The Demise of the Urban Commuter Tabloids

The end of the line: The final edition of Express at the McPherson Square Metro stop in Washington, DC.

I’ve blogged before about the major struggles of the so-called alt-weekly press in recent times as the Internet has upended both the business model and the editorial mission of such papers.

But what about urban commuter publications? These are the tabloid freebies that sprang over the decades up to serve the daily public transit population in large urban areas, offering quick-read news and entertainment during subway, train and bus commutes.

Unlike the alt-weeklies with their often-edgy or otherwise counterculture editorial slant, the commuter tabloids were generally more conventional in their content — focusing less on controversial POV topics and instead on “what’s happening” in headline news and on the dining, arts and entertainment front.

One such publication that I came to know quite well was Skyway News — named after the iconic skyway system in downtown Minneapolis — where professionals could grab a copy of the tabloid while dashing off to grab their public transport.  For me, reading Skyway News was a way to pass the time while taking my 35-minute bus commute (yes – it took that long to travel just three miles in the city during rush hour).

An amazing 48-year run: Skyway News / The Journal (Minneapolis, 1970-2018).

Alas, Skyway News, which debuted in 1970, eventually went the way of so many alt-weekly papers.  First it tried expanding its circulation (and editorial focus) to cover residential Northeast Minneapolis, changing its name to The Journal in the process … but finally shut down for good late last year.

Still, it was an amazing 48-year run for a paper that never had a circulation exceeding 30,000.

This week, we’re hearing news that one of the most successful of the urban commuter tabloid ventures has bitten the dust, too. In this case it’s Washington DC’s vaunted Express, a free commuter tabloid published by the Washington Post since 2003.

In his customary colorful way, Dan Caccavaro – the tabloid’s founding editor who remained in that position for the entire 16 years of the publication’s existence – explained to readers what was behind the paper’s demise:

The final edition of the Express tabloid paper (September 2019).

“When we launched in 2003, there was no such thing as an iPhone. It would be another year before Harvard students would start using a novel social network called Facebook to keep tabs on their classmates.  No one was tweeting anything – or Instagramming or Snapchatting.  And most of us still mocked our “CrackBerry”-addicted friends who just couldn’t wait until they got to work to check their email.   

How quaint.”

The headline of Caccavaro’s editorial says it all: “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones.”

While circulation of the Express had been declining since its height of nearly 200,000 copies to around 130,000 today and while the paper’s finances had slipped into loss territory, the death knell came when the DC metro system introduced Wi-Fi service on its trains.  With that move, the ability for the Express to engage the attentions of DC’s metro commuters died.

Whereas at one time the Express and its quick-read news format was “an integral part of the morning commute for Washingtonians,” the ability for people to stay online during their commute effectively made the Express an irrelevance.

As Caccavaro explained in his final editorial salvo:

Express editor Dan Caccavaro then …

“It wasn’t unusual in [the] early days to see two-thirds of riders on a rush-hour train reading Express … The appetite for Express was so great, in fact, that we more than once considered printing an afternoon edition.  

This Monday morning as I rode the train to work, I was struck by a very different observation. Three people on my crowded Blue Line train were reading Express … one man had his nose in an old-fashioned book. Almost everyone else was staring at a phone.”

Express editor Dan Caccavaro now.

What’s particularly ironic is that the Express, with its lively, quick-read character and attractive, colorful layout, was the precursor to the kind of news and information that everyone expects to see continuously fed to them on their devices.  So as it acclimated a generation of readers to being quickly-informed, entertained and pleasantly distracted during their commutes, Express actually sowed the seeds for the wholesale shift to mobile screens to receive information in the same fashion.

With the closure of Express, there can’t be more than a handful of urban commuter tabloids left in existence in America.  I can’t think of single one.  But if you’re aware of any, please enlighten us – and let us know what might be the secret behind their continuing relevance.

Are there no alternatives for the alternative press?

The slow death of America’s alt-weeklies can’t help but feel a little disheartening.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading the so-called “alternative press.” I’ve found it a fascinating sociological exercise, where certain fringe or controversial topics and points-of-view are often aired long before they enter more mainstream discourse.

But that was before the Internet changed everything.

Before the ubiquity of the Internet, the role that alternative weeklies played was arguably one of consequence. I can recall a time where one could encounter a dozen or more papers freely available in retail establishments such as record stores, coffeehouses and head shops in any medium-sized or larger North American city.

The editorial focus of these alt-weeklies covered the gamut – from alternative music, film and literature to environmental causes, LGBTQ interests and other social action priorities – not to mention various ethnic sub-groups.

Basically, any “ism” or group that was underrepresented in the mainstream press was a prime editorial focus and audience target of the alternative press.

One could chart the fortunes of cultural trends by the tone of the editorial writing in these publications – ranging from optimism and anticipation to depression or even rage – depending on the prevailing sociological or political currents of the day.

One friend of mine called it the “alt-weekly shrill-o-meter” – with the decibel level rising or falling with the fortunes of urban-progressive forces in America.

One of the foundational premises of alt-weeklies was that they should be available free to everyone, and therefore they were given wide distribution everywhere urban-aware people congregated.

