However, the sales tactics of the alternative papers are looking more like those of the mainstream media and national advertisers are beginning to see the appeal.
"The take on the alternative press was that they were throwaway rags, " says Judy Jablonski, associate publisher of Stern Publishing's 220,000-circulation L.A. Weekly.
She moved into display sales at the paper six years ago, and notes, "we have had huge growth in national [ad sales] over the last three to four years."
While some national advertisers -- such as cigarette companies -- have come on board because of a need for new outlets, weeklies have been chasing categories such as national health & beauty aids, fashion, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and high-tech.
Inroads have been made on the fashion front -- a recent victory for the alternative press was the first-time buy into the alternative press by VF Corp.'s Lee Jeans. Beginning this May, Lee is running an eight-week campaign for a line of Lee dungarees.
"For the first time in a few years we have a young adult target audience of 17 to 22 years," says Michelle Fitzgerald, media supervisor for Lee Jeans at Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis. "[The alternative weeklies] do a good job of reaching a trendsetter and influencer audience."
NOW BUYERS AT AGENCIES
People who grew up reading newsweeklies are coming in to positions of buying power at ad agencies -- the fear factor is dissolving.
"They understood the papers were the Bibles for what was going on in the city," says Michele Laven, publisher of New Times's Phoenix New Times. Ms. Laven also is VP-sales for New Times' selling network, Ruxton Group.
It doesn't hurt that production quality has improved dramatically.
It is no longer unusual for alternative weekly titles such as New Times to have their circulations audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations or the Verified Audit Circulation.
Readership surveys draw an attractive picture. According to Mark Hanzlik, executive director of Alternative Weekly Network: 64% of alternative press readers are single; there's a 50/50 male/female split; 75% are under age 50; the median income is $51,000.
The average reader is very likely to purchase concert tickets, recordings, stereos and computers.
MUSIC IS KING
The bread and butter segment of the alternative papers is still its local advertising -- especially in the areas of books, film and music.
Tower Records depends heavily on the alternative press because "the demos fit" and the papers have a heavy emphasis on event listings and music coverage, says Jeff Viducich, media group manager at Tower.
"I do so many regionalized ads because of tour support," says Mr. Viducich.
He adds from an advertising-inch standpoint he buys more space in weeklies than in the dailies.
"We're giving them so much business. We need to talk to them," says Mr. Viducich. "It's almost a symbiotic relationship."
Another reason the weeklies are a good fit for a company like Tower, Mr. Viducich says, is because it has "a little bit more of an entrepreneurial maverick spirit."
There's also a monetary reason.
"You only have to buy 150,000 copies of a paper in L.A. instead of a million," he says.
Most of the papers seeing national advertising growth are larger titles such as L.A. Weekly or the Village Voice. Selling networks such as Ruxton and Alternative Weekly Network have had a huge impact on the majority of the alternative papers in B and C markets.
"The network is a wonderful thing because it doesn't just represent the large markets," says Jill Mogen, display advertising manager for Seattle Weekly and the president of AWN. "Large clients might not have known about [some of our smaller papers]."
While the networks ostensibly increase a paper's sales force, the biggest impact is they have increased awareness of the numbers and reach of alternative papers.
EASIER TO REACH
Also, the networks make it easier for the national accounts to deal with since they receive one call from each network instead of a call from each individual paper.
"Anything the media does to make my life easier is a good thing," says Frank Smith, VP-group media director with Y&R Advertising, New York.
Ruxton Group is a traditional rep company, which counts 18 alternative weeklies with a combined circulation of 1.87 million. Ruxton was started by the Chicago Reader in the early '80s.
Two years ago, New Times purchased Ruxton with the agreement the company would "aggressively grow the business," says Ms. Laven.
Alternative Weekly Network started to emerge in 1993. Originally called Cal-AAN, AWN was launched by a small group of California papers under the auspices of Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The group developed a national focus and in 1996 -- then ANN Regional Advertising -- broke off from AAN and was incorporated as AWN.
In 1993, Cal-AAN generated $250,000 in advertising revenues for its 17-member network papers. Last year, Cal-AAN generated $13.2 million in ad revenues for its 95-member network.
"What we focus on is developing newer categories with little or no [alternative press] business," says Mr. Hanzlik.
A COOPERATIVE FORCE
Alternative Weekly Network is a clearinghouse and the selling is done by the sales forces of the 95 member newspapers.
"We're a co-op organization that survives a lot on faith," says Mr. Hanzlik.
Accounts are handed out on the basis of proximity to the advertiser/ad rep or by request of the paper. The network has members in every market in the country.
"A lot of this came together when The Boston Phoenix joined up and championed our cause," says Mr. Hanzlik. "Six months later, The Voice signed on."
The two most active members are New Mass Media, publisher of the six Advocate and Weekly newspapers in Connecticut and Massachussets, and New City Communications, publisher of Chicago's New City. Other city papers in the network include Creative Loafing Network's Atlanta Creative Loafing, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Hartmann Publishing Co.'s St. Louis' Riverfront Times.
In the end, the key to the national ad story for the alternative press is all about perception but the combination of stronger -- and more professional -- sales tactics.
"It's sort of a great way to reach a non-magazine reading audience," says Mr. Smith.
Readers "tend to be a little more downtown and avant garde. [The weeklies] are an integral part of my media plan."
ALTOIDS BREAK OUT
One account that representatives from both networks mentioned was Kraft Foods' Altoids mint business.
Although the 1998 Altoids campaign relies heavily on national magazines -- with a very small weekly paper focus -- the "curiously strong" mints helped build its brand through the alternative newsweeklies.
"It's hard to reach cutting-edge urban young adults," says Sarah Cheek, media supervisor for Altoid's at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. But for 1998, Ms. Cheek cites efficiency at reaching a larger audience through its magazine-heavy plan.