NNA Convention Offers Publishers Chance to Tee Off on Wal-Mart

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

At the National Newspaper Association (NNA) convention Friday, community newspaper publishers unloaded on a Wal-Mart spokesperson, complaining that the world’s biggest retailer wrecks their advertising base, shuns their local organizations, almost never advertises in their paper — and then wants front-page coverage when it presents a check to charity.

When a Wal-Mart opened in her town of Forney, Texas, The Forney Messenger’s Judy Griffin told the convention that the store took out four full-page ads to promote the grand opening in her weekly.

“Since then, we have got absolutely nothing,” Griffin said. “How is it that we were good enough to get people to your opening, but not good enough anymore? (Wal-Mart managers) are out there by themselves, and they could care less about us or our community. All we ever get from them are e-mails with news releases that tell us how good [they] are.”

Griffin and other newspaper owners and publishers directed their remarks at Mona Williams, Wal-Mart’s vice president of corporate communications, who spoke at the NNA convention as part of what she called a “dialogue” the retailer wants with community papers.

In her remarks, Williams repeatedly said Wal-Mart recognized the “importance” of community newspapers.

Just as often, she cautioned that she was not saying anyone in the convention ballroom would be getting more advertising from Wal-Mart.

“I’m not saying there will be more ad dollars, but we will continue the dialogue,” she said.

Williams’ appearance is part of a new charm offensive by the retailing giant, whose reputation has taken a beating in the past year. A key executive was accused of embezzlement, and several grassroots campaigns against building Wal-Mart stores in Chicago, California, Florida, and elsewhere have gotten a fair share of publicity. Even an attempt to get better PR backfired badly.

NNA President Mike Buffington, who introduced Williams at the convention, fired off an angry open letter to Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott last January after he was contacted by a public relations agency telling him that Wal-Mart executives were “available for interviews” to “set the record straight on Wal-Mart.”

“Why is it that community newspapers in America are good enough to help you fend off critics with free PR, but we’re not good enough for your paid advertising?,” he wrote. “You can’t have it both ways. Based on a number of previous conversations I’ve had with newspaper publishers and editors across America, I don’t think you will find very many who are willing to give you the requested free PR space to fend off attacks from your corporate critics. I believe my view is one held by many newspaper publishers: If Wal-Mart wants to communicate valuable information about itself to our readers, then you can purchase our valuable advertising space to do it.

“Anything less is just an insult to the community newspapers of America,” added Buffington, who is editor of The Jackson Herald weekly in Jefferson, Geo.

At the Milwaukee convention, Buffington noted at the convention that an NNA survey this spring showed that fully 81% of responding newspapers believe Wal-Mart has had a negative impact on their community’s retailers. More than two-thirds, 67%, said the retailer had had a negative impact on their papers.

Wal-Mart’s Williams expressed surprise at a common complaint of community papers, raised by Larry Jackson, general manager of the Wharton (Texas) Journal-Spectator.

“I’d sure like to get more advertising, but it’s difficult just to get in the store and sell the paper,” he said.

“I cannot imagine any reason we could not sell your newspapers in our stores,” Williams said.

In her formal remarks, Williams said Wal-Mart last year spent $55 million on 24-page tabloid inserts in 900 newspapers, most of them bigger than the small-town papers that make up NNA’s core constituency.

“We realize the importance of advertising in the local paper, it’s just clearly we have not gone deep enough into it,” she said.

She also asked publishers not to be angry at their local Wal-Mart managers, who she said have no advertising budgets of their own. “If the store manager does [take out ads] it’s from what they’re able to eke out of the stores P&L [profit and loss]. Advertising is not even a line item on their P&L,” she said.

Local store managers advertise on their own, she added, for “good will.”

Several times, Williams said she did not know why Wal-Mart didn’t do more newspaper advertising. In the past, though, Wal-Mart spokespersons have told E&P that newspapers are not a good medium for the retailer’s so-called EDLP, or every day low prices, marketing strategy.

The best Wal-Mart got at the NNA convention was mixed praise and criticism from Peter W. Wagner, publisher of the Sheldon (Iowa) Mail-Sun. A Wal-Mart store can revitalize a market, he said, but by first “destroying” the existing retail base.

“You destroy it first, but then you are honey to draw” the new businesses, Wagner said. “But I would challenge you to bring a dozen or so of us to [Wal-Mart’s headquarters at] Bentonville [Arkansas] to show us what our advertising can do for you.”

When the convention session broke up, there appeared to be few changed minds among the publishers. Williams did make one statement, though, upon which there seemed to be universal agreement.

“You’re angry with us,” she said, “and you feel we’re not good citizens in your community.”

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