As Political Ad Spending Increases, Newspapers Need a Plan of Action

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Follow the Money
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Politics is big business. The money used to influence elections is astonishing if one pauses to think with perspective about how that money could otherwise be invested. For whatever the causes and motivations, it’s instead used to sway voters and buy power.

About how much money are we talking? Billions.

In August 2015, Borrell Associates, Inc. published its report, “2015-2016 Political Advertising Outlook,” and its executive summary wrapped some context around where the money all goes: “Political advertising is forecast to hit a record $11.4 billion in 2016, 20 percent more than the last comparable presidential election year of 2012…While national elections will draw all the attention, almost half of that money will be spent at the local level, delivering messages about candidates and issues concerning governors, state legislative districts, ballot issues, and regional and city governments.”

Moving past this election season, Borrell Associates forecasts that TV will remarkably lose some of its brilliance. Its losses are digital publishing’s gains. The news isn’t so good for newspapers, either. Their losses won’t be quite as dramatic as TV’s, but are noteworthy, nonetheless.

If newspapers want to stop the forecasted bleeding, they need to leverage their strengths and become more aggressive about courting the folks clutching the political purse strings.

Newspapers have more clout

Newspapers still have a lot of political clout. Though there have been calls for newspapers to cease publishing editorial endorsements of candidates because it diminishes the so-called objectivity of the publication, endorsements are largely a public service. Editorial endorsements typically come at the end of long campaign seasons, and are decided upon based on lengthy coverage of incumbents and those who want to unseat them. One of the key tenets of newspaper publishing today is to inform its community of readers, in the interest of impacting and bettering their lives. What better way to do that than with a sincere analysis of who is the best of the bunch to fill a local, state or federal role?

For skeptics who think that newspapers lack the political clout they once had, look no further than the current presidential bid of Florida senator Marco Rubio, who came under fire from three Florida newspapers for giving priority to fundraising and campaigning while shirking his voting responsibilities in Washington. Without those newspapers acting as watchdogs, the question about Rubio’s voting record might never have been brought up during primetime debates, when a much larger American viewing audience was tuned in.

John Kimball
John Kimball, principal of The John Kimball Group

“Clearly, what we say editorially continues to carry a great deal of clout,” said John Kimball, principal of The John Kimball Group. “Added evidence of that is when content that appears in newspapers’ news pages often ends up as content or copy for advertising in print and TV commercials. But not only does what we publish editorially carry a lot of clout, newspaper advertising has a lot of power, too.”

Newspaper audiences are quite diverse. Subscribers to the printed editions may skew older, but this demographic is not only well-read, it tends to be replete with loyal, fervent voters, too.

“When you look at the people who go to the polls, more than 80 percent of them say that they are regular consumers of content in newspapers, either print or online. The medium still has a great deal to say about who ends up being elected,” Kimball said.

With their new publishing forms—online, mobile apps, social media sites, etc.—newspapers are finally poised to reach a younger, highly coveted voting block, too: the elusive 18-to -35-year-old.

Kerry Oslund is the senior vice president of publishing and emerging media for Schurz Communications. In his estimation, the trust that audiences place in their favorite newspapers is the best value proposition to sell to political advertisers. Newspapers also have a lot going for them in that they are increasingly multichannel. They’re not tethered only to print anymore; they have websites, mobile applications, digital editions and supplements, social media pages, events, and so much more to offer politicians.

“I really believe in multichannel marketing, with print being just one of those channels,” Oslund said. “For a political marketer, the idea that you might leave two or three percent of any portion of the voting populace on the table because you’ve avoided a channel is just crazy. If you avoid newspapers, you do so at your own peril.”

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Election season action items

“The question is: How do newspaper get that PAC, SuperPAC, and advocacy money? That’s a real challenge for everybody except television, because most of these consultants first turn to TV,” Kimball said. “It’s interesting to me that the people who are the most influential and most coveted by these campaigns are newspaper readers; yet, the campaigns turn to television to appeal to them.”

There are a few reasons why TV gets the biggest share of political ad spend, according to Kimball. First, it’s an attractive medium. Live motion, sight, and sound make messages come alive. TV ads are fun to produce, if not view. Television has also made it very easy to buy advertising.

