The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hell Freezes Over at the Rapid City Journal

Michael Lefort, Rapid City Journal editor has his own blog about the activities associated with the newspaper business. I like Lefort, and his take on newspapering today. An interesting post on his blog explains how Monday's front porch version of the Journal will be more than an inch narrower.

You can read it here:

There are several disturbing items in the post, which also includes some other, less meaningful changes which will take place on Monday. For instance, not many will care that the body copy and box score fonts will change. In fact few will notice.

Your puzzles will move. Stocks will get narrower. "Today in History" is, well, history. And then he saved this for last: "- A front page ad will appear along the bottom of A1 daily."

I know we've had a long, cold winter, but I wasn't prepared for Hell to freeze over. No wonder he saved it for last. The Front Page, to old school journalists like Lefort (and me) is quite close to sacred. For many of us it's God, then family, then The Front Page. (Considering the divorce rate among journalists, the order of importance is likely different for many.)

The decision to put advertising on the Front Page of our local paper is symptomatic of what is happening in newspapers around the country, at least those that haven't boarded up their windows and hauled their presses to the recycler.

All of the changes at the Journal are coming in order to either save money or make money. The rotten economy is of course affecting newspapers too. So, they can hardly be blamed for seeking ways to reduce overhead. There's a reason they call it the newspaper business. I don't fault the Journal for whacking the width of the paper. The new width will present some challenges for their page designers, but they – and we readers – will get used to that.

Few dedicated news junkies and virtually no real journalists will get used to the idea of advertising on the Front Page. It was bound to happen, though. Newspapers owned by big corporations have been elevating executives via the advertising department for many years. And, advertising executives rarely understand the basic business structure of a successful newspaper. That's why so few of them are successful these days.

Oh sure, the internet has played an important role in the decline of porch delivered news. That newspaper executives around the country allowed that to happen, however, is due entirely to executives who don't understand the basics, and actually believe their readers purchase the newspaper for the advertising it contains.

There are three equal components to a successful newspaper:

1. Information people desire, presented in an entertaining, unbiased and truthful manner. (News, or product.)
2. Numerous readers who enthusiastically look forward to being so entertained. (Customers)
3. Advertisers. (Customers)

The ugly truth that newspapers around the country haven't figured out is that no one of the above three components can survive without the other two. Publishing executives think the above ugly truth is a lie.

The market is not robust enough, nor has it ever been, for readers alone to pay the cost of gathering news, printing it and delivering it to your porch. But advertisers are very interested in reaching the readers who are enthusiastic about the paper's reportage. It seems simple enough.

But within the walls of a newspaper building, there is an unusual dynamic of contempt. Advertising people believe reporters and editors are people who make selling advertising difficult by reporting or commenting on things that upset their customers (advertisers). Advertising people are absolutely convinced that they are smarter than news people, because they make more money.

Newsroom employees believe, or at least behave as if they believe, that advertising, advertisers and advertising salespeople are pests whose requests for news coverage of advertisers' events get in the way of their writing their Pulitzer Prize-winning expose' which if they only had time to complete would render advertising needless, because readers would flock to the news stands to purchase in numbers sufficient to pay for such valuable and expertly presented information. News people also believe that nothing positive an advertiser ever does is newsworthy. News people are absolutely convinced that they are smarter than advertising people, because they've been to college.

Circulation employees have contempt for both because they know their livelihoods depend on a delicate balance of all three components. And Advertising and News have contempt and disrespect for one another.

The worst part is that this behavior is taught in journalism schools across the country.

Each department has team meetings. The Advertising Director meets regularly with his sales team as they devise promotions to take to customers. The Editor meets daily with reporters and subordinate editors to inspire them to go out and "get the story." And the Circulation Manager meets regularly with his staff to come up with new promotions to increase readership. The Publisher meets with the managers. But cross-department fraternization is discouraged. A newspaper is the cliquiest, most in-bred business on the planet. It would be downright hostile if anyone ever spoke to someone from a different department.

There is no real teamwork at American newspapers. And someone has to make executive decisions, like how to make money and how to save money. Today, those decisions usually fall to the publisher, who usually comes up through the ranks of an advertising department. And, so gentle readers, that is why the Front Page of your Monday newspaper will, for the first time, display an ad across the bottom.

In the end, the need to find ways to keep the newspaper viable outweighed the notion that the Front Page of the newspaper represented its soul. The front page is for sale.

Let's hope it works. As much as this is a disturbing sign of the times, I would rather adjust my thinking about a decades-old tradition than to have our community lose its first, and last newspaper.


Dan Daly said...

Why not put ads on Page 1? Here's one reason.

When I worked at the Coeur d'Alene Press in Idaho a couple of decades ago, the publisher got the idea of putting a small, one-column ad at the bottom of the front page. The editor went along with the plan -- until the first ad appeared.

The ad had a big, bold hed, in a typeface somewhat similar to the font reserved for the news pages. It said:


On Page 7, you found a full-page ad featuring a photo of happy senior citizens frolicking on inner tubes in a swimming pool at a local health club, which had paid for both ads.

I give the health club credit for being clever. But the credibility of the newspaper took a serious hit that morning.

It was the only Page 1 ad to appear in the Coeur d'Alene Press. At least while I was there.

Michael Sanborn said...

I'm interested to know, Dan what you think of the Journal ads so far.

Dan Daly said...

I'm undecided.

From a pure design standpoint they're jarring. And they make the Journal look a bit like a weekly shopper.

At the same time, I'm not really offended that advertising is creeping into the news hole. The ads I've seen are sufficiently different in the use of color, type and location to clearly indicated that this is paid space.

Now that I'm on the other side of the fence, I can tell you I've seen worse affronts to journalism than this. (I think you warned me about this last year.) I'm learning about "editorial support" of advertising, something I didn't know existed when I was at the Journal.

Maybe I was just naive.

Bill Fleming said...

I can't imagine having ads on page 1 will generate much additional revenue, nor will our ads be any less ignorable there than they are on page 3.

Is there an extra premium for page one placement?

What's next, letting the furniture store write all the headlines above the fold?

Michael Sanborn said...

Bill, I guess we all know who you're talking about, and so we might as well get it over with...Bob Fisher has been exerting his financial muscle over the Journal for as long as I can remember.

I doubt he'll be writing any headlines. But he has been affecting news content for decades.

He has tried to keep a relatively low profile for several years, but came out in force on the AOB (Adult Oriented Business) issue. He also has a long list of ads that he and his furniture store have sponsored in support of candidates and issues.

He will be the topic of a detailed post on this site soon.

On the ad space on page 1, they have to charge a premium, don't they? It would make absolutely no sense to do it if they didn't charge more. It's virgin territory, and don't virgins cost more?

Bill Fleming said...

Ummm. On that virgin thing? I don't know, Mike. The only virgin involved in any encounter I ever had was me. And I didn't charge anything. Maybe I should have, huh? (Don't answer that.)

The premium for guaranteed placement on pg.3 is around 25% I think. I'm guessing pg 1 might be more (30? ...35?), but I don't think the paper will get more total ad bucks because of it. Just the same people moving their buys around.

It would be interesting to see some data on that. Maybe the Argus has some. I think they've been selling pg 1 ads for some time.

Looking forward to your Bob Fisher story.

Michael Sanborn said...

I don't know what the premium is. If it were me, I'd be charging 50%. Anything less further cheapens the whole thing.

It's the old, "we've established what you we're negotiating price" joke.