|
GROWING SPENDING POWER
Almost half of alternative weekly newspaper readers have household incomes of $50,000 or more.*
|*Refers to readers of the Alternative Weekly Network.|
|Source: International Demographics, 1997, 2000|
GIMME THE KEYS
Alt-weekly readers are more likely than average Americans to be planning to purchase a new car in the next 12 months.
READERS WHO PLAN TO BUY IN THE NEXT 12 MONTHS:
|Any new vehicle||120*|
|A sport utility vehicle||138|
|Will pay $20,000||128|
|READERS WHO OWN:|
|*An index of 100 is the national average. For example, readers of alt-weeklies are 20 percent more likely than the average American to buy a new vehicle in the next 12 months, and 40 percent more likely to own a BMW.|
|Source: Alternative Weekly Network Report, Jan 2000-March 2001, 74-market aggregate, The Media Audit from International Demographics, Inc.|
CABLE NEWS THRIVES POST 9/11
How did the Sept. 11 attacks affect TV news viewing? While most sources of TV news benefited from increased viewing after Sept. 11, cable news outfits emerged as the winners. After 9/11, 43 percent of viewers ages 18 to 49 turned to cable news networks for the latest information, up from 17.4 percent before 9/11.
|PRE-SEPT. 11||POST-SEPT. 11||PERCENTAGE POINT CHANGE|
|PRIMARY TV NEWS SOURCE*||AGE 18+||18-34||18-49||AGE 18+||18-34||18-49||18+||18-34||18-49|
|Cable news networks||20.4%||18.3%||17.4%||41.6%||45.8%||43.0%||+21.2||+27.5||+25.6|
|*Percentages may not add to 100 percent because some respondents didn't know or refused to answer.|
|Source: Turner Broadcasting, from a custom Nielsen Media Research study. Pre=8/14/01-9/10/01. Post=9/15/01-10/12/01. Shares do not include regional cable news networks.|
OUTDOOR ADS SLUMP IN 2001
Despite fourth quarter drops in outdoor ad spending, several sectors â€” including travel/resorts/hotels, media/advertising, restaurants and financial services â€” saw increases in overall spending for 2001, compared with 2000.
|Q4 2000||Q4 2001|
|Top 10 categories total||$970.3||$899.9||-7.3%||$3,980.1||$4,054.4||+1.9%|
|Total for all categories||$1,258.9||$1,136.6||-9.7%||$5,235.0||$5,193.1||-0.8%|
|Source: Outdoor Advertising Association of America analysis of Competitive Media Reporting data|
AD SPENDING DROPS IN 2001
Although overall ad spending dropped in 2001, some companies â€” such as Verizon, AOL Time Warner and Ford Motor Co. â€” increased spending.
AD SPENDING BY TOP ADVERTISERS ($ MILLIONS)
|Procter & Gamble||$1,636||$1,592||-2.7%|
|AOL Time Warner||$1,457||$1,553||+6.6%|
|Ford Motor Co.||$1,182||$1,249||+5.7%|
|Walt Disney Co.||$1,087||$1,050||-3.4%|
|Johnson & Johnson||$885||$852||-3.7%|
|Source: Competitive Media Reporting, a Taylor Nelson Sofres Company|
NETWORK MARKET SAGS
The network advertising marketplace may have experienced its worst decline in recorded history during 2001, but that didn't stop some networks from posting gains, according to a MBD analysis of 2001 earnings reports released by their parent companies. ABC contributed the most to the network downturn, dropping by $1.3 billion.
FULL YEAR REVENUES ($ MILLIONS)*
|*For ABC (Walt Disney Co.) and CBS (Viacom), revenues include only TV broadcasting revenues. For NBC and Fox, revenues include cable TV.|
|Source: MBD analysis of company reports, pro forma results|
LET YOUR FINGERS DO THE WALKING
A new study suggests that the Yellow Pages may be more important to consumers than media planners thought. The report, by Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research Inc., found that 84 percent of those who used the Yellow Pages within the prior month contacted a major supplier, and half of that group made a purchase. Local and national ads in the Yellow Pages generated $13.6 billion in revenue in 2001.
Two in 3 people (65 percent) who use the Yellow Pages at least once a week also use the Internet more than 4 hours per week.
NUMBER OF HOURS THAT PEOPLE WHO USE THE YELLOW PAGES WEEKLY SPEND USING OTHER MEDIA:
|TV USE PER NIGHT||RADIO LISTENING PER DAY||INTERNET USE PER WEEK|
|Under 1 hour||60%||58%||63%|
|*2-3 hours; **3+ hours|
|Source: Knowledge Networks/Statistical Research Inc., Yellow Pages Study|
Media Buyer's Daily is a sister publication of American Demographics. MBD covers the supply and demand sides of the advertising marketplace. It targets advertisers, planners, buyers and sellers of media time and space. For subscriptions, call (212) 204-3910.