105: Working With a Changing Newspaper Landscape
Newspaper syndicates are laying off literally hundreds of staff. Across the industry, the workforce has plummeted almost 30% in the past five years. [ref]”LinkedIn: Newspaper Industry Shrinks at Fastest Rate” by BtoBOnline.com. March 19, 2012.[/ref] Some publications are closing their doors entirely, their company obituaries listed here. Others are selling out to conglomerate ownership groups and sharing editorial and advertising content, hoping efficiencies of scale keep them in the black.
Most of the advertising money draining from newsprint is flooding to Internet advertising outlets like Google, whose 2011 revenues totaled $4 billion more than the cumulative revenues of all newspapers in the country. [ref] “6 Trends for Newspapers in 2012, from a Sunday Boom to an Executive Bust” by Rick Edmonds, Poynter.org. March 19, 2012.[/ref] While large-circulation newspapers are developing traffic and advertising revenue from their websites, smaller newspapers are relying on home town news and photos of local citizens to keep the presses rolling.
These changes directly impact the businesses whose analytic measurement shows buyers still responding to their newsprint advertising. [You are measuring where your customers heard about your sale items or events, right?] Knowing a few of the new realities will help you better adapt to them.
The newspapers that have survived thus far are owned by fewer and fewer companies. Some of the syndicates are national entities that cherry pick seemingly-random cities to cover. Most, though, are regional corporations that start or buy publications in the same county or part of a state.
When I research publications in an area new to me, I regularly ask the salesperson if their company publishes other papers. That question has saved me a lot of time by not having to research other papers individually. It also puts asset-based publications like real estate inserts on my radar, as these subsidiary media aren’t typically listed in newspaper directories (even online ones).
Conglomerates organize their multiple advertising sections three ways:
- Each publication has its own classifieds section but dollar amounts or percentages are deducted from the unit costs of the second, third, etc. paper you add to the mix.
- Publications are grouped by geographic zones. If you want one paper, you have to pay for that ad to appear in multiple newspapers in a region (usually several suburbs or areas in a county) but not all the publications owned by the corporation.
- All papers share the same classifieds. If you want one paper, you have to pay for all of them. The bigger the group, the scarier this can be. If you were planning to hit all of the publications anyway, though, the unit price value can be good.
Typically, you don’t have a choice in which of these models are available. So, it’s important to know which one you’re facing before submitting a marketing plan to your seller. Because these groups regularly acquire and sometimes close newspapers, it’s good to keep your rate cards up to date.
Column Size Shell Game
In addition to cutting costs, newspapers are looking for ways to increase revenues from the same advertiser base. One method they use is changing their column format. This works two ways.
- They add a column or two to the page, which shrinks each column; but they charge the same price for that column. Example A (below) illustrates this. The advertiser gets 11% less square inch area for the same price. In other words, the newspaper raises their rates 11% without changing the price they quote you per column inch.
- Or, as I’ve seen in the past year, they drastically drop the quantity of columns as in example B below. The publication then raises the price per column inch, justifying it as paying for the additional space. If you measure the actual cost per square inch—as opposed to cost per column inch—you might be surprised to find the rate increase is not proportional to size increase.
Not only does this tactic jack with your newspaper ad templates [You do have print ad templates, right?], it can cause embarrassing situations after the marketing plan has been approved. Sadly, I know this from experience. The ad size and/or price you had in the budget ends up looking very different than expected during the marketing period. This newspaper ploy gives another reason to verify advertising costs and sizes in the proposal stage—at least if you haven’t used a publication in more than six months.
High Staff Turnover Rates
With tight margins, most newspapers are paying their sales representatives somewhere between burger flipper and day laborer rates. Okay, it’s more than that but not much more. And with all the stress of coordinating literally hundreds of advertisers each week, it’s understandable that classified departments burn through employees as fast as NASCAR drivers burn through tires.
This means that if you pull up an email address from your contacts list or an old email to copy, it might not get answered. Sadly, it’s not enough any more to email before the space reservation deadline to make it into the issue. Combat this by emailing the advertising representative as soon as you know you’ll have some kind of advertising—even if you don’t know the size or all run dates yet. If you don’t get a quick answer, call the department. What I like even better is asking the paper for a generic department email address to which I can carbon copy advertising emails, something I regularly do here in Virginia.
As backup, I’ve built an Excel spreadsheet of my most regularly-used newspapers that shows the best day of the week to run, deadline days & times, column or unit sizes, pricing, and contact information. One of the information fields shows the last date I updated the record. If that date is more than six months old, I know to inquire about price changes, sales representative updates, etc.
Statewide Classified Networks
Most states have newspaper associations, and most of those associations offer distribution of classified advertising in all of their member publications for a nominal fee. All states with this service offer in-column line ads; most also offer two-column by two-inch displays ads; and some even offer two-column by four-inch display ads. You can tell your sellers that you canvased the state for about the cost of one metro print ad. The rep from your home state can place ads in any of the other state association networks as well.
The major drawback to this product is not knowing where that ad will appear in those publications. When you deal individually with publications, you can request specific sections or classified categories. While many network papers might go to the work of putting your ad in the appropriate column, your ad might also end up in a grouped statewide section with erectile dysfunction and “make thousands working from home” ads.
Also, if you skip an online distribution service for press release submission and want to focus on media within a particular state, many of these state networks offer press release distribution not only to their print media members but also to the broadcast news media members (for an extra fee).
All media is adapting to technological advancements and changing audience habits, but the newspaper industry seems to have the toughest road to relevance. An observant eye will help us as advertisers take advantage of the deals and restrictions that stem from this newspaper landscape to best serve our customers.
My first published piece of writing that I can remember came in my dad’s weekly column in the Queen Anne’s County Record Observer, now part of an 18-publication media group. Dad kindly and generously ran two or three of my didactic pieces. The quality of the writing proves less embarrassing than the clichéd content. It’s been years since I perused those, but I have little doubt the paragraphs proved that they poured from an unrehabilitated fundamentalist—an extremest regurgitating talking points between Bible verses.
Every year or so, I reread parts of the book I wrote a decade ago and feel similar embarrassment at some of the things I stated or asked—even though written with prayer and intention for God’s use. While part of me wants people to know I wrote a book, a large part of me hopes they never read it. In fact, I’ve got three free copies sitting on my desk awaiting shipment to Facebook connections; and what’s been keeping me from shipping them are those sections that no longer ring true inside of me.
That old ignorance is why I don’t plan on writing another faith-premised book in my lifetime. I hope I will constantly be growing, constantly seeing Christ’s heart more clearly. I hope that, even next year, I look back with gratitude at the ignorance shed from my August 2, 2012, self.
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