At 3:30 p.m. last Monday, Caroline Jones, managing editor of Washington City Paper, received the final copy for their cover story: a feature on an environmental film festival coming to D.C. Fifteen minutes later, the festival was canceled. Concern over the novel coronavirus had triggered widespread closures as the country prepared for unprecedented social distancing measures. Just 36 hours before print time, City Paper’s staff scrapped their whole issue. They rewrote it from scratch. On this week’s cover, released Thursday, there are no photos or features—just a stark yellow background. The headline: “If you’re reading this, go home.”
In the past week, as restaurants, bars, and other venues shuttered over the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic began gutting another essential resource: alt weeklies. Washington City Paper had to rewrite and rethink their entire publication, but they were the lucky ones. “We’re a fairly nimble group,” said Wm. Steven Humphrey, editor-in-chief of the Portland Mercury. “But it’s been a fucking nightmare.”
Last Friday, The Stranger, the famous Seattle alt-biweekly, announced that they had temporarily laid off 18 employees from nearly every department. The news came just a day after the Pulitzer Prize-winning publication halted their print edition in favor of their website.
The same day, their sister paper, The Portland Mercury, cut their print production and laid off 10 more workers. Their local rival, Willamette Week, has laid off three employees, cut their circulation, and plans to reduce some hours.
On Tuesday, Voice Media Group, the parent company behind Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, and Denver’s Westword, sent a letter to their employees announcing immediate pay cuts of 25-35 percent and impending layoffs in the midst of an on-going union dispute (Disclaimer: I interned for Miami New Times in 2018). And just Wednesday, The Riverfront Times in St. Louis laid off seven members of their team, leaving two people in editorial and two in sales.
Alt-weeklies have been eulogized semi-regularly since 2004, when Craigslist began to consume the classified advertising market and an estimated 36 percent of newspaper revenue. The following years brought harsher blows, when Facebook and Google started dominating digital marketing and federal investigations shuttered websites like Backpage, which had been scrounging for what little money remained. But the alt-weeklies that survived found new models of revenue—mostly, live events.
The Stranger, for example, launched HUMP!, an amateur film festival curated by Dan Savage, where readers could submit five-minute dirty movies, and compete for a top prize. “None of it went online and the audience had to agree to all sorts of secrecy,” said The Stranger Print Editor Christopher Frizzelle. “But it brought in a ton of money from tickets, and that led to all these other film festivals. Now, obviously, we cannot have film festivals anymore.”
The paper also launched a ticketing service for local venues and a comprehensive event calendar in Seattle, with digital infrastructure they later sold in other cities. With social distancing measures in place, there are no tickets or events. “We thought we had diversified our revenue,” Frizzelle said, “but they all had one thing in common: people gathering together.”
The sudden and near total loss of revenue has meant rapid changes at alternative publications. Outlets like Portland Mercury, The Stranger, and the Voice Media Group properties are soliciting donations on their website. Riverfront Times has launched a crowd-sourced fundraiser. Willamette Week has seen a spike in their membership program. Many have cut their print publications, the cost of which has increased during President Donald Trump’s trade war over tariffs. But those that haven’t are rethinking what print distribution means, when readers aren’t going to coffee shops or newsstands to pick them up. City Paper targeted their latest delivery run towards the low-income areas of D.C., like the wards east of the Anacostia River.
“Twenty-five percent of people in Washington don’t have access to broadband internet, and 17 percent lack regular access to a computer,” Jones said. “We’re focusing our efforts on places where people especially need this information. We’ll know if that first attempt was successful next week.”
All of the publications contacted for this article, except for Washington City Paper, had made or planned to make drastic cuts to their staff. “We had a staff meeting last week—the last staff meeting we had, I guess, period,” said Daniel Hill, the former music editor of Riverfront Times, who was laid off with six colleagues on Wednesday. “We knew things were going to be serious. We knew we wouldn't be meeting the following week—I personally didn’t realize it would involve me not having a job.”
Hill doesn’t blame the paper’s ownership. The profit margins for alt-weeklies are small. He plans to continue writing for Riverfront Times as he used to—on alt-weekly-style subjects like a brewery that transformed into a hand sanitizer factory, or an undercover sting operation involving an all-you-can drink brewery and a hotdog costume—without compensation. “As for me,” Hill wrote in a blog post about the layoffs, “I'm either going down with the ship dressed up like a hot dog or I'm gonna help it claw its way back until the day I can suddenly, hopefully, maybe, collect a check again.”
For employees at Voice Media Group, the announcement of pay cuts and layoffs came as a greater shock, because the staff has been in dispute with their management over the latter’s refusal to acknowledge their union. “An overwhelming majority of our editorial staff was involved in the Voice Media Guild organizing efforts,” said Steven Hsieh, a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. “We were hopeful that our corporate owners were going to do the right thing and voluntarily recognize us—that did not happen. What happened was our owners challenged whether certain employees should be in our unit or not. That triggered hearings at the National Labor Relations Board. Now, we’ve been in a holding pattern. It’s been really disappointing.” (Voice Media Group did not immediately respond to requests for comment).
Staff writers at New Times make roughly $40,000 per year, Hsieh said. A 25 percent pay cut would reduce that to $30,000. (Employees earning more than $80,000 a year will lose 30 percent of their pay; VMG did not disclose the salaries of their executives, who will take a 35 percent cut). The company’s CEO Scott Tobias did not specify how many people would be laid off, who might be affected, or when employees might expect them. He spawned further confusion by insisting, alongside the announcement, that the company remained “fundamentally sound as an organization.” Prior to the virus, he wrote, they had been seeing “tremendous momentum.”
But for all the upheaval, Jones said, her staff was trying to reimagine what alternative journalism could look like when no one can go outside. Washington City Paper converted their events calendar to a recommendation calendar. “Instead of this is what you can go out and do, it’s this what you can stay in and do,” Jones said. “We had to flip it on its head.” Likewise, their sports section pivoted from covering games, which no longer exist, to covering online exercises—home Crossfit, live-streamed yoga, YouTube dance classes.
At The Stranger, Frizzelle said, they launched a book club to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for their blog, where readers can follow along, submit photos of themselves reading, and discuss in the comments section. “The comments section is usually a hellscape,” he said. “Now it’s a place to come together and talk to people about literature.” They call it the Quarantine Club.
On Thursday, The Stranger launched another new feature called “A Message To The City:” a short performance aimed at the community, posted every day to offset the grim onslaught of morning news. Thursday, Seattle Symphony player Nathan Chan published the first installment, with a private cello performance recorded on his iPhone.
And on Friday, Ben Gibbard of indie-rock pioneers Death Cab for Cutie will play an original song called “Life in Quarantine,” and discuss a non-profit that collects tents for the homeless. “He just wrote out the address on a little scrap of paper and held it up to the camera–that’s how low tech it is,” Frizzelle said. “We want it to feel like anyone can do this–this homemade, DIY video of Ben Gibbard playing the guitar, telling people how they can help.”