Newspapers have unique advantages to attract more political ad dollars

Left out of political ad spending in recent years, news publishers are poised to recapture the revenue


Every two years, U.S. politics has an ever-more lavish ad-spending party. Although newspapers are invited, they are not among the “celebrity” media most politicos, donors, PACs and other advocacy groups want in their party selfies. It’s as if newspapers are wearing the same eveningwear from previous years while television and digital are radiant in the latest couture and attracting all the attention.

Newspapers have many opportunities to deliver an audience to political advertising campaigns. First, however, they need a better understanding of how the mechanics of political ad spending work, which types of campaigns will benefit from newspaper advertising and how to study demographic insights in context.

A lively discussion on this topic was part of a session at the October 2021 America’s Newspapers Senior Leadership Conference in Colorado Springs. The hosts and audience members shared their experiences and ideas to attract more political ad dollars to newspapers.

Lisa Szal

Lisa Szal, vice president, client strategy at Tactician Media, was an audience member who offered some insights from her time with Freedom Communications, a former media company operating daily newspapers and websites in southern California.

“Involving all members of a newspaper’s advertising sales staff (inside sales, classified, legal, etc.) is necessary to maximize political ad spending,” Szal said. “I believe newspapers should capitalize on the opportunity to print and deliver targeted campaign flyers, repurpose them in their digital editions and package them with their websites.”

“Newspapers can compete with broadcast TV with video and social media marketing strategies reaching targeted audiences in the local marketplace,” she continued. “Utilizing targeted mapping solutions and congressional district boundaries will allow them to offer even more coverage opportunities to candidates and advocacy groups.”

Awash in money

The U.S. Supreme Court lifted restrictions on election spending by corporations, labor unions and super PACs in a 2010 judgment and subsequent cases. These rulings have led to all these independent groups and the official fundraising arms of the Democratic and Republican parties to raise more money and spend more of it on advertising during every election cycle.

According to the Federal Election Committee data, all four major Democratic and Republican Congressional/Senate campaign committees received considerably more money during Q3 2021 than Q3 2019, the previous off-year period.

The Federal Election Committee reported that individual Democratic candidates had raised $231.7 million compared to $149.1 million among individual Republican candidates during the first six months of 2021.

According to Open Secrets, outside groups spent almost $3 billion during the 2020 campaigns, and these groups have raised and begun spending nearly $40 million by the end of Q3 2021. Now that the 2022 midyear election cycle is about to start in earnest, even more money will be filling the coffers to overflowing until they open the valves and deliver billions in advertising to media.

Because the 2022 midterms are being held on a non-presidential election year, a sizeable portion of these dollars will be spent at the state or local level since all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 34 seats in the U.S. Senate will have candidates on the ballots.

Allocation anxiety

Many credible research and analytical sources, such as Kantar, which provide political ad spending forecasts, are already reporting that total ad spending for the 2022 midyear election will surpass any past mid-year cycle and could be within a few percentage points of spending for the 2020 cycle.

As of late August 2021, Kantar expected a total of $13 billion raised for the entire 2022 midterms. Based on data from previous cycles, approximately 60% is typically allocated to what political campaigns define as “free” media, which would be $7.8 billion. In addition, Kantar estimates broadcast TV will receive $3.8 billion, cable TV/satellite $1.4 billion, digital $1.2 billion, OTT/CTV $1.2 billion and radio $215 million.

The Kantar forecast or other sources researched for this article did not mention newspapers or the industry’s potential piece of the political ad spending pie.

John Kimball

John Kimball, a longtime newspaper executive and the founder of the John Kimball Group, which assists newspapers with tools to attract more of those political ad dollars, said spending with newspapers has increased substantially since 2000.

“During the 2000 election, newspapers only received a total of $50 million, but that began to increase during the next cycles,” said Kimball. “It more than doubled to $125 million during 2002, increased even more for 2008 to $480 million and reached almost $1 billion for 2020, print and digital, when counting the entire portfolio of newspaper media products.”

Kimball also shared some action steps newspapers can take to prepare for the 2022 midterms and beyond. First, identify the “players.” The state and local political campaigns are apparent, but he said it is also essential to engage with advocacy groups, PACs and state party chairpersons. Newspapers are better positioned to sell political ads with various levels of packages, which may include combinations of print and digital-only or geographic-specific and special editions.

