The poster, of a smiling man’s face in a red circle with a diagonal no-parking-style slash through it, hung on walls at the most recent convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in San Diego.EMeeting rooms at the Westin were jammed with editors and publishers anxiously hatching plans to defend themselves from this fiend. Down the hall in the exhibitors’ hall, vendors offered products guaranteed to help make him go away once and for all.
The pudgy face terrorizing newspaperdom belongs to Craig Newmark, the 51-year-old founder of craigslist.org, a website that features classified ads from jobs listings to threesomes with randy couples. Craigslist posts about five million new ads per month, but only charges for 160,000 listings for jobs—for now. Craigslist’s profits and capitalization are somewhat of a mystery, but where their business is coming from isn’t: people who used to advertise in newspapers. Thanks to Craigslist and other online listings services, print classified revenues are plummeting, both in traditional dailies like the Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune and in the alternative weekly papers favored by readers under 40, like the Seattle Weekly, Chicago Reader and the one you’re reading right now.
“Some analysts,” says a BBC business report, “are already predicting that newspaper classified advertising could vanish entirely [because of Craigslist].” Since classifieds amount to as much as 40 percent of a paper’s income, that could force many to shut down.
Before Craigslist, weeklies were killing dailies. Noting that adult readership of daily newspapers dropped from 78 percent in 1950 to 65 percent in 1995, Jeff vonKaenel, owner of the Sacramento News & Review and other weeklies, predicted the end of dailies by 2007: “Within the next ten years [he wrote in 1997], most local daily newspapers across the nation will be out of existence.
Or they will be losing so much money, they will wish they were out of business.” Even after 9/11 prolonged the recession, vonKaenel’s forecast still looked realizable. The average weekly was taking in roughly a third as much advertising revenue as the average daily in 2002, but with less than a tenth of the staff or overhead. Meanwhile, weeklies were trending up—in total number, ad listings, page count and respectability. Panicked dailies, trending the opposite direction with fewer, older readers, launched so-called “faux weeklies”—corporate-owned tabloids designed to appeal to the weeklies’ Gen X and Y demographic.
The Craigslist phenomenon has changed all that. Dailies and weeklies are facing similar drops in ad revenue, but, unlike so many dailies, few weeklies are owned by deep-pocketed corporate parents capable of weathering sustained losses. And alternative weeklies are given away free, so they can’t fall back on subscription revenues.
In my hometown, NY Press has become a study in page-count entropy. “Is that thing still in business?” is a standard comment when the ever-skinnier weekly comes up in conversation. Greenville (SC) MetroBeat, Las Vegas Mercury and Spokane (WA) Local Planet have all ceased publication during the last year.
As classified ads go away, display ads become the last game in town. Media buyers for big advertisers find it easier to buy display ads—the big ones with pictures—from chains of dailies that can offer exposure from coast to coast than to purchase them from one weekly at a time.
No one wants to speak for attribution about the crisis in the weeklies, but staffers sing the same sad song. “We’re dying,” the editor of a major weekly confides. “We have all these meetings to deal with Craigslist, but no one knows what to do about it. It’s too late for our [newspaper] website because the Web readers are gone and they’re never coming back.”
Another editor at a smaller weekly is more sanguine: “We’ll survive for now, but only because we’ve got one staffer doing the work of the other two we’ve let go. But I don’t see how we’ll be able to expand, to get better.”
Weekly newspapers do important work. They publish music reviews, edgy cartoons (I got my start in one) and cultural coverage that matter to young adults—and get ignored by the dailies. They pride themselves on their scrappy coverage of local news and politics. In July, for example, federal prosecutors filed criminal medical fraud charges against a California doctor as the result of a series that appeared in OC Weekly.
Most are editorially left-of-center at a time when the mainstream media is running right. Whenever one of these vibrant publications goes out of business, it’s a loss for the country. MTW