“Candidates know what a 20-second TV commercial looks like; it’s easy to understand,” Kimball explained. “Newspapers, on the other hand, have not always made it easy to buy. We have difficult and convoluted rate structures that make people’s eyes glaze over.”

That’s been complicated further with the introduction of new platforms. Now, publishers aren’t just selling print real estate.

“Over the last four elections, I would say that newspapers have done a much better job of getting SuperPAC money,” Kimball said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard work. You have to find the agencies and who’s doing the buying, and then create a package that’s attractive and easy to understand and buy.

Kimball isn’t conservative in his revenue estimates. If it turns out that the 2016 election season is truly worth $11 billion, he believes newspapers can grab at least $1 billion of that.

Corey Elliott
Corey Elliott, director of research for Borrell Associates, Inc.

“Newspapers can do two things: cover and connect,” said Corey Elliott, director of research for Borrell Associates, Inc. “You can boil it down to that. Coverage is sort of self-explanatory. Of course (newspapers) are going to cover races, but they should also cover ballot issues, cover everything. Why? Because it creates opportunity for ‘adjacency.’ It opens spots for people to advertise around a story.”

Enticing advertisers with content and contextual positioning isn’t a new tactic. Publications, especially magazines, which have the luxury of established editorial calendars, have been working in this way for ages. However, Elliott’s second piece of advice—connection—may be a brave new world for news publications.

“It means getting involved in the community. There’s no reason why newspapers can’t hold local debates, for example,” Elliott said. “Host events that explore ballot issues. People will come and engage.”

Live events are also a great outreach to that younger-generation voting block. “It’s (early) 2016; you’ve got time to build that right now,” Elliott encouraged. “Newspapers have to say and actually back up: ‘We are the local, objective go-to source for information.’ Now that rolls off the tongue relatively easily, because newspapers have been saying that for years, but now they have to say, ‘No, seriously, we are.’”

Oslund has a few suggestions for newspaper publishers. First, move faster to develop digital real estate. If it’s true that moving forward digital publishing ventures will get more of the share of the political-ad-spend pie, then newspapers have to offer a bigger, tastier slice. That doesn’t mean that they have to abandon their efforts to generate more interest in print ads, he cautioned: “I don’t think we have to turn on our back on print. You don’t have to pick one channel over the other.”

Oslund also suggested that newspaper companies sign up to become advertising affiliates. He wrote an article on this topic last year, “2016 Political Ad Spending: A Case for Newspaper Network Affiliates” (bit.ly/1ISZePe), in which he suggested newspapers steal the idea from television’s playbook and band together to take some of the friction out of ad buying/placement. He revealed, “The Chicago Sun Times and other local newspapers, including those belonging to the company I work for, Schurz Communications, are becoming USA Today newspaper network affiliates.”

For newspapers, the gains are inherent: An affiliation allows even smaller publications to attract advertising that they may not normally be able to woo, simply because they don’t have the resources to go after the business.

“For the political marketer, this solves a huge problem,” Oslund said. “Instead of trying to round up a thousand newspapers, you’re going to fewer places and are able to buy across all those brands…I know companies like Gannett and brands like USA Today are taking that message out to political marketers, particularly agencies in Washington, D.C., and they’re getting a very warm response.

“At the local level,” he continued, “we need to take out as much of the friction as possible. We’ve got to build packages that make sense for state and local political marketers, and make sure they’re easy to buy.”

The third strategy that Oslund recommends to his colleagues in news is to pay careful attention to TV. When political ads begin displacing other advertisers during election seasons, it leaves those marketers without a home. Frankly, they get pissed, he said. That’s an opportunity for newspapers to build a lead list and go after those advertisers with what he calls “rescue packages.” It’s a great way to be the “white knights and saviors,” and to pick up new business, he said.

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Ethics and optics

Going after a piece of the political ad-spend pie isn’t without its ethical challenges. Making decisions about political ad content and format will “widely vary depending on who is sitting in the publisher’s seat and the relationship the newspaper has with the community,” Elliott said.

Kimball agreed that it’s a mixed bag of approaches. There are papers that have standards for content. Others require particular placement. Some accept them as polybag inserts while others won’t.

