Tuning Out The Business Section p. 18

By: TONY CASE NEWSPAPERS HAVE TRIED to lure readers to their business pages by beefing up coverage of personal finance. But stories about paying for college, saving for retirement and balancing one's bank account on the PC turn off traditional business-section readers and advertisers, contend publishers and ad executives alike.
Not long ago, businesspeople relied heavily on their local dailies, but executives seeking news about corporate buyouts, economic conditions and the Dow have little interest in the news-you-can-use-style features so ubiquitous on today's business and financial pages, Robert J. Hall, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, said at the Newspaper Association of America convention.
"What's happening here?" Hall asked. "Have our tried and tested business pages disappeared?"
Raymond A. Mayo, vice president and media director of the agency Earle Palmer Brown, cited a 1995 poll of corporate vice presidents in which only 2% said business was the first section they turned to. Number one was sports, at 32%. Countless other surveys indicate that readers generally place business news at the bottom of the heap, behind such features as food and the comics.
"The one thing that remains constant is the relatively low priority given to reading the business and financial section," Mayo said.
While going after the home economist and do-it-yourself investor, newspapers, with few exceptions, appear to have ceded serious reporting on local and regional business to the scores of business weeklies that have cropped up, while they've turned over in-depth analysis of big business and economic trends to the likes of Business Week and the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, the banker-broker set is also tuning in to business-news programming on cable television in growing legions. Ted Turner even saw fit to launch a cable network, CNN/FN, devoted exclusively to financial news.
The daily press still gets about 40% of all business advertising, and about 50% in the financial category. But while their enviable market penetration, upscale readership and timeliness remain attractive to advertisers, newspapers are losing ground to their more-focused counterparts. Compare run-of-the-mill business sections, with their sad advertising linage, to national publications such as Money and Forbes, which are bursting with ads.
Hall said that until business editors figure out who their audience is, customers will continue to stay away.
"Advertisers are waiting for us to define who it is exactly we're writing these pages for, and they're increasingly unwilling to spend their dollars on a section their desired audience may or may not be reading," the publisher said.
"Local newspapers don't seem to know what their readers want," added Allen Banks, executive vice president of the agency Saatchi & Saatchi. "The lack of research is a big negative. There seems to be minimal understanding of the profile of your readers and where they focus their attention in the newspaper."
Banks said he came across few people in the publishing and advertising worlds who had a kind word for business sections. Their central complaint: a lack of comprehensive coverage.
Comparing newspaper business reporting to Cliff's Notes, Banks told the publishers: "Your competition is beating your brains out with in-depth coverage of the subject matter."
Many of those who advertise in the business section do so, not because they find the venue so sexy, but because they feel they have few alternatives, Banks went on.
"They want the readers of the business sections, but believe that newspapers do less than a satisfactory job of creating a compatible environment for their advertisers," he explained. "They see these sections as providing readers with the top of the tree tops. The feeling is that without the AP wire service, they would be out of business."
Mayo complained that there isn't much consistency in day-to-day business reporting, noting that newspapers tend to run comprehensive coverage only one or two days a week.
But this approach, Mayo maintained, "doesn't necessarily coincide with the advertisers' needs."
Besides building their daily business reports, Mayo suggested that newspapers take advantage of franchise opportunities by opening up ad space alongside regular columns and features, and creating alliances with area business associations, such as chambers of commerce and small-business groups.
The media planner also recommended instituting creative and flexible pricing strategies. Advertisers, he said, resent paying the full retail rate in a section that gets fewer readers than the general news or sports pages.
By making these changes, Mayo argued that newspapers can enhance their image among the many potential business-page advertisers, and watch their ad levels grow year after year.


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