Monday, September 20, 2010

A Half-Page Newspaper Not Better Than None

September 20, 2010, 3:30 p.m.

Disintegrating Paper Contributing to Disintegrating Industry
(bought to you by*)

It used to be a "half-page ad" in a newspaper meant a full page of newsprint, half of which (usually the bottom half) contained advertising matter.

Today it has become, more literally, a half of a page of newsprint all of which is advertising.

A newspaper that falls apart in your hands is but one more bit of evidence of an industry that is disintegrating as well.

Ever since I was a "newspaper boy" for the Des Moines Register I have liked, subscribed to, read, and written for newspapers.

Young people don't feel that way anymore.

A few days ago, I had an occasion to visit with some undergraduates sitting at my table while I was lunching in a University dormitory cafeteria. During our conversation I asked about their newspaper reading habits. They reported their only contact with the newspaper industry was an occasional glance at the Daily Iowan.

The newspaper industry, desperate to reestablish newspaper reading habits among those in these students' generation, does not merely offer student discounts on subscriptions. They actually give away hard copy editions of their papers for free. I asked my luncheon companions if they ever read any of the papers available to them in racks no more than 25 feet from our table -- the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Des Moines Register, USA Today, and the Press-Citizen. Not only did they never bother to pick up and read these free papers, they were unaware the rack even existed.

I have written at some length about the industry's problems, offering potential future scenarios for business success as well as more mundane suggestions for modest improvements. "Whither Newspapers? Newspapers' Challenges Outrun Choices," January 18, 2009; "Of Newspapers and Nails; A Multiple-Variable Analysis of Newspaper Delivery," March 8, 2009; "Newspaper Delivery An Update; Pounding Again on 'Of Newspapers and Nails,'" March 27, 2009.

When writing about failures in the hard copy newspaper delivery system I observed, "To borrow a bit of advice, the industry needs to control what it can, accept what it cannot, and be wise enough to know the difference."

There's not much the newspaper industry can do about a declining economy and advertising revenue. On the other hand, subscriber frustration from late delivery, non-delivery, unpredictable erratic delivery, and having to hunt for where the paper may have landed on any given morning, was it seemed to me something in the category of when "the industry needs to control what it can."

The half-page newspaper is another example of deliberately frustrating subscribers unnecessarily.

Last Saturday's edition of a local paper is an example.

Pages A13 and A14 (the last page of the first section) are not connected to pages A1 and A2 -- as one would expect. They are attached to something that lays over p. A1 and is half the width of the front page.

On this day it contained ads for 8 vehicles in the $40,000 to $54,000 range. One would think that an auto dealer looking for customers with that kind of loose pocket change would not want to irritate the few who might exist. Apparently the dealer either didn't care, didn't think about it, or was not informed by the paper what she or he was going to be getting for their advertising dollars.

No matter how you approach such a newspaper, with the intention of holding and reading it, it disintegrates.

There was a day when no reputable newspaper would have advertising on its front page. That page, above all, was reserved for news. Advertising on it would be demeaning.

Those days are over. I understand that.

But trying to retain some of their dignity by covering a half of the front page with an advertising-only piece of newsprint that makes it impossible even to hold the paper, let alone read it, is a self-defeating and unsuccessful path to that goal. It is not a defense to say that the advertising is not literally on the front page when it is covering it.

It's not that there aren't alternatives.

This issue of the paper came with 21, count 'em, 21 inserts of various shapes, colors and sizes -- some up to the thickness and weight of a major magazine.

I don't like the idea of advertising on the front page of my paper. But if the paper really needs the money that badly, just redesign the front page and devote half of it (or more) to advertising. Below the fold would be less offensive than using the entire left half of the page (as the advertising overlay does).

Just don't send me a paper that falls apart when I try to hold it.

One would think that to be a no brainer. Apparently it's not. I guess it's a really creative sales and marketing suggestion I've come up with; something that could increase circulation (and advertising rates).

I'm happy to pass it along. And in these difficult economic times, to do so for free.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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