The Pew Research Center says the newspaper industry is in “something perilously close to free fall [and] the bottom is not in sight.” That’s a conclusion offered in its gloomy new State of the News Media report, which I just blogged about here.

But buried in the report is a subsection on alternative weeklies such as the Reader, and the state of our sector doesn’t sound quite so dire.

Dire enough. We’re “hardly immune to the troubles besetting the rest of the media in 2008,” as can be seen from the fact that “one of the largest chains of alternative weeklies, Creative Loafing, filed for protection from its creditors under bankruptcy law.” 

Creative Loafing, as luck would have it, owns the Reader.

Other alt weeklies “also showed signs of stress,” says Pew, “particularly those in big markets where advertisers are finding alternatives to the alternatives. Smaller communities seemed to fare better.” And many alt weeklies “aggressively pursued the Internet, adding features and beefing up promotions to draw younger readers to the place where many of them are already getting the bulk of their news.”

As a result, for all their floundering, “alternative weeklies report growth online, both in readership and revenue.” And their readership, curiously enough, is getting both younger and older: “According to a survey by the Media Audit, a company that conducts audience surveys, the readership of alternative weeklies that is aged 18 to 24 grew to 14.1% from 13.6%. That remains well under the estimated 42.6% of the readers who are aged 45 or older. That latter figure is up from 41.5%.”

Yet Pew notes that the collective circulation of the 130 papers belonging to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies dropped  a little more than 5% last year. These figures suggest a particular problem hanging onto readers in the 24-to-45 range, otherwise known as the heart of the market.