“I also encourage journalists and editors to schedule meet-and-greets with local candidates and include the sales team in the meetings,” said Kimball. “Offering printing and even direct mail services as part of a package can be another political advertising revenue stream many newspapers overlook. Newspapers can deliver targeted direct mail inserts at a more affordable rate than the U.S. Postal Service.”

All voting is local

According to Kimball, research indicates that 70% to 80% of people who vote consume news in print and online. So, the challenge is to convince those who buy political media that newspapers can deliver this audience. As Kimball put it, “We like to say voters read and readers vote.”

Analysis of data from five 2021 representative consumer/market surveys from The Media Audit, an international consumer research company, busts one of the myths about newspapers — only older adults read them. The data for two readership points — “read any weekday print newspapers cume” and “heavy exposure to newspaper” (60+ minutes during the average day) — reveals Millennials over-index in all five markets, or an average of the five markets of 115.6 and 123.6, respectively.

By comparison, the average index among Baby Boomers for “read any weekday print newspapers cume” is 84.4, and “heavy exposure to newspaper” is 75.2. Unsurprisingly, the oldest adults (the Silent Generation) also over-index at 123.6 and 105.8, respectively.

Political campaigns, however, want to target those adults who have a pattern of voting. Additional data from The Media Audit’s five representative consumer/market surveys provides an interesting comparison by the indices of those who voted in local, state and national elections during the past year and their heavy exposure to newspaper and television.

The data in the table reveals another underlying truth of political campaigns: voting is local, even for a presidential election. The special characteristics of a market (gender, age, ethnicity, household income and educational attainment and whether it leans liberal or conservative) influence how people vote and to what media they are heavily exposed.

Dean Ridings

Kimball and Dean Ridings, CEO of America's Newspapers, both agree that newspapers have more opportunities to maximize political ad spending when they target local elections.

“Newspapers have more difficulty attracting dollars from national campaigns and even statewide elections because their mission is local news,” Kimball said. “Newspapers can be successful where they have the most influence, their local markets, and where the bulk of political ad dollars are ultimately spent.”

Ridings stated that larger campaigns typically have a consultant or an advertising agency with political campaign experience. As a result, they have more control of how and where ad dollars are spent than local elections for school board members or a sheriff, who are less likely to hire a consultant or ad agency.

“Newspapers can attract more political ad dollars when they collect and can share data to show local candidates the profile of the undecided audience,” said Ridings. “With the resurgence of community newspapers, they and suburban papers can also emphasize their strength as the local voice of their communities, which can help campaigns use their ad dollars more efficiently.”

Do newspapers have a trust advantage?

A 2021 global study from The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism concluded that most people trust news outlets that readers deem impartial and objective. The pandemic emphasized the importance of trust in the news as information about the COVID-19 virus, how many people it affected and the development and administration of the various vaccines were often confusing and contradictory.

Americans’ trust in the news was also severely tested during and since the 2020 presidential election. The Reuters study of 46 markets representing more than half of the world’s population found more Americans distrusted than trusted news than all other markets.

The very pronounced political polarization in the U.S. has been a primary factor in the substantial distrust of news on social media. Even before the 2020 presidential election, a late-2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 59% of U.S. adults distrusted Facebook as a source of political and election news. Large percentages also distrusted Twitter, Instagram and YouTube at 48%, 42% and 36%, respectively.

Newspapers have an opportunity to show political campaigns that their social media posts are written with the same level of journalistic objectivity they strive to present in their print editions. Voters who can be attracted to newspapers’ digital platforms may find them more trustworthy sources than all the misinformation they are exposed to on popular social media platforms.

An article, “Trust in News,” which appeared in the October 2021 issue of Editor & Publisher, reported on a 2021 study from the Media Insight Project, a joint effort of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. The study found that only 11% of Americans supported five core journalistic values: oversight, transparency, factualism, giving voice to the less powerful and social criticism. Of these five, however, only factualism — or reporting the facts accurately — received a majority of support at 67%.

According to Kevin Loker, director of strategic partnerships and research at the American Press Institute, people’s level of trust or mistrust of journalists is more a reflection of their general moral values than any identification with a specific political ideology.

Newspapers, especially community newspapers, are more likely to share similar values with their readers and the local populace, creating more long-term trust. That may be an advantage political campaigns can’t find in any other media. Moreover, by emphasizing the strength of that trust, community newspapers position themselves to attract more political ad dollars.

Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010.  He can be reached at


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