Alternative weekly The Public looking to 'raise the bar'

Aug 13, 2015

Stacked in news stands across Western New York are two weekly publications with gigantic centerpiece art and intriguing cultural content. One is new to the party, while the other has been around for more than 25 years.

A year since former Artvoice employees started laying the groundwork to launch their new newspaper The Public, some continue to wonder if Buffalo can support two alternatives weeklies.

Geoff Kelly, editor of The Public, is one of three partners that left Artvoice in fear of its long-term future to start the new publication.

“What we all learned — in a rather dramatic fashion — was that the paper was in dire financial straits, despite the fact that it should have remained profitable. It had to do with mismanagement more than it had to with lack of audience or lack of ability to be profitable and that was very frustrating and even depressing to learn that this institution was really being allowed to fall apart,” Kelly said.

Artvoice owner and editor Jamie Moses declined multiple interview requests by WBFO.

Moses confirmed by email that Artvoice took a one-week hiatus from publishing to ramp up its sales department. It’s last issue was on July 30, but Moses plans on publishing this week and will return to regular printing Sept. 3.

Moses says he will be making an announcement fairly soon and he has been working on something to expand Artvoice’s reach and sales opportunities.

Kelly says he and ex-Artvoice employees Cory Perla and Aaron Lowinger, who are partners at the paper, launched the publication last November because they felt they could up the ante.

“I think the goal is to raise the bar. I think that the city generally is becoming accustomed to higher quality products. From the food we eat to the plays we see, the books we read, the design that we embrace, the things that we read. I felt, as did this whole team, that we could put out something that was a little better and that the city needed it,” Kelly said.

The Public started working out of the Hi-Temp Fabrication building on Perry Street, but has since moved to 1526 Main Street. The paper has just eight full-time staff members, but Kelly says more than 100 contributors have helped out.

“We’re a pretty small in-house team and we rely extensively on freelance writers and contributors. We’re sort of conduit for their work.”

Kelly says no loans were used in funding the paper. It has all been powered by capital investment to get it off the ground.

Thirty-five thousand copies of the The Public are printed every Wednesday at Bayard Printing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and then get dropped off at an East Side warehouse.

“Then we have a handful of drivers who take it from Niagara Falls to Lewiston, to Lockport, to all the way down to Dunkirk and Fredonia and obviously sort of saturating the city and the immediate suburbs,” said Kelly.

Audiences at news stands will pick up papers filled with stories on local news, culture, politics, music, food and art, among other topics. Kelly says things have been going great with engaging content and plenty of ad sales.

“We’re actually pretty much following the path we charted for ourselves both as a business and on the editorial side. Business is picking up beautifully, just as we expected it would,” he said.

But what is The Public doing that Artvoice isn’t? Kelly says it’s how ads are sold.

“Part of it is offering a better value proposition, in terms of how we treat our advertisers, how we sort of help them design campaigns. Offer, I think a better product. If nothing else, it’s larger and cheaper. So a quarter page ad is cheaper and it’s bigger and it’s better designed and it’s more colorful. Our website is much more active than theirs and online advertising has proven to be more attractive,” said Kelly.

Kelly expects the paper to start getting out of the red this fall.

“We’re adding new clients every week. We’re just about to the point of self-sustainability, which in eight months for a startup is pretty good. If things keep building the way they have been, we should be profitable in the fall, consistently so,” he added.

Right now Kelly is focusing in building the paper, but also building its cultural footprint.

“We’re trying to become part of the cultural community, which we then amplify through our paper. We want to contribute to it, as well as cover it. And that’s working and that builds the kind of the relationships that in the end somehow manifest in business,” said Kelly.

But a year since the seeds were planted for The Public, the big question still remains: Can two weeklies of this kind survive in Buffalo?

“I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. When we made our business plan, we did not presume that we needed to be the only paper in the market to make it work.”