Wednesday, March 28, 2012

If I Ran an Alt Weekly ...

A few weeks ago, I was asked to come up with a list of things I would do if I were the editor of a local alt weekly. It seemed to me that there are five areas that need consideration:

1. An alt weekly needs an identity.
2. It needs to justify why it is in print.
3. The business-side and the editorial folks need to work together.
4. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of online, and staff accordingly.
5. Develop partnerships, as the alt weekly staff alone cannot be comprehensive.

When you get right down to it, these are not concepts that are unique to alt weeklies. So, I'm posting my full notes here as I think they apply to all print media and possibly all media in general. (Specific names have been removed).

1. The paper needs an identity.

• Who is the audience? The target audience should be young, educated and cultured people. And the people who wish they were young, educated and cultured.
• It might even be wise to focus on a tight geographic coverage area. Because of limited resources (i.e. staff and print space), decisions must be made about what and where gets covered. The paper should focus on city life, appealing to those who live here and those interested in city living.
• The paper should champion the city and its citizens. Always.
• There needs to be something that draws readers back every week.
• I suggest a regular columnist who crafts first-person, Philadelphia narratives that revolve around being a 20-something involved in stuff.
• My initial thought is (name removed). He’s intelligent, artistic and connected in the youth culture scenes (dance parties, art shows, squat houses, etc).
• This is not a reactionary-type of opinion story. These are scenes from the life of a young Philadelphian.
• The writers and top editors need to be in front of people constantly. Deals need to be made with local TV stations so that staff are on air regularly (every week at minimum).
• The editor needs to be everywhere, talking to everyone.

2. You need to justify why the paper is in print.

• This is not a newspaper, and the small staff will never compete in the realm of breaking news. Rather than focusing on breaking news or timely events, the paper should think about ideas, trends and in-depth, long-form reporting. What (or who) is the next big thing? Stories should be well-written, with characters developed and crazy plotlines. There must be scenes and action.
• Emphasis on engaging writing.
• (name removed)’s column should be every week but shorter (750-words) and less-timely. The writer should be using individuals to tell stories about relevant issues. They do this now at times.
• The staff writers should concentrate on cover stories. If you are going to employ or contract writers, you need to get the most out of them. They would be on the hook for one long story (3,000-words) every five weeks, on average. And it’s fine if the columnist's weekly pieces intersect with the longer stories – that is part of the continuum from week to week.
• I think the long stories should be three pages, with large images or art. Open with two, facing pages, then go to an ad page (or two), followed by the remainder of the story.
• The long stories are not always the cover. Think of this like a weekly magazine. The cover is the best, most intriguing art. Sometimes that will be the longer story. But sometimes the longer story is a think piece that is not especially visual. No need to force this.
• The paper should be visually striking.
• Theater, music, movies and art should focus on previews, not reviews. Reviews of things that have passed are irrelevant. Negative reviews or previews are also irrelevant. With limited space, focus instead on what people should be doing/ listening to/ seeing/ whatever … not what they should avoid. It is essentially a negative review/ preview when people/ places are ignored.

3. The business side and the editorial side should work side-by-side, but remain independent.

• There are currently 14 or so pages of editorial content every week. The ratio for ad to editorial is dismal but let’s work within that frame for now.
• There needs to be an awareness of juxtaposition. Right now, the paper has massive ad clutter. It looks like a shopper. I would suggest a better blend of ads and content (for instance, make the calendar pull across the double-truck). Design matters.
• Local advertisers are absolutely essential. But they will get lost in the clutter. How about this deal: if an advertiser locks into a long-term, multiple issue deal (say 5 issues), they get a larger ad every fifth issue.
• The paper needs national ads. Clothing brands. Beer companies. Sneaker makers. While the overall product may not be intended to be a lifestyle magazine, the reality is that the target audience is marketable.
• I would move that youth/ city life columnist to page 46, and run it alongside (name removed)'s current column. That way, readers will flow from the arts & entertainments sections through the ads, to the back of the issue.

4. The Web is a marketing tool, a place for bundled ads and a place for reviews and breaking news.

• There are no ads on the three primary blogs. If you aren’t making money there, don’t waste time generating content (leave it to the interns, as much of it is now).
• Start generating money on those blogs.
• Review every album that comes in the door, especially from Philly bands. That will draw web traffic.
• Re-post band’s YouTube videos constantly.
• Make the website an aggregator of content the readership might be interested in. But forget original reporting until there is enough revenue to fund multiple staffers who concentrate primarily on web stuff.

5. Partnerships.

• It might be wise to contract or partner with an existing blogger (or two) who can supply content for online.
• Maybe the paper's stories can be connected to HuffPo?
• There must be a TV partnership. That exposure is invaluable.
• It might be good to partner with local colleges. Drexel, for instance, now covers the art scene for the Daily News. And they received foundation money to do the deal.
• I think it’s important for people to think of the paper as being a part of the community. That idea must be fostered. And people must feel as though they are part of the process (we should solicit story ideas, hold town hall meetings, invite reader stories and comments, etc).