Where the advertising-editorial waters become even muddier are cases in which publishers and political advertisers explore these “native advertising” relationships.

Kimball, who has spent his entire career in the business of newspapers, said that news audiences are smart. They’re not likely to confuse a political ad as a passive-aggressive endorsement. “They know what advertising is, and what it isn’t. Even with native advertising— which has become such a huge piece of the industry today, and is blurring some of the lines of distinction between advertising and editorial—our readers are extremely savvy.”

“The (Federal Trade Commission) just came out with guidelines about native advertising—what it is, the standards it expects. It is becoming a problem, but one person’s problem is another’s opportunity,” Elliott said. “Though rules for this aren’t yet firmly established, it’s possible that some political advertisers, some candidates, could take advantage of the fogginess, getting their message out in a way that may or may not be ethical, depending on your definition of ethics.”

The FTC’s guidelines, published as “Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses,” largely focuses on disclosures to the public about the content being paid for by an advertiser and how those disclosures must be prominently displaced and without ambiguity—not unlike the campaign finance rules that dictate political ads must contain the “paid for by” disclosure.

It’s fair to say that most consumers are basically familiar with the concept of “buyer beware.” American consumers tend to be cynical. Product and service advertising is perceived as, if not expected to be, rhetorically persuasive and not always trustworthy. The agreement to publish these types of ads doesn’t typically diminish the news brand; an editorial endorsement of the product or service is not implied, and readers understand that. Political ads are by their nature a little different.

In 2008, Freedom Communications, then-owners of Texas newspapers the Brownsville Herald and the Valley Morning Star, found itself ensnarled in a defamation lawsuit and appeal for publishing unfavorable full-page political advertisements against two local candidates.

“We might need new language in our ad agreements,” Elliott said. “We might need that. It’s going to be an interesting 2016, when you have a GOP frontrunner in the national race who doesn’t seem at all concerned about libel. Unfortunately—or fortunately— depending on your political viewpoint—that’s going to trickle down because if it’s okay for him, a presidential candidate, to spout the things he spouts, then it’s open warfare for the rest of the candidates.

“The problem for newspapers is that they’re trying to fashion themselves as an objective source,” Elliott continued. “But that makes some readers think: ‘Really? Well, how come you’re running an ad with a pants-on-fire rating?’

“Nobody bats an eye at a TV station or a cable network that broadcasts libelous or slanderous SuperPAC advertising,” he added. “Remember the swift-boating of John Kerry? Very few were protesting or getting up in arms when all the TV stations accepted that money. So how come it’s not acceptable for the newspaper to do it? It’s because (newspapers are) still seen as objective, so cash in on that. Leverage your strength.”

Ken Paulson
Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center

Ken Paulson is the former editor of USA Today, and now is both the president of the First Amendment Center and the dean of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment. He doesn’t think there’s any worry for newspapers about optics or threat of defamation suits.

“It’s very difficult for a political candidate to successfully sue anyone for libel,” he said. “By definition, they’re public figures. To prevail, they would have to establish reckless disregard and an awareness that information being published is false…It’s not a significant threat to American newspapers.”

Paulson also is assured that there’s no harm to newspaper brands from running ads that turn out to be less than honest: “Today’s readers are both sophisticated and cynical. They recognize advertisements as paid lies. I don’t think there’s any newspaper publisher in the country that would turn down any advertisement from a politician because of the concern that it might rub off on that appearance of objectivity.”

To illustrate his point, Paulson said, “The greatest beneficiaries of political debates on television have been television stations. A lot of untruths are thrown around, but CNN isn’t turning down a chance to host a debate because it can’t possibly fact-check everything during the debate, or because only one party is represented. I think American media offer a platform for politicians that’s both paid and unpaid, and that’s healthy.”

Besides the potential for an estimated $1 billion in ad revenue for newspapers this political season, covering politics is “the gift that keeps on giving,” said Oslund.

“We get to cover the candidates when they make their promises,” he explained. “We cover it when they raise money. We cover it when they spend that money. Then we continue our coverage to make sure they keep their promises. We get a good cycle out of it.”

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