The costs of production, printing and distribution were paid for through varied and frequently entertaining (of the voyeur sort) advertising.

Twin Cities-based pop music star Prince on the cover of City Pages (1980s).

Back in the late 1980s I was acquainted with a fellow who sold advertising for one such paper, Minneapolis-based City Pages.  He earned a tidy-if-modest living selling advertising space for independent restaurants, funky specialty retailers, dive bars, performance spaces and the myriad music groups that were prevalent on the Twin Cities scene.

Other regular advertisers he relied on were the ones peddling more “questionable” fare like phone chat lines (of whatever persuasion one might prefer) and other services one can euphemistically characterize as “adult.”  Some people contend that those advertisers did as much as anything to keep many an alt-weekly publication afloat in the pre-Internet days.

The point is, in their heyday the alternative press served an important purpose in American urban culture – even if it existed on the margins of society and played a somewhat less-than “conventionally upstanding” role in the process.

And another thing: These alt-weeklies reflected the personalities of the cities in which they operated.  Despite the inevitable superficial similarities between them, I always recognized distinct aspects of each publication that made it a true product of its place.  (Speaking personally, I found this to be the case in Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Baltimore, where I lived and worked from the 1970s to the 1990s.)

Unfortunately, the past 15 years haven’t been kind at all to this corner of the publishing world. With the rise of the Internet (where “anything goes” editorially is an understatement), coupled with inexorably increasing costs to prepare and distribute a paper-based news product, the business environment has turned into a classic squeeze-play for these alternative papers.

Adding to those problems is the challenge of shrinking advertising revenues. Publishers aren’t facing merely the general decline of revenues from would-be advertisers who can now publicize themselves just as effectively online at a lower cost.  It’s also the near-total banishment of adult-oriented advertising, as alt-weeklies have been shamed into dropping those ads due to changing societal attitudes about the objectification and exploitation of women (and men, too).

Because of these dynamics, in recent years the main story about the alternative press has been a predictable (and dreary) one: how these papers have been dropping like flies.  Whereas once there were a dozen or more alternative papers published in a typical urban market the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh, today there may be just one or two.

In smaller urban markets, there may be none at all.

The April 2, 2009 issue of the Missoula Independent.

Just this past week, the last non-student run alt-weekly publication in the entire state of Montana – the Missoula Independent – shut down for good.  Employees received this warm-and-fuzzy communiqué from the publisher, Lake Enterprises:

“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.”

In a now-familiar story line, closing Montana’s last remaining alt-weekly publication came down to a simple calculation of revenues vs. costs. (It probably didn’t help that the magazine’s staff had voted to unionize earlier in the year.)  And adding insult to injury, Lake Enterprises has also shuttered the publication’s archives – all 27 years of it.

Suddenly, it’s as if the Missoula Independent never existed.

This alt-weekly publication’s experience is similar to numerous others. Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, had this to say about the Missoula Independent’s fate after the previous owner sold the publication to Lee Enterprises:

“There was – almost immediately – a pretty good chance this was going to happen. Other alt-weeklies that have been purchased by paper chains have been closed.”

Indeed, it’s a scenario that’s been playing out all over the country: An alt-weekly begins to struggle; new owners move in with the objective of saving the publication, only to cut staffing to near-zero or shut down completely when the old (or new) business model cannot be sustained.

The final issue of Baltimore City Paper (November 1, 2017).

During 2017 it was announced that the 40-year-old Baltimore City Paper would be publishing its last issue by the end of that year.  That’s exactly what happened — by early November as it turned out.

And in fact, no publication is immune – even an iconic brand like New York City’s The Village Voice.

Earlier this month, the world witnessed the effective demise of that vaunted alt-weekly – a publication that some people consider the best exemplar of the genre.

The March 17, 1992 issue of The Village Voice.

Village Voice publisher Pete Barbey, who acquired the media property in 2015 and turned it into an online-only publication in 2017, has now shuttered the publication completely barely a year later.

“Today is kind of a sucky day,” Barbey reportedly told Village Voice employees in a phone conference call.  “Due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing new Village Voice material.”

At least in this case, a veritable treasure trove of Village Voice archival material will be digitized and remain available in cyberspace.  Approximately half of the publication’s employees are being kept on for a period of time to carry out that mission … but no new Village Voice journalism will ever again be produced.

As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I don’t come out of the “counter-culture” movement – nor would I consider that many of my personal or political views reflect those that are typically espoused by the writers and editors of the alternative press.

And yet … I can’t help but empathize with the comments of freelance writer Melynda Fuller, who has opined:

Melynda Fuller

“The loss of alternative weeklies feels particularly personal. They act as mirrors for the complex lives lived in the cities where they publish.  As more outlets are bought up, shut down or prevented from operating at full capacity, a much-needed connection is lost between that city’s culture and its residents.   

Media is in the communications business. In a fractured time in our history, every connection counts.”

How about you? Do you feel any sense of nostalgia for the alternative press?  Is there a particular favorite publication of yours that hasn’t been able to survive?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.