Good news: Chicago alt-weekly returns to weekly print issue

By Olivia Cohen

In an increasingly rare move for a print publication, especially with the abrupt closure of The Riverfront Times, Chicago’s alt-weekly is expanding its print operations.

The Reader will print weekly editions of the paper again starting this week after reducing its paper distribution to a biweekly in June 2020 because of  the pandemic, said Chasity Cooper, director of Marketing + Strategic Communications for the Reader.   

Salem Collo-Julin, who took over as editor-in-chief of the Reader in March 2023, said the decision to go back to weekly print editions was in part to reintegrate the “trustworthiness” of  a weekly printed paper. The Reader, a nonprofit newspaper serving Chicago since 1971, covers the Chicago arts scene, culture and city-based investigations. 

“We wanted to get back into people’s lives and also reaffirm the relationships that we have with our longtime readers,” Collo-Julin said. 

Photo by Bryan Hayes via Flickr

The expanded distribution comes as the Reader’s journalism also got a boost.  The altweekly took home a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting this year for their “Missing in Chicago” investigation. The project, done in partnership with City Bureau and the Invisible Institute, focused on how Chicago approaches solving missing persons cases. 

The Reader’s return to a weekly print run is an unusual boost for print publications.

The Riverfront Times, its counterpart alt-weekly in St. Louis, folded last month, ending a 46-year-long run for the paper. All of the staff were laid off.

“This is bad for journalism, bad for the community, and bad for democracy. The public needs to understand the crisis facing journalism and support their local news outlets,” said Elizabeth Donald, who is the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists President. “Our society functions best with a diversity of voices telling the stories of the human experience, and the RFT was a major voice in that chorus in St. Louis.”

Todd Stauffer, the executive director for the Association of Alternative News Media said that alt-news publications are often the “papers of record.” 

“Our board of directors recently voted to shorten our name to just “AAN” because, in some cases, the daily newspaper or the corporate-owned TV stations are so thinned out that there isn’t much to be “alternative” to,” Stauffer said. “Particularly in mid-sized cities around the country, the AAN publication in town is the paper of record, doing the hardest work on reporting issues affecting residents.”

But in Chicago, Collo-Julin said the pivot back to print weekly made financial sense for the paper, which is published by the Reader Institute for Community Journalism. 

Collo-Julin said the biweekly distribution of the Reader’s papers is 60,000 and that they often run out of papers, struggling to keep the pick-up and newsboxes stocked around the city. 

“We get calls or emails every week about people wanting to find the paper, yes. And we know that our papers travel: each one person who picks up a paper usually shares it with others,” Collo-Julin said. 

As they return to weekly print editions, Collo-Julin said the Reader is working with the Local News Accelerator Project at Northwestern to reevaluate their current distribution process and locations. 

The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times continue to print daily, although the Tribune shifted its printing operations this month in the city to the northwestern suburban Daily Herald plant that it owns. The former printing plant on the Chicago River $185 million when it was built in 1982 and was billed at the time as the largest newspaper production facility in North America. The Tribune also prints the Sun-Times.

Only 5% of Americans say they prefer printed newspapers to consume their news, while 58% say they prefer digital devices, 27% prefer TV news and 6% say they prefer radio.  

Since 2004, the U.S. has lost over 2,100 newspapers nationwide. Even more have either decreased or ceased print editions of the paper. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, more U.S. papers shifted to digital-only structures, with few coming back to print in the years since.

Ken Herts, the chief operating officer for the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, an organization that aims to support sustainable local journalism and newsrooms, said COVID-19 only accelerated the “print-to-digital” transition. 

“Covid just accelerated the print-to-digital transition that was already fully underway. Yes, many newspapers stopped printing or went out of business during Covid, but that has been the trend pre-and-post covid as well,” Herts said. “That’s due to the decline in print advertising revenue that started about 15 years ago, as advertisers moved their spending from print to digital and then to mobile products.” 

Herts said that given revenue from print papers have fallen 80% in the last 15 years there are becoming fewer places for publications to print enough to justify seven days of printing per week. However, he said that some print advertisement revenue still exists in the marketplace, which would make sense for some papers to print where it is “incrementally profitable.” 

As the paper approaches the transition, Collo-Julin said it is a little anxiety-inducing, with both some good and bad anxiety because “no one knows what lies ahead.” 

“There’s a little bit of ‘Can we do this?’ But I think there’s also this sense of hope,” Collo-Julin said. “My marching orders as a leader in our publication to, number one, make sure our people are taken care of … and then number two, to make sure that our readers are taken care of.” 

Olivia Cohen will be an environment and energy reporter with Report for America starting in July. She has written for Bloomberg Law, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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