Alternative weeklies partner up

When the going gets tough, the tough get partnered....

When the going gets tough, the tough get partnered.

For years now, Canada’s alternative weekly newspapers have represented one of the few reliable, targeted channels for reaching hip, young urbanites.

Today, however, they face increasing competitive pressure, as emerging players such as city portal sites and free commuter tabloids vie for the attention of this coveted target audience, offering a similar wealth of information about local entertainment and leisure options.

In response, many of these papers have quietly begun forging alliances with their new rivals.

Toronto’s Now magazine, for example, sells content both to Metro – one of three new commuter dailies launched in the city this past summer – and to local Web portal MyTO.com, part of the Telus network of city sites.

The Georgia Straight in Vancouver has gone even further, situating its own site entirely at Telus portal MyBC.com. In Halifax, meanwhile, The Coast sells its content to Media Pipeline’s NovaScotia.com site.

Hugh Dow, president of Toronto-based media buying agency M2 Universal, says that, until now, alternative weeklies haven’t taken a sufficiently hard look at their future – and it’s about time they did.

‘It would certainly behoove these publications to take [new competitors such as portal sites] seriously and immerse themselves in them, because inevitably they’ll be a force to be reckoned with,’ he says.

As an alternative to urban weeklies, city portals could prove particularly appealing to advertisers and media buyers in future, Dow says. Their content offers greater depth of coverage, can be more up-to-date, and often includes features such as audio and video streaming.

That’s a significant point, given the nature of the audience for urban weeklies, he says. ‘Certainly the readership base is very heavily involved with Internet activities, and many of them are obviously the early adopter affinity groups.’

For their part, the alternative papers are generally hesitant to concede that they worry about heightened competition.

Now, the second-largest alternative weekly in the country, is relaunching on Nov. 9, introducing a new, smaller, magazine trim size and a dramatically reworked editorial package. But according to the paper’s publisher and co-founder, Alice Klein, the move has less to do with changes in the marketplace than with rising paper costs and a need for the product to evolve.

‘Our sense is that everybody’s pretty busy,’ she says. ‘The world is filled with options, and we want to communicate as strongly and compellingly as we can to stake our claim on people’s time.’

The relaunch will be supported with a $120,000 campaign that will include transit shelters, a billboard at Yonge and Gould Streets, posters in approximately 200 restaurants and bars, a radio promotion, and ads in partner publication Metro. The campaign will run six to eight weeks.

As far as commuter dailies are concerned, Klein says Now doesn’t see them as a serious competitive threat. These papers (Metro, Torstar’s GTA Today and Sun Media’s FYI Toronto) aim more at daily readers than at the people who pick up alternative weeklies.

However, The Georgia Straight’s vice-president of sales and marketing, James Craig, admits that his paper is concerned by the news that Sweden’s Modern Times Group plans to launch a Vancouver edition of Metro next spring.

The Straight, he says, has begun looking at strategies to address this challenge – including the possibility of following Now’s example and creating a partnership with Metro.

One disadvantage that many alternative weeklies suffer is a shortage of in-house marketing expertise. Indeed, The Straight is among the few to employ a dedicated marketing person.

That’s not necessarily surprising, given the fact that most of these papers haven’t traditionally faced direct competition. (Now, which goes head-to-head with Torstar’s Eye, is an exception.) But it could prove problematic as urban weeklies square off against new rivals.

Mike Beard, director of advertising for The Ottawa Xpress, says competitive pressure can be healthy for urban weeklies. His own paper, he notes, went through dramatic improvements when two competing weeklies briefly entered the market.

‘When you’re the only one in town,’ he says, ‘you take everything for granted, throw it on the street and hope for the best.’