How two alt-weeklies are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic

A pivot to donations and crowdfunding has helped mitigate financial damage at the Coast and Coachella Valley Independent.

One of the things I miss most about “the before times” is sitting at a bar by myself, killing time before a friend showed up. To while away the minutes, I’d usually grab a copy of Now, Toronto’s alt-weekly, and read the feature, check out the food and drink reviews and look at the events listings to see if there was anything I could convince my friend to go to.

Those days are gone, at least for now — and it has put many alt-weeklies in dire straits. “Alt-weeklies have been in some version of crisis mode for the better part of a decade, as smartphones, online events listings, and social media have each moved against their core offerings. It’s entirely unclear whether ‘normal’ is two weeks away, two months away, or two years away,” Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote in March. At that point, a number of alt-weeklies announced they were stopping print publication, among them the San Diego Reader, Eugene Weekly and Oklahoma Gazette. Chatter on Twitter predicted “total annihilation.”

Five months later, however, armageddon hasn’t arrived yet. In fact, some alt-weeklies are pivoting to new models of funding.

For a few years, Christine Oreskovich and Kyle Shaw had dabbled with the idea of doing a donation campaign for The Coast, the Halifax alt-weekly they co-founded. “We were nervous what the reaction might be,” said Oreskovich. Print publishers don’t often get feedback, she notes — and if they do, it’s often angry. 

But COVID-19 left them with few other options. As the pandemic worsened in Nova Scotia, in March, The Coast’s advertising revenue dropped out, making running a print edition financially unviable. Oreskovich and Shaw let almost 20 staff go and stalled print.

In April, they began asking readers for donations.

Most alt-weeklies have always been free. Historically, it’s not just a good financial position — because of their ubiquity, alt-weeklies have largely been supported by advertising, with heavy reliance on cultural coverage and events, and classifieds — it’s also a good editorial one. These outlets serve people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t access or afford newspapers or paid online sites. 

“It’s important to realize that a lot of people pick up print publications still because they don’t have ready access to the online world,” says Jimmy Boegle, the editor and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent, a monthly paper published in Palm Springs, Calif., and the surrounding area. “There isn’t a lot of reliable broadband access because some people are poor.” For some, print really is the only option. 

Alt-weeklies also hold a unique place in the news ecosystem. “[People] want the detritus of what a city is — and I think an alt-weekly paper, personally, is part of that,” says Oreskovich. To lose them would be to lose part of what makes cities fun, cool places to live.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, the Coachella Valley Independent lost 80 per cent of its ad revenue. Boegle decided to ramp up a donation campaign he had always wanted to pursue more vigorously – he’d just never had the time. He started putting an ask in every daily newsletter the Independent sent. 

The results were “gangbusters.” 

“It was not, obviously, enough to make up for all of the lost advertising revenue, but enough to make a dent in the loss,” he says. While donations have slowed a bit, some ad revenue has also returned, and the paper got $5,000 grants from both Facebook and Google. Boegle isn’t taking a salary, but he hasn’t cut any staffers or stopped any print editions.  

Oreskovich’s worries about asking her readers for money turned out to be unfounded. “It was sort of overwhelming, the nice notes [we received],” she says. With the revenue from donations, The Coast’s smaller staff could continue to report on a relentless news cycle in Nova Scotia. They also hired two summer students to bolster their newsroom. Both she and Boegle expect they will continue to make donations a part of their business model going forward.

The Coast’s donation campaign was not based on providing any kind of perks or gifts for supporting the paper — it was just based on offering good journalism. “I think people want to see their community reflected back to them,” says Oreskovich. 

Nova Scotia’s success at keeping COVID-19 numbers low also turned out to be a boon for The Coast. Once it became clear that the province was reopening and encouraging some local tourism, a local ad agency mustered enough support to ensure The Coast could return to print — its annual summer guide was released in early July. 

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