By: Tony Case
Editors may not be enthusiastic about internally generated supplements and special sections, but publishers are sold on these sizable revenue sources sp.
SUPPLEMENTS AND SPECIAL sections spell big revenue for newspapers and are popular with readers. Editors, meanwhile, greet them with about as much enthusiasm as they would an ad director with a story idea.
But those on the editorial side at alternative weeklies have come to accept the fact that these periodic pains in the tushie are profitable, that publishers love ’em ? and that they’re here to stay.
“We approach them from the perspective that they’re a financial necessity and sales has got to have some bait on the hook every once in a while,” Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie said at the 18th annual convention of the Association of Alternative News-weeklies.
“We’re all part of a fragile little ecosystem,” added Dobie, “and we have to give in a little bit somewhere along the line to make the place
Virtually every weekly publishes an array of specials, from “best of” editions to nightlife guides to literary supplements. The challenge, according to editors who have had plenty of experience putting them together, is breathing life into what threatens to be a
predictable and boring advertising
“If you can introduce some artistic resonance into these things, then they kind of keep you, the editor, happy about what you’re doing and make the reader somehow connect with them,” Dobie told AAN members meeting in Nashville.
Dobie has compiled at least a dozen dining directories over the years but says he always manages to find ways to make them more than endless lists of bistros and burger joints.
In one such guide, the Scene ran a photo essay featuring Nashville’s best-known maitre d’s. In another, local restaurateurs discussed their favorite eating spots.
The paper recently published its fifth annual “Best of Nashville” edition, highlighting readers’ favorite taverns, theaters, booksellers and the like.
To mark the anniversary, the paper created a Hall of Fame page, recognizing businesses that retained their popularity year after year. One restaurant had the best cheeseburger in town five years running, earning it a place on the page.
About one in five editions of the Scene contains a supplement or special section, according to Dobie.
Aside from the restaurant special, each year it cranks out a guide to the city, a performing arts section and a “You Are So Nashville If . . . ” contest issue. In this competition, readers try their hand at finishing the aforementioned statement. Last year’s winning entry: “You are so Nashville if you go to a Hank Williams Jr. concert and you pass out before he does.”
The contest “says a lot about the psychology of the city and who we are as a people,” says Dobie ? plus, it’s great for sales.
Seattle Weekly has made an “extensive commitment” to specials, according to editor Skip Berger.
The paper publishes annual garden, fashion, gift-buying and summer issues. Its books quarterly makes ad salespeople squeal with delight, as book advertising has become a huge revenue source. And “Beervana,” a consumer guide to locally produced pilsners, proved to be a popular new section.
The Weekly also puts out a special edition to tie in with the city’s annual film festival.
This year’s edition offered a grid guide to featured films, which might seem redundant seeing that festival organizers and local dailies offered their own listings. But, Berger said, the rundown made the section “more comprehensive, more useful.”
Berger observed that supplements and special sections represent “the fault line between the church and state of editorial and advertising.”
But, he adds, editorial and advertising aren’t necessarily enemies when it comes to producing specials.
In some shops, the conflict is averted, as the ad department is charged not only with selling space in the specials but with preparing content.
In Seattle, although editorial handles the production of supplements and special sections, advertising can be a good source for ideas, Berger related. After all, the salespeople are out in the marketplace every day, and they’ve been known to come across unique businesses that have made for interesting, unusual stories.
Minneapolis City Pages editor Steve Perry says he has little use for “service-oriented journalism,” commenting, “I think it’s counter to the spirit of what we [in the alternative press] do.”
Still, his paper is as involved with specials as the next weekly, pumping out an arts section, city directory and summer issue.
Perry said City Pages used to publish an annual fiction issue that showcased the work of aspiring local writers, until he and his colleagues “realized all we were really doing was imbuing people with false hopes for another year and keeping them from going out and seeking gainful employment.”
Perry told conventioneers it’s a mistake to cede control of supplements and special sections to the business operation, noting that the best ideas often come from within editorial and that they give the news staff the opportunity to devote an entire edition to a single subject.
“I would encourage you, as editors, not to think that you’re simply in a position of sitting and helplessly waiting for your publisher to throw special issues at you,” he said.
“If there’s something for you to do that seems to have a market, then go and talk to the publisher about it ? it’ll get you out of doing his next idea,” Perry said.