Marketing and Distro

If nobody knows about your paper, does it matter what’s in it?

If everybody knows about your paper but can’t find it without a searchlight and a posse, does it matter what’s in it?

Part of my beef with a lot of the newspaper-crisis discussions going on is that they focus on content, which is easy to do since the people who make themselves available for weekend panel discussions and online wankery are, by and large, the writers and talkers who produce said content. Their names and faces are known, they’re local if not national celebrities. And they have absolutely fuck-all to do with fixing the news business, beyond being able to articulate in painful terms the ways in which their content is being messed with on a daily basis.

It’s really about the sales and delivery, as RAM points out:

Sixth, marketing pays, but word of mouth is golden. Our marketing
plan consisted of buying ads in the annual community guide published by
the local economic development corporation and school-based sports
programs, plus sending a free three-month trial subscription to every
new homeowner.
That was pretty much it, leading us to joke that we
really enjoyed working for an underground newspaper. Our best marketing
tool was the word of mouth we generated through our coverage of local
government and high school sports. Our credibility grew as that of the
daily against which we competed fell as they continually reduced their
local news coverage. When they did drop in to cover a story, their
unfamiliarity usually led to errors that steadily sapped their
credibility. Some more robust marketing on our part would probably have
been a good idea, but in our case, the paper really did sell itself.

Seventh, newspapers used to be considered the lifeblood of democracy
because an informed citizenry was considered vital to the nation. To
that end, newspapers were delivered to subscribers by mail free inside
their county of origin and in stagecoach days, “exchanges” were carried
free of charge from town to town along mail routes. That created a sort
of physical wire service for small town editors, as well as their big
city brethren in the days before Samuel F.B. Morse got telegraph wires
strung all over hell’s half-acre. Nowadays, just keeping up with the
unbelievably complex post office regulations is nearly a full-time job
for small papers that depend on mail delivery. Streamlining those regs
in favor of newspapers would give smaller dailies—okay, and weeklies,
too—a badly needed lifeline. And since papers are already sorted and
bagged by ZIP code, mail route and address, it might even provide a bit
more of one of those revenue streams the post office is looking for,
even if the cost per paper was decreased.

Emphasis mine in the first graf, because that’s freaking genius. The first thing you do when you move is figure out what your local sources are: for food, entertainment, transportation, services, information. If you had that delivered right to your door without even asking around, wouldn’t you glom onto it and keep renewing, out of force of habit if nothing else?

The second-to-last great newspaper I worked for saw its home delivery numbers drop sharply during a housing boom in the area. One copy editor joked it could only be ascribed to chaos theory, because there was no other explanation that made sense, but in truth, it was because our daily competitor — a content-free crap sheet full of people’s kids’ poetry and suburban-scary stories about how when you drive east during the sunrise you often … get the sun in your eyes! — had a deal with every local builder in which copies of the paper were handed out in their model homes and subscriptions given to new homebuyers.

Pissed the reporters off to no end. Could we do jack about it, no matter who we yelled to? Nope. Calling out the guy who blew that call, however, might have done some good when the building boom moved even farther from the city and other chances to get in early got missed. You won’t hear that story in the ongoing nonsense fest about charging for online content, but the amount of money it cost us could probably buy the whole Internet and have money left over for pizza.


7 thoughts on “Marketing and Distro

  1. Are you familiar withprint-on-demand as a technology and business model? Might this be the future of the dead-tree edition? I know as much about the newspaper business as my 10,000-year-old cats do about making spaghetti carbonara, but I’m thinking there may be something here for a start-up or “underground” paper. Sci-fi Warren Ellis envisions waking up in the morning and having your paper waiting for you on your printer – just scoop it up and head off on your commute. It seems that the alt music ‘zine is making a comeback in the UK thanks to P-o-D technology, too. I dunno; this is your territory. Looks interesting, though.

  2. My rural location just took a hit. Used to be that St. Louis (3 hours away) delivered to the area supermarket and libraries. But they’ve cut that out.

  3. Sometimes I think newspapers are actually trying to commit suicide. On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by my favorite mini mart and saw a stack of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sunday edition. But they hadn’t been stuffed; no comics, no advertising circulars, no TV listings, to which I said to no one in particular, WTF?
    My wife depends on the Sunday papers for her week’s supply of coupons, and I’m sure she’s not alone. And I suspect the S-T’s advertisers wouldn’t be a bit happy to hear that their inserts aren’t making it into the news stand papers. Now I haven’t really read the S-T since they killed Zay Smith’s QT column late last year (it’s my own private boycott), but I’m not crazy about seeing them sink slowly in the west, either.
    As that great management expert Casey Stengel put it so well: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

  4. We are working to defeat your insidious attempt to kill of newspapers by just recently subscribing to the ST Star, even though it means I will now have to read the dead-tree version of your column. Take that, A!

  5. A, the early edition always had the stuff stuffed before the S-T concluded their handy dandy distribution deal with the Trib. Nowadays it hardly ever contains ALL the stuff, sometimes missing the sales circulars sometimes the comics. This was the first time it didn’t have any of the inserts at all.

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