Washington City Paper is for sale. Chris Ferrell, the CEO of the alt-weekly’s Nashville-based parent company SouthComm, says staffers at the paper learned about it this afternoon.
“We’ve been slowly selling a number of our alt weeklies,” Ferrell says. SouthComm will probably continue to operate the Nashville Scene and some other papers, he says, but it will increasingly focus on “b to b,” or business-to-business-focused outlets. Those are “frankly a better business,” Ferrell says.
Ferrell would like to find a seller by the end of the year. What if that doesn’t happen? “If a buyer doesn’t emerge we’ll have to figure out what to do,” he says, adding: “I think there will be lot of interest in Washington City Paper.”
Southcomm bought City Paper in 2012, following a period in which it was owned by the hedge fund Atalaya Capital Management. Atalaya ended up with City Paper and several other alt-weeklies after a disastrous acquisition by Atlanta-based Creative Loafing, which declared bankruptcy a little over a year after purchasing the venerable DC paper and the Chicago Reader for around $30 million.
Atalaya paid about $5 million for the two papers, plus Creative Loafing’s four other weeklies. It gradually disposed of all the properties. SouthComm, whose purchase price for the papers wasn’t disclosed at the time, still owns Creative Loafing’s Tampa paper but earlier this year sold its Atlanta paper to Ben Eason, whose family founded Creative Loafing and who was the architect of the chain’s ill-fated forays into Washington and Chicago.
The DC sale occurs at a very challenging time for alt-weeklies. The Village Voice announced this summer that it would end its print edition, and weeklies in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston have closed. Baltimore’s City Paper (no relation to DC’s), announced earlier this year that it would close unless it found new ownership.
The weekly newspapers flourished in many cities in the two or three decades before the 2007 recession. Since then they’ve suffered a one-two punch: Many of their most reliable advertisers were swept away by the digital wave, and those that remained found they could get more bang for their buck with targeted ads on Google and Facebook. The display advertising you see on many news stories pays so little that publishers often have to drastically expand their readership to make money, a great challenge for papers that focus strongly on small geographic areas.
“I’m pretty bearish on this group of publications,” says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. “They have the same basic set of problems that newspapers have. And then maybe a couple of their own.” In addition to moving from weekly publication in print to daily publication online with a small staff, many of the segment’s traditional advertisers have found other ways to reach an audience. “The overall advertising concept is not really especially strong,” Edmonds says. “The kinds of numbers you can produce aren’t going to be extremely impressive.”
Reached by phone, Jason Zaragoza, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia cautioned against reading too much into the travails of big alts on the East Coast. Of the trade group’s members, “We have quite a few that are doing well,” Zaragoza says. Many have embraced event businesses and specialty publications that appear quarterly. The more successful publishers tend to be “in the smaller to mid-sized markets where the relationship with readers and audience is a lot different than it is in a major market like New York or DC where you have a large transient population” that may not develop much of a loyalty to their alt.
In fact, City Paper’s annual Crafty Bastards fair is a reliable cash cow for the publication. This year’s event will take place in Nationals Park, and Southcomm has cloned it for Nashville and Charleston, South Carolina, where it worked out a deal with the local alt-weekly, which it doesn’t own, to put on a version of the festival. City Paper still owns the trademark on Crafty, but Ferrell says it’s “Too soon to say whether that’s part of a transaction or not.”
So who’s going to buy the publication? Maybe a rich benefactor—several have already been approached—would swoop in and keep City Paper running. It’s still quite strong editorially. Its revenue may be declining but it isn’t a financial basket case, and with careful management (I had a few ideas awhile back) could possibly even start bringing in decent money from its digital efforts.
Alt-weeklies have often doggedly pursued stories other local media have been reluctant to touch, like the Chicago Reader‘s pursuit of its city’s astonishing history of police torture. Also a lot of pretty well-known journalists have gotten their starts or made their names at alt-weeklies–a brief accounting of City Paper‘s alumni includes Katherine Boo and Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as Jake Tapper and Amanda Hess. “That’s something we’re concerned about as well,” Zaragoza says. “Alt-weeklies have traditionally been where people get their start. Without that it is a concerning sign for the future of journalism.”