Sunday, October 16, 2005

Advertising and news

Working at a small town newspaper, I am getting more and more of a sense of what news is all about. I am however quite disappointed in the way advertising plays such a crucial role in what is being reported on. In our area, there are 3 newspapers: Etoile (a bi-weekly French paper), the Hudson Gazette and Your local journal (where I work).

I had always thought that Etoile was too focused on advertising - you flip through about 75 pages, and you get approximately 10 pages of content. Even that is being generous, because of lot of it are pictures and Community Calendars. So, you might take 10 minutes to go through the paper. I asked myself, who goes through these ads? How can anyone find anything when there are maybe 20 ads per pages (the size of a business card)? I know papers rely on advertising, but I hadn't realized to what extent.

The paper I work for, is no exception, in the sense that the paper runs only if we get enough advertising to pay for the cost of producing the paper. You see, these local papers are free, therefore, there is no income from subscriptions. So far, our paper has been able to keep a fair balance between advertising and content, something I am grateful for. However, I realized that advertising has been dominating the content of the paper.

I look at the composition of the staff: there is the editor, a french journalist and me (I write a few articles per week) doing the reporting. And then there are almost 10 people working in the advertising department (!).
I had a discussion with the office manager (she oversees advertising) and she hadn't realized how much advertising was taking place in the paper. We both know they are essential in the survival of the paper, but she didn't realize that the editorial department was being treated almost as secondary to advertising. She was glad I reminded her that the paper is about reporting first and foremost and has since but a much bigger emphasis that more news is put into the paper.
Community papers are essential, I believe because they report the issues that are from within the community. Big papers won't talk about the vandalism going around the town's school, they won't talk about residen'ts contempt with speeding on their residential streets, they won't talk about school events, community meetings, shows and local people. And they don't talk about municipal politics.

On the flip side, local business greatly benefit from local newspapers - they are a cheap way to reach the local people and to show they are involved in the community. For example, we have a sports section, paid by the hockey association, we have school notes pages, sponsored by a local business. They know people want this news and they know people will think highly of them if they sponsor a page. So I guess there is no harm in helping each other out in small towns.

One thing that does bother me is that sometimes the publisher or sales people ask up to write up an article based on an ad for an upcoming event. For example, for the upcoming issue this week, I wrote a piece about an art exhibition and the art association doing the show because they asked that we give them some publicity (since they placed an ad in this week). I was a bit reluctant, considering they already got publicity with the ad. So instead of simply talking about their event, I found out that a competing artist association is also having a show the same weekend, raising money for the same association. So I wrote a comparison piece, explaining to people why these two associations are different, how one association started because of fighting within the other group. So, I managed to write about the exhibition without simply reiterating what was in the ad.

So there are ways around it, you just have to be creative about it.

I don't know if there are other alternatives of getting money to run a small newspaper (other than subscription revenue; something I don't think would work here) without succombing to the grips of advertising.

The only thing I hope for our newspaper, because we are relatively new, is that we don't fall into the trap of giving up news space for advertising. Ads should not become so prevalent that one wonders if the newspaper is just a business catalogue.


Blogger Sikander said...

It's a very tough balance. The smaller the publication, the tougher. I guess what it comes down to is, a paper laden with ads is better than no paper, especially if you're the publisher and your's is a free paper.

1:01 AM  
Blogger Sikander said...

Sometimes I wonder: Do readers actually care about the ads? Does anyone even notice what they say? Do advertisers get their money's worth, especially in smaller publications?

Maybe a marketing whiz can enlighten me.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

This blog reminds me of not so long ago, when I was an aspiring journalist and biding my time with J-School and internships.

Not to sound too cynical, but unless you're working for state-supported media (which brings up its own issues of conflict of interest), advertising drives content. Maybe not to the extent you described, but at least it dictates how much news is going to fit in the newspaper. The more ads that are sold, the bigger the paper's going to be, and the more stories that can go in there.

Even in a paper that has subscribers, the fees they pay are nominal. Advertising is what supports the paper, and, in the eyes of the publishers and the bean-counters, revenue is the bottom line.

The longer you spend in the newspaper business, the more you'll realize that both for the publisher and the readers, ads generally are more important than the news. News only fills the spaces between the ads. Grandma wants two things out of her Sunday paper, especially if it's a community paper: To see a picture of her grandkid playing soccer, and to get the coupons for the week. If there's an interesting enterprise story, all the better, but she's not holding her breath for that.

Journalism's a noble occupation, especially if you can stand the long hours, low pay and lack of respect. Unfortunately, journalism must produce revenue, and it's a good thing that you're noticing that early in your career -- it will allow you to better plan your future in the field.

2:34 PM  

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