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Buy an Ad, Save a Newspaper

By Ben L. Kaufman · February 3rd, 2009 · On Second Thought
A member of a Leadership Cincinnati class once asked how readers could get more news in The Enquirer.

“Buy more ads,” was my answer, explaining that more ads meant more space for news. “If you buy another two pages of ads every day, I can assure you that there will be more news in the paper.”

From her stunned reaction, the causal relationship between ad revenue and volume of news coverage was a novel idea.

Ads determine the news hole in a ratio meant to show a profit; the news hole includes everything not an ad: photos, illustrations, headlines, comics, recipes, weather map, etc. Editors get page layouts with the ads blocked in. They work around them.

Paid circulation is a factor in determining the rates advertisers pay. So are demographics. A paper that has affluent, employed subscribers can charge more than a paper with a similar circulation among less affluent and economically troubled readers. A paper that’s not bleeding print edition circulation and readership is better able to attract ads.

To The Enquirer’s credit, it’s escaped horrific circulation declines reported by many other major dailies in recent months. I’m told that it’s holding even or inching up. On Feb. 1, Publisher Margaret Buchanan told readers that “Today, nearly 54% of local adults, about 677,000, will sit down with this newspaper.” And, in case advertisers didn’t get the message, she added, “That’s more than will watch the ‘big game’ here.”

Readers add up to more than paid subscribers and street sales; Sunday papers always draw more buyers and readers than Monday-Saturday papers. Still, it’s better news than what many publishers offer, even if it’s coupled with the warning that next month the paper will shrink again as The Enquirer adopts a narrower page size.

Combined with online publications and such “non-daily products” as CiN Weekly and the 20-plus Tristate suburban weeklies Gannett bought, The Enquirer and other Gannett papers reach most adult newspaper readers in our circulation area. That’s something a daily alone never could do.

Praiseworthy as that is, it hasn’t stanched the flight of advertisers to Craig’s List and other sites on the Internet, Door Store, Yellow Pages, Auto Trader, etc. Among the heavy losses have been real estate and employment ads. Those classified ads were the foundation of the paper’s wealth. Now they’re so few that The Enquirer doesn’t even print a classified ad section every day.

The Enquirer once was one of the more profitable paper among scores of Gannett dailies, if not in the country. Buyers hadn’t been shy about paying substantial amounts to own the paper. It was a conceit — as well as a gripe — that The Enquirer made so much money that it single-handedly funded USA Today’s startup in the 1980s. Then as now, Gannett publishers grudgingly impoverished their budgets to send millions to corporate headquarters.

Ads on Enquirer Internet sites haven’t made up ad losses in the print editions and probably never will. At best, Enquirer ads will support the ever-smaller paper and staff until online is all that’s left. Whether that incarnation of a traditional daily will matter is worrisome.

The Enquirer will be around when Depression II eases, but it will be shrunken and redesigned to make the most of fewer ads. Whatever happens, successful newspapers like The Enquirer and CityBeat will continue delivering audiences to advertisers by offering readers the news they want and need, and the amount of advertising will continue to determine how much news can be delivered.

That’s traditional thinking, printed at Sinai and delivered ... well, you know the story.

During the past couple weeks, however, I’ve run into an alternative universe with different rules to save dying dailies, lest poverty reduce them to lapdogs of government, business, industry and nonprofits.

Rather than buy a famous soccer team, Alexander Lebedev, an expatriate Russian oligarch, is buying London’s failing Evening Standard for 1 pound (twice the street price of one copy). A former KGB officer, he’s quoted as saying he'll reconsider whether to continue publishing in three years.

Meanwhile, Lebedev says he has no political agenda, but he can’t be unaware of access that ownership of a national newspaper assures. The difference between his approach and the great press lords is important.

Lebedev is “outside” money buying in (think a Lindner owning The Enquirer, GE and Disney owning American networks and a Mexican billionaire taking a stake in The New York Times) while powerful newspaper owners (think Bingham, Sulzberger, Chandler, Pulitzer, Hearst) drew their wealth from their papers.

More interesting is an alternative that might play in Peoria. In his blog, crosscut.com, Bill Richards wonders if an unusual IRS category, the L3C, might provide life support for his hometown Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times and other failing dailies. Richards says an L3C is a low-profit community-owned operation that gives donors tax breaks like a charity. It’s probably going to be tried in Peoria, where The Journal Star and owner Gatehouse Media are in financial trouble, he adds.

A New York Times op-ed piece goes further: turn papers into foundations. That way, the altruistic rich can endow the foundation, as they do Yale where the authors — David Swensen, the chief investment officer, and Michael Schmidt, a financial analyst — work.

L3C or a foundation still allows papers to sell ads, but each involves support beyond ad and subscription revenues, whether printed or online or both.

Coincidentally, The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore quotes John Adams’ advice to threatened newspapers of his time: “Do not, he told them, ‘suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice’.”


Curmudgeon Notes

• Last week's snow and freezing rain came and went without the traditional hype of local TV stations: “Don’t touch your dial because we have the scariest forecast.” At least the 10 and 11 p.m. forecasts that I saw were accurate, sometimes to the hour when precipitation would start, change or abate. Granted, some street reporters still said silly things in failed efforts to persuade us they were risking life and limb on our behalf, but what do you do or say if everyone knows “the news?” Meanwhile, broadcasters continue to repeat Duke Energy’s invitation to people whose power is out to turn on their computers (!) to find out when power will be restored. And when did power failures euphemize into “outages?”

