By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

Hetzel

I’ve had this column noodling around in my brain for several months. I propose that we need to get more aggressive as an industry about the value of print advertising in the wake of the growing perception among ad agencies, media buyers and even the general public that “print is dead.”

We run into this every day at our for-profit affiliate, AdOhio, in our efforts to generate revenue for newspapers. Overcoming the growing, negative perception about the value of print is our biggest obstacle to getting meetings with key advertising decision-makers.  We believe that whenever we can get in the door, we have a compelling story. I can assure you that no one prepares harder for a client meeting than our AdOhio leaders, Frank Beeson and Walt Dozier.

Getting the door to open is the hard part. I know many of you face the same issues.

I see it in the Legislature in which even those lawmakers who really appreciate newspapers wonder and worry what will become of us.  For all the typical griping about coverage I hear, they know that, beyond a few exceptions in the broadcast ranks, print journalists are the ones with the time, depth of knowledge and ongoing interest to do the best job of reporting public-policy issues.

Members sometimes ask us why we don’t get more political advertising in print. The main reason is that most political consultants tell candidates it’s free media, and that print advertising wastes money.   I would not suggest that television political advertising isn’t necessary, but candidates should question the ridiculously high percentage of spending on television.  The consultants usually don’t say much about the mark-ups and profits they realize from producing television commercials or the waste involved in buying television for legislative districts that serve only a slice of a market.  Perhaps the candidates and parties that aren’t winning these days should try something different.

The recent announcement that Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. is spinning off their newspapers into a new company in a complicated deal with Journal Communications in Milwaukee motivated me to finally write what I’ve been thinking. Then came Tuesday’s announcement that the Gannett Co. plans the same sort of split into broadcast and print parts.

Much of the coverage of the Scripps-Journal transaction omits a key point: The new Journal Media Group will start life debt-free. (Gannett executives say this also will be true of the new Gannett newspaper company.) This is huge. Businesses with heavy debt loads must factor that into every decision. I know that we have ONA members who are doing the best they can to serve their communities and move forward under these challenging circumstances.

The “newspapers are dead” crowd forgets that most newspapers have operating profits and will continue to operate profitably for the foreseeable future.

The “newspapers are dead” crowd also forgets that most newspapers do not have an audience problem. If you aggregate the print and digital audiences of most local newspapers, even subtracting duplication, you find that audiences for that content are as big as or bigger than ever. Newspapers led the way among traditional media in embracing the Internet.  We’re still innovating. Should we have done more? Could newspapers have invented Craigslist, LinkedIn and other services that have ripped revenue streams to shreds? Absolutely, but the “dinosaur” stereotype isn’t fair and doesn’t fit.

However, newspapers have revenue challenges.  We’re not alone in that club, but there is no sugar-coating that.

Advertisers have many more options.  Consider the local car dealer, who feels he has to have his own social media manager, a website that is mobile-optimized and some presence on sites such as AutoTrader.com and Cars.com.  His pie of marketing dollars isn’t growing nearly as fast as the demands on it. Then he keeps reading stories about declining circulation and struggling newspapers.  All the signals he receives, except from his newspaper sales rep, are that he should reconsider what he spends in print. And, of course, reps for other media are happy to talk to him about shifting dollars their way without mentioning massive audience fragmentation or other issues they’re facing.

But guess what? His customers still want and expect him to be in the newspaper. Despite all the negativity he absorbs about our medium, he knows that the newspaper helps him sell cars. Isn’t that the bottom line? Still, those three or four full-page ads from past years might be down to one now.

Here’s an example of what hurts us: I see stories almost every day, and so do our advertisers, about market research arguing that print gets a disproportionate share of advertising dollars relative to time spent while mobile in particular deserves a greater share.

These studies need strong responses. Rarely does this research discuss items that should be far more important to an advertiser: the desirability of the medium for advertising and engagement with advertising.

Print is, by far, the medium in which advertising is most wanted and invited.  Print has two qualities that are not possible to accomplish nearly as well, if at all, in other media: Our advertising is obvious but not intrusive.

Think about that; then say it again. Print advertising is obvious but not intrusive. For advertising to be obvious in most other media, it must be intrusive, forcing you to consume it involuntarily or take a specific action such as setting your DVR to skip commercials. The latter action, of course, has no value for the advertiser.  This is a big problem with traditional radio: Listening to long commercial blocks while you are trapped in your car is annoying. Most of us change the station. Billboards intrude on our driving concentration.  Studies show consumers make a “trash or keep” decision on direct mail in less than a few seconds.

In the case of many digital products, advertising isn’t obvious enough.  For digital advertising to become obvious, it often must be highly intrusive, such as forcing you to watch commercials before you can read a story or taking over a newspaper’s home page with animated ads that cover up the content. Digital marketing is getting better and more sophisticated, but it still must overcome engagement obstacles that print simply doesn’t have.

With a newspaper, you can’t miss the advertising.  Indeed, many readers spend an hour or more thumbing through the Sunday inserts, which smart advertisers such as Macy’s and many others know continue to get results. Or, you can choose to ignore the ads.   You don’t resent the presence of the ads if you aren’t interested, and you really appreciate them if you do.  We also are a medium in which advertising is highly credible and trusted.  And, by the way, newspapers offered targeting solutions based on geography and demographics – not to mention deep, rich local coverage — long before these became hot-button topics.

Research often gives short-shrift as well to the quality of time spent. You aren’t multi-tasking when you read the paper – whether it is the physical paper or the digital edition. You are engaged with the product. You are paying attention. You are looking at everything on that page.

This is why I was so glad to see a recent article from the International Newspaper Marketing Association on “six reasons to reconsider time spent with media when considering ad placement.”

Some key points from this great article, which I am quoting directly:

  • What we spend most of our time doing does not necessarily represent a good opportunity for advertising.
  • The time-spent argument does not peel away the content and get at time spent with ads – this is what advertisers really want to know.
  • Do users want ads? In many cases – NO!
  • Engagement must be a factor.

The article notes that “lean-in media are those that users give their full attention to … lean-back media allow the user to do other things at the same time.”

I don’t have to tell this audience what type of medium newspapers represent. I think our industry must become clearer and more aggressive to tout our inherent, unusual advantages.  We must undercut these shallow arguments based on time spent or shifting media usage habits that don’t tell the whole story.

We can proudly defend our products – and our ad rates. Hands down, newspapers are where advertising is wanted and invited the most.  We still have great stories to tell.

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