New Times' purchase of Village Voice Media earlier this year is certainly proof of the growing viability of alternative weeklies since the entire category shifted to a free-distribution/ad-based business model.
But it's also triggered concern that alternative weeklies may be shedding their traditional progressive muckraking role.
Bruce Brugman, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, says, "It's a terrible sign when the local alternative paper becomes part of a chain because it's a very cookie-cutter philosophy of journalism."
Business success, however, doesn't have to change the traditional alternative weekly role. "Most of our papers still do a good job of reflecting the character of the cities they operate in," says Roxanne Cooper, director of sales and marketing for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. "And alternative weeklies are still doing more investigative journalism per page than you'll find at a daily."
From a PR perspective, alternative weeklies remain good outlets for cause- and issue-driven pitches, but recent changes have not necessarily made them better outlets for consumer products.
"We might pitch an alternative weekly, especially when it's a controversial topic we can play to our advantage," says Lynaia Lutes, account supervisor at Dallas-based Blanchard Schaefer Advertising & Public Relations. "But in terms of fluffy lifestyle stories, typically that doesn't work."
Matt Tumminello, president of Target 10 Marketing & Communications, which specializes in targeting gay and lesbian consumers, adds, "You do get a fair number of gays and lesbians that read alternative weeklies, so they [are] a good complement to the gay press."
Brugman says the Bay Guardian is doing more service journalism, but tends to view itself as a consumer advocate. "We concentrate on products and companies that have good value and price and aren't ripping people off," he says. "Often we'll take a big boy like the local power company and work on what's the alternative to that."
Alt-weeklies can still be counted on for issues-driven coverage, but the rise of blogs now provides alternatives to the alternatives.
"They still do muckraking investigative issues," says David Lerner, president of Riptide Communications. "But for cause-related publicity, that's increasingly sought in the mainstream media."
But Rebecca Jeschke, media coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that alter- native weeklies can still be an outlet for trend stories, adding, "With any local issue that's a little too complex for a daily, the alternative weekly is a great place to get."
PITCHING... Alternative weeklies
Consolidation among alt-weeklies presents opportunities to get content syndicated across the nation, but the best PR strategy is a local, market-by-market approach
Look for an issue or controversy as a hook to get alt-weeklies interested in traditional consumer product or trend stories
Like other media, alt-weeklies are moving online in a big way, so content that may not make the print edition can still be pitched to the outlet's Web site