Thursday, September 14, 2006

Press-Citizen's Casino; Gazette's E-Frosty

Like Navin Johnson (Steve Martin's character in the movie, "The Jerk") discovered about the guy who guesses your weight at the carnival, the newspaper business is also "a profit deal."

It's not easy juggling balanced journalism and commercial promotion. And with circulation dropping, in part because the younger generation hasn't picked up the newspaper habit, the profit deal has become less profitable. Many newspapers believe they can no longer live out the old publisher's creed: "We aim to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." It's the comforable who are paying the bills.

Nonetheless, it's fair to watch, and comment upon, how they manage that balance.

Today's blog entry builds on and refers to a number of earlier ones. Here are three:

"Press-Citizen: Promoting Casino Gambling?" August 28, 2006

"Gazette Shames Press-Citizen," August 31, 2006

"Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006 (the vanilla Frosty essay)

The Press-Citizen's Casino

This morning's Iowa City Press-Citizen (September 14) is once again in the casino promotion business. And, once again, it is even promoting its promotion. Not just page one "above the fold" but page one above the name of the paper: "GO; JAYWALK TO CASINO, 'Tonight Show' host to perform."

Once again, in its efforts to encourage their readers to take up -- or expand -- their gambling habit, to take ever more of their money to Riverside, Iowa, and leave it in the slot machines and on the tables of the Riverside Casino, the paper has devoted both the cover, and the center spread, of its entertainment "Go" section to promote the Riverside Casino. The cover is a huge picture of Leno -- not incidentally the same photo exactly that is also used in the Casino's ads for this event.

But if this is further enriching the Press-Citizen it's not with money coming through the advertising department -- at least not yet. My early morning foggy eye saw not one line of advertising for the casino.

So what is it with the Press-Citizen and gambling?

The Gazette, by contrast, has not one line -- even in its detailed "Calendar" portion of its "Go" equivalent, called "Weekend!" -- devoted to the Jay Leno $120/$100 appearance (that I could find), though it does mention (in a very small type "Calendar" entry) that Jason Brown will be playing in the Casino's lounge that evening.

Unlike the Press-Citizen, The Gazette has succeeded in getting the Casino to part with the cost of the quarter-page ad displayed at the bottom of The Gazette's p. 7A. So it's not even clear that the Press-Citizen's strategy, if that it be, is either necessary or working.

The Gazette ad, in the smallest type that could be found in the shop, concludes -- like a drug company commercial with happy, smiling, healthy patients that must go on to list the most horrible side effects that may be your fate if you use the medicine -- "You must be 21 or older. Bet with your head not over it. NEED HELP? Call 1-800-BETS-OFF." (This under the suggestion that you should "Live it up!".)

The Press-Citizen's center spread is an interview with Jay Leno. Given that he's the host of a highly rated late night talk show, that would be a legitimate piece (by U.S. journalistic standards).

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great the Press-Citizen reports on Iowa City's creative community, and reviews shows -- most of which involve non-profit, or at least very low profit, venues.

But in this case the reason the Press-Citizen is doing it, and Leno consented to it, at this time -- or at least the effect of the paper's doing it with such an over-the-top cover and spread -- is to encourage more readers to go to the Casino.

There are potential stories here -- which are not explored.

In the interview, the Press-Citizen asks: "Ticket prices are $100 and $120 here. Is that your normal?"

Leno responds: "I don't know actually. It does seem high. I don't know what to tell you there. . . . [We're not told whether the ". . ." represents a pause in his response or a deletion of a part of his answer.] That has got nothing to do with me." Deanna Truman-Cook, "Jaywalk to Casino; Leno Brings His Act to Iowa," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2006, p. 8D.

Jay Leno thinks the ticket prices do "seem high" but "that has got nothing to do with" him?!

From where within the gambling industry did this invitation come? Why is Jay Leno in Riverside, Iowa? Who is setting those prices? And why?

Is this part of a marketing and publicity ploy for the casino -- to give the appearance that its ability to draw top national talent, Vegas-like, will continue, that this is the kind of place, and entertainment, for which one should expect to pay $100 or more? A kind of big opening splash?

The business story is also interesting. What is the capacity of the casino's large performance hall? How many $120 and $100 tickets have actually been sold? That is, is there a market among Iowans for this kind of pricey entertainment? Is this a part of "economic development" for Iowa; if so, how much of that $120 stays in Iowa and how much goes back to California -- or Nevada? (Recall the song lyric: "all the gold in California, is in a bank in Beverly Hills in somebody else's name"?)

Saturday afternoon, will the hall be filled with guests who've paid the full fare, or will it be filled at the last moment with complementary tickets for the investors and influencials who celebrated the casino's opening a couple of weeks ago?

The Gazette's E-Frosty

When is a story about a new product legitimate journalism, and when is it unabashed "product placement," publicity, promotion serving the same function as advertising (though not identified as such), whether or not it is paid for under the table or otherwise? (See

"Mr. Editor, tear down this wall!" August 8, 2006 (the vanilla Frosty essay).)

It's not an easy call.

I thought The Gazette's promotion of Wendy's vanilla Frosty was well over the top by anyone's standards (as well as offensive in its description of women).

But what about today's story (from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service) that, with picture, takes up most of the front page of the "Accent" section: Craig Crossman, "Virtual Keyboard is So Cool, You'll Have to Have One," The Gazette, September 14, 2006, p. 3D?

Clearly (to me), an unbiased comparative review of a number of similar products (e.g., PDAs, digital cameras, iPod-like devices) can perform a real function for consumers as well as being an interesting news story for those trying to keep up with new technology and what it can and can't do.

When only a single product is reviewed the balance between journalism and advertising becomes more problematical.

Another clue is the writer's enthusiasm (as was the case with the vanilla Frosty, which was said to be "beyond awesome" to the level of "uber-awesome").

To put this keyboard in perspective, it's priced at $189.95. Best Buy has a keyboard and optical mouse combination for $29.95, and I've bought keyboards alone for as little as $10.00. So selling this thing for $189.95 is going to require a really powerful sales pitch.

Craig Crossman does his best to provide it.

Crossman uses language like: "just plain amazing, and it really doesn't matter whether it will be practical or even useful," "this is something you're going to use because it will grab everyone's attention when they see you using it" -- now that's a really good reason for parting with our money for something that may not be practical or useful; and then, to make sure we got the message, he concludes -- "it's going to make you the center of attention when you use it."

And that's why I call the The Gazette's piece about the Bluetooth Laser Virtual Keyboard its "E-Frosty" story of the morning.

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