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Drawing the line between sales and editorial

by Ogi Overman

The front page of last Saturday’s News & Record contained a four-deck headline, the bottom two of which read “tears at Va. Tech.” Unfortunately, I’ll never know what the top two lines said, as they were covered up by the latest scourge disguised as a revenue stream to hit the newspaper business. In fact, I’ll never even know whether the word “tears” was being used in its noun (i.e. tears of a clown) or verb (i.e. tears at my heart) form because the subject of the headline was missing. No, it wasn’t a printing error but, in my opinion, a publisher’s error. The error is called sacrificing content and credibility for the sake of the bottom line.

While I call it an error, newspaper publishers across the nation would no doubt call it simply a business decision. They will tell you it’s merely a way to combat shrinking circulation numbers and ad revenues and compete more effectively with the myriad other advertising vehicles available. I would counter with the argument that the very reason newspapers are losing the battle is because of gimmicks like this that send the message to readers that this publication caters to advertisers at the expense of its readership. It says that the brick wall that used to exist between the sales and editorial departments has been breached and that content is for sale. It essentially makes whores of us all.

Before I get too carried away, the scourge, the error, the gimmick I’m referring to is those annoying stickers that have begun to show up on the front pages of dailies. It’s certainly not something that is confined to the local gazette; it’s happening all over.

Having worn a publisher’s hat briefly, I think I understand the nature of the beast. I know that newspapers’ diminishing influence as a result of the internet is real, but I see it as more of a challenge than a threat. I have no qualms with beefing up your online presence, making your website more interactive and all-inclusive. But my fear is that conglomerate publishers are sacrificing the credibility of their primary product by making it a rah-rah rag. They’re about to shoot the horse what brung ’em.

It’s as if they’ve already conceded the battle and are willing to go to any lengths to keep that profit margin around the 20 percent level. If it means slashing budgets by cutting the number of pages, increasing the ad-to-copy ratio, eliminating jobs on the news and sports asides, offering early retirement packages and then not replacing personnel when they retire (I could name names), using syndicated stories rather than staffing an event, then by all means go for it. Local managers and editors are given the mandate from corporate and they have no choice but to comply, even when they know that the quality of the paper’s coverage is going to be diminished.

Given the concessions already made, I ask myself if perhaps I’m making too big a deal over these stickers. Newspapers are in business to sell ads; they could not possibly exist on subscriptions alone. The stickers are, after all, just an ad, only the placement is different, right? But it’s the placement itself that irritates me. Somewhere another barrier has been crossed, and this one is more egregious than, say, picking up a wire story to save a buck. Placing the ad stickers on top of editorial content crosses the line. It moves legitimate media outlets ever closer to the category of that’s called in the trade “ad wrappers,” publications that exist solely as an advertising vehicle with editorial content used to support the ads. Believe me, I’ve worked for ad wrappers and I know from whence I speak.

How much lower can the bar go before newspapers lose all credibility? Probably a lot. But just when it’s about to hit rock bottom, somebody’s going to figure it out. Somebody – an anti-Rupert Murdoch figure – is going to realize that the way to win the battle is to beef up newsrooms, to give in-depth rather than superficial coverage, to emphasize substance over style, to worry less about the bottom line than the quality and quantity of coverage. Rather than listen to the doomsdayers who predict the demise of newsprint, this visionary figure is going to remember that the same type of folk assured us that radio would die out completely with the invention of television and that HBO would force movie theaters out of existence. See how that panned out, eh?

The way to win is to be courageous, to not run scared in the face of competition, and to know where to draw the line. And, as far as I’m concerned, the line should be drawn at those infuriating stickers.

Ogi can be reached at ogiman100@yahoo.com, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC45 and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMY48 on “Triad Today” hosted by Jim Longworth.

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