• More snow is likely. It’s winter. So here are news tips to cliche-challenged reporters: Ask drivers if they have shovels, sand or grit in their cars or why not. Get an auto guru to explain why it’s problematic to “warm up” a vehicle for 20-30 minutes. Look for correlations between rear-wheel-drive pickups or luxury cars and accidents; God help anyone caught behind these clunkers as they spin their wheels without moving or slide up or down a hill.

• Liz Bonis’ timely report about heart attack risks from snow shoveling demonstrates good local TV. Her Channel 12 "Medical Edge" included before/after blood pressures of a seemingly fit person shoveling snow. Bonis caution shovelers to take breaks and avoid heroics. She didn’t have to convince me. I grew up in Minnesota, where shoveling-related deaths were commonplace, and it’s a caution I carry with my ice chisel and shovel.

• Before the inauguration, the media were full of the choice of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren for the invocation. Critics faulted his opposition to gay marriage. Since Warren’s sermon-length invocation in Jesus’ name, he seems to have vanished from the news. So has the fuss over the prayer at the Lincoln Memorial by gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson at the start of inauguration week. Maybe neither choice mattered much except to reporters with a need to write something when nothing was happening.

• James Rainey notes in The Los Angeles Times, “When George Bush's people put on a $42 million inaugural program four years ago, many editorial writers and columnists around America came unglued. ... It would have been nice, for the sake of consistency and fairness, if the commentariat had leveled a measure of that same attitude at last week's Obamapalooza, which cost roughly the same but drew a fraction of the blow-back. Critics on the right have explained the discrepancy with their default argument about liberal media bias. But I think President Obama got a (mostly) free pass on his lavish coming-out party because of other bad media habits: like the tendency to follow the pack, to embrace critiques if they are buttressed by a politician's allies and, especially, to get swept up in the mood of the moment.”

• Less enamored are editors of the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters, who refused to carry Obama’s public relations photos of "Day One in the Oval Office." Traditionally, news services took their own photos. Their photographers also were barred from the second oath taking. Every president redefines “transparency.”

The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn considers the future of The New York Times and other dailies: “If you’re hearing few howls and seeing little rending of garments over the impending death of institutional, high-quality journalism, it’s because the public at large has been trained to undervalue journalists and journalism. The Internet has done much to encourage lazy news consumption, while virtually eradicating the meaningful distinctions among newspaper brands. The story from Beijing that pops up in my Google alert could have come from anywhere. As news resources are stretched and shared, it can often appear anywhere as well: a Los Angeles Times piece will show up in The Washington Post, or vice versa.”

• Two must reads: After NPR specials, the clearest explanation of our economic trouble comes from Jeff Madrick in the Feb. 12 New York Review, “How We Were Ruined & What We Can Do.” For anyone still in denial about W’s purpose-driven furtherance of religion as public policy, read Christianity Today’s appreciation by Tony Carnes in the February issue: “Bush’s Faith-Based Legacy.”

• Now I know what they read in Wasalia: CityBeat and "On Second Thought." Why else would Sarah-Oh-Twelve invite me to order the “absolutely FREE” and “official” Alaska travel guide. Of course, the letter also reflects her infamously weak geography. It’s addressed to “Dear Neighbor.”

• Why should PETA buy Super Bowl time when it can create a commercial sure to be rejected by NBC for Sunday’s game? Rejection guaranteed media buzz and uploading to YouTube, where everyone can see it. Brilliant. PETA’s commercial shows lovelies in their undies, caressing raw vegetables and themselves with such turn-ons as asparagus and a pumpkin. It’s more Agent Provocateur than the sexual success assured by Bud Light.

• London dailies are worrying about the future of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain. Instead of Oval Office occupants boasting blood or college tie, Obama’s Kenyan grandfather was arrested and possibly tortured by British authorities, suspected of anti-colonial activism or collaboration with Mau Mau terrorists during the 1950s.

• In its struggle to restore/maintain belief in its impartiality, the BBC stepped into it again. After Israeli forces left Gaza, BBC refused to broadcast an appeal by the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee — comprising several major charities — for aid to Palestinians. Initially, British broadcasters generally refused, saying it could be construed as choosing sides. Others reversed themselves, leaving BBC to take the heat.

BBC Director General Mark Thompson said, "After consultation with senior news editors, we concluded that to broadcast a freestanding appeal, no matter how carefully couched, ran the risk of calling into question the public's confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its coverage of the story as a whole.” BBC Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson added, "We've made it clear that we had two concerns, one of which we believe probably has now been met — that the aid is beginning to get through. But the other is that while it remains a matter of great, great controversy, which we are having to report on very extensively in our news bulletins, we do not think it's appropriate to give our airtime over in this way."

Accusations of pro-Palestinian bias became so intense that in 2003 the publicly financed broadcaster appointed an ombudsman to police its Middle East coverage. That ombudsman, Malcolm Balen, a former editor of BBC’s Nine O'Clock News, monitored BBC coverage of the Middle East and produced an internal report examining whether coverage was biased. BBC refuses to release the findings.

• UK Cosmopolitan is accused of faking a revealing interview with press-shy actress Scarlett Johansson about her private life, marriage, etc. The December cover promises revelations on "Why I HAD to get married!” London’s Independent notes that the exclusive was dogged by a dumb error: the “interview” was in August, although she was married in September.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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