Daily Newspaper Advertising in the 21st Century: RIP or Digital Resurrection?

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By: Wayne Dawkins, Mavis Carr, and Joy McDonald

Daily Newspaper Advertising in the 21st Century: RIP or Digital Resurrection?

For much of the 20th century, American daily newspaper revenues came primarily from advertising, and that advertising revenue subsidized the newsgathering work of journalists who remained distant from the paper’s business operations. But by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, that advertising model was critically injured by the digital revolution that instilled across-the-board changes in the habits of readers, consumers, and advertisers.  

Yet, does steadily declining newspaper advertising mean the print medium is near death? Innovators at the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) say “no.”  

Leaders at the Daily Press — a medium-sized local daily where advertising revenue used to cover as much as 75 percent of production cost — cite evidence that Sunday readership has trended up thanks in part to the paper’s distribution of content across multiple platforms: print, online, and mobile. Surprisingly, many consumers still hold close to old conventions such as sectioned, broadsheet newspapers.

New directions, current strategies
Until the rapid expansion of digital media, hometown newspapers had always been home sweet home for local advertisers. When a local business needed to promote an upcoming event, holiday sale, or weekly special, the newspaper was a one-stop solution provider. Today, attractive websites are frequently the destination of choice for advertisers seeking to promote their goods and services to an ever-expanding audience. Conscious of the need to remain top-of-mind for advertisers, the Daily Press decided to focus its advertising strategy on bolstering its readership, an increasingly difficult proposition as audiences become easily distracted by the latest technological shiny thing.  

The Daily Press’ first online effort, dailyxpress.com, launched in 1995 when frustratingly slow dial-up Internet connections sorely tested online readers’ patience. Those who suffered through the wait for content to appear on low-resolution computer monitors were rewarded with the Web version of a local humor column called “The Online Adventures of Ken & Glenn.” Later that same year, the newspaper’s pioneering Web venture expanded to offer local news, weather, sports, and entertainment to its newfound digital readership.  

Reader behavior has changed dramatically since those early days on the Web. By 2011, Daily Press circulation averaged 62,010 daily and 90,622 Sunday, compared to 95,000 daily and 115,000 Sunday in the mid- to late-1990s, with much of that traffic shifting to the company’s online portal. In 2011, dailypress.com averaged 314,000 unique visitors and 8.5 million pageviews every six months.  

Despite readers’ wholehearted shift to the Internet, newspaper advertising continued to be sold in the traditional manner. Approximately 90 percent of advertising revenue comes from print, regardless of the whirlwind changes taking place in consumer behavior, organizational structure, and seasonal demands that test the patience of advertisers.  

At the Daily Press, it was once common practice for automotive advertisers to sign 52-week contracts to maintain their visibility in consumers’ busy lives. After the Great Recession, national advertisers, who were thought to have bottomless pockets, were hesitant to make such extensive commitments of their coffers for a return-on-investment dependent on skittish, budget-conscious customers struggling to pay their bills in a transitory market. This has resulted in the proliferation of much shorter 30-, 60-, or 90-day advertising contracts, which in turn may explain why print editions during the holiday season are still bursting at the seams as they were in the pre-Internet era.  

Sales fluctuations are the order of the new day. “Advertising is more volatile,” said Amy Powers, Daily Press vice president of advertising sales, “and (the highs and lows of advertising sales) are more pronounced.”    

In the previous advertising climate, if a business owner wanted to place an ad to announce a grand opening, he or she called the newspaper and spoke to an ad sales rep who obediently took the order and scheduled its insertion into the section of choice. In the early days of the digital media boom, little to no advertising was sold online, as the online advertising model was still evolving and had not yet proven viable.  

During a speech in Hampton, Va., in winter 2006, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute said newspapers sold online advertising at a rate of 30 cents for every $1 in print revenue. A month later, in March, Tompkins said the gap had widened to 10 cents online for every $1 of print advertising revenue.  

While newspapers may have hesitated to leap into the online arena, this decade has proven that waiting to take action can be just as detrimental to the bottom line as taking no action at all. The Daily Press made the executive decision to charge forward into the digital realm, cognizant that doing so could mean risking virtual implosion.  

With the ethos of “innovate daily, fail quickly, and move on” spurring on the advertising and marketing departments, the company went into hyper-brainstorming mode in an attempt to be everywhere the customer is. Gambling that its innovative strategy would increase advertising revenues, the media company now produces content and ads on multiple platforms, including laptops, mobile phones, and tablets.  

In an email, Powers said, “The Daily Press advertising department follows the SMARTER (specific/measurable/attainable/relevant/timely/evaluate/re-evaluate) planning model. At the corporate level, the company’s multimedia sales leaders focus on these areas across the organization, pairing it with strategic planning methods that are initiated in each business unit.”  

Finding what sticks
Sixty miles to the north, the Richmond Times-Dispatch pulled out all the stops as well, initiating a strategy reminiscent of the old “throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks” game plan.  

Refusing to limit itself to static online ads, the newspaper’s strategy was all-encompassing and, at times, frenetic, according to Mair Downing, former online media director at Media General and production manager of the Times-Dispatch. “Basically, the strategy wasn’t digital — it was everything,” Downing said. Today, the Times-Dispatch employs multimedia advertising salespeople, capable of servicing clients on all platforms.  

As newspapers vied for reader attention and advertiser loyalty, print advertising formats also received a makeover. “We’ve used them all,” Downing said, “wrappers, spadeas, Post-Its (also known as stickies), bags, unique placements, custom designs, big Sunday pushes, special sections, and the like.”  

At the Daily Press, print ad formats have expanded to include a 21- x 21-inch double truck and lower-right front-page jewel box ads (4-inch square) in search of the right mix to capture advertising revenue.  

Still striving to “provide the printed word at your doorstep” no matter the medium, Powers said she knows firsthand the challenges that beset information providers catering to increasingly finicky customers. Though the newspaper can no longer limit itself to being just “the newspaper,” it must continue to hold fast to its pledge of delivering what its customers demand. According to Powers, the burning question that keeps her awake at night is, “How do we super-serve the customers that need us for news and information?”  

Open new doors
With the rapidly changing advertising landscape, being nimble and highly diverse is essential in a cutthroat market where fighting tooth and nail for consumer dollars is the new norm. To meet demand, many newspapers have transitioned to multimedia news companies and adopted consultative sales strategies in an attempt to reverse the advertising slump. This is especially true for companies that still reap much of their advertising revenue from automobile, real estate, and employment verticals.  

Cognizant of the fact that gaining an advertiser’s trust can result in signed multi-month contracts, multimedia sales reps must be well versed in market demographics, the client’s company profile and target audience(s), as well as thoroughly understand the organization’s sales objectives. Acting as client partners, as opposed to merely points-of-contact, the reps collect necessary information and take complete inventory of their partners’ needs before matching them with available media resources and creativity. They are then able to create an effective and engaging campaign that successfully reaches clients’ objectives.    

Wayne Dawkins, Mavis Carr, and Joy McDonald are assistant professors at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications in Virginia. Send email to wayne.dawkins@hamptonu.edu, mavis.carr@hamptonu.edu, and joy.mcdonald@hamptonu.edu.

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