Champaign-Urbana Alt. Weekly to close — Are these papers sustainable?

I got word tonight that one of our local alternative weeklies, the (poorly named) Paper, will be closing in two weeks. The Paper is sort of the heir of a previous alternative weekly that started like as The Optimist in 1995 and was killed off by radio giant Saga Communications, which owned it for the last fourteen months of its life.

I found it just a tad ironic that I got the news just moments before starting this evening’s radio show, which was part 2 of our series on local media ownership.

According to sources at the Paper, they were getting squeezed really hard on the ad revene because the competing alternative weekly is run by a student non-profit that doesn’t even expect their weekly to break even. No doubt, it must be tough to make a profit when you’re competition doesn’t even have to come close.

It makes me wonder whether Champaign-Urbana is just too small or too uncool to sustain an alternative weekly, or if these papers just don’t have sustainable models.

Like most other commercial mass media, the alternative weekly business became quite concentrated during the 1990s, with big players like Village Voice gobbling up little papers all over the place. Just like with Clear Channel, the economies of scale, and the ability to syndicate more content and more easily secure national ad accounts make it easier for large companies to make more money with alt. weeklies than small independents.

Of course, in the current case, we can’t rule out having the rival alt. weekly offer bottom-basement ad rates as a cause, either.

Yet, profitability is not a clear-cut issue. How much profit is enough? I have no idea about the Paper’s financials, but I hear they were bleeding money, so I doubt there was much profit to be had at all — I wouldn’t be surprised if they were having trouble even paying their employees. And, still, salaries and freelance fees in the alt. weekly world aren’t all that high to begin with.

I understand that two editors from the Paper intend to look into starting a non-profit weekly paper, and it seems to me that is the way to go. With a non-profit the goal can more easily stay focused on putting out a good paper and paying your employees a fair wage. Nobody makes a killing, but perhaps nobody starves either.

Our local IMC already publishes a monthly newspaper, the Public I, and already some people are wondering how a new non-profit paper would compete or complement it. I tend to be of the mindset of: “the more media, the merrier.” Like most alt weeklies, one of the main elements of the Paper was the reliable arts and entertainment reporting. Just the listing of shows and movies got many people to pick it up.

So if a new non-profit weekly could provide this content along with some decent reporting and commentary, then I think it would be a fine complement to the Public i, which does no entertainment listings, and focuses much more on hard hitting news and analysis.

The second ironic aspect to hearing about the Paper’s imminent demise today is that their current issue features a story on Sinclair Communications, which owns two Central Illinois TV stations, and their plan to gut our local news broadcast in favor of their NewsCentral program.

I call it ironic because this is just the type of critical media reporting I’ve been hoping some publication around here would do. But also because I’ve been covering this story for over a year, both on the Urbana-Champaign IMC website and on the radioshow.… not that it seems anyone notices until it’s in the alt. weekly.

But I guess that’s the point — we need independent and alternative print voices in our communities. And because they serve several functions, from entertainment listings to overlooked news, alternative weeklies are part of that picture. Finding a way to keep them open, publishing and sustainable is a real question.

(Even though it’s trying real hard to be a real alternative weekly, the student-run weekly doesn’t have much incentive to pull the covers off local media ownership, since its parent company owns and runs a commercial radio station.)