Newspapers need to juice up the ad content, not just the news

The quality of newspaper content is getting some much-needed attention these days, as companies work to justify their print price increases and digital meters/paywalls. They realize they need to reverse the slide in amount and quality of content and talk plainly about it, so readers can see they ‘re serious about meeting their needs despite our shrinking ad revenues.

This strategy works, as several companies, including Morris Publishing Group, have shown. But from what I’m seeing, even the smartest companies are missing a huge part of the consumer value proposition: the advertising itself.

Back in the late ’80s, when I was an editor, I was shocked when our reader survey showed that people valued the newspaper’s advertising content almost as much as the news. For some, in fact, the ads were the main reason to buy the paper. You could say the product was as much “adpaper” as “newspaper.” And it still is.

But when our industry thinks about the product’s consumer value, we tend to think only about the news. We forget that advertising touches people’s lives in a way news rarely does. People spend money every day, so the sales, deals, specials, opportunities and events are actionable information in a way that the city council report rarely is.

Before the Internet, the newspaper was the best consumer product for both news and ads. It worked better than anything else for finding out what was going on, and for finding consumer bargains in the local market. The digital revolution is disrupting both of those functions, but not in equal amounts. There’s still a great opportunity for us on the ad side, but we’re not moving to grab it.

News disruption

A daily’s news content has been supplanted by competitors at an alarming rate. Its exclusive content now is limited mainly to local news, sports, business and events. Everything else — international, national, state, college and pro sports, finance, business, travel, lifestyle, etc. — is available in huge quantities online, for free.

So print circulation is declining. A primarily local news franchise still exists, and we need to capitalize on it. But its pulling power is greatly diminished compared to the era when a newspaper was the one comprehensive source for all kinds of news, both local and non-local.

Advertising disruption

For the thousands of consumers in local markets who want to stay informed of local sales, discounts, bargains and special offers, there are precious few good alternatives to the newspaper. Digital ads scattered around the Internet aren’t a good alternative. This kind of content is intensely local and changes daily, and — so far — newspaper sales staffs are the largest and most active corps of operatives out there trying to gather it into one convenient package.

Daily deals sites encroach on this space, but one deal a day can’t match a newspaper full of ads. No wonder Groupon and others are shifting to offering multiple deals per day, aiming at on the space once exclusively held by newspapers. It would be hard for them to match the scale and convenience of the daily newspaper as “daily sales and discounts” vehicle.

But here’s the really bad news: We’re paying no attention to this aspect of our business. Who’s checking to make sure our ad content delivers a high level of “sales and discounts” value every day? Who’s going through the paper ad by ad, to see if we’re providing enough actionable consumer opportunities to make the paper worth buying? Who’s checking our websites, mobiles sites and apps for consumer ad value?


We do work really hard to to sell all the ads we can, but when we sprinkle them through the product, the result is only  hit-or-miss help for consumer spending decisions. Some days there are quite a few sales, discounts and bargains; other days there are hardly any. And no one at the company notices.

We are not trying to maximize the product’s ad value to consumers, and we’re not marketing the ad value it already has.

Meanwhile, decades of ad rate hikes have worsened the consumer value of the ad package. High rates have priced too many small businesses out of the paper, so the ad count and variety are way down. This further reduces a consumer’s chance of finding things to act on each day.

The ideal “adpaper”

What if we set out to maximize the consumer value of the newspaper’s advertising — to make the ad content so rich with consumer opportunities that people couldn’t live without it? The ideal newspaper/adpaper would be very different from today’s newspaper:

  • We would especially pursue ads that feature discounts, deals, sales and bargains. We would even offer discounted rates and incentives to encourage them, because they help us attract the audiences we need.
  • We would pursue ads for a wider range of products and services, calling on a wide range of businesses, to maximize the chance of helping consumers make buying decisions every day.
  • We would develop creative solutions and pricing for smaller businesses that offer deals and bargains.
  • We would reorganize our products and pages and design our ads to give the best play to the best deals and bargains, so consumers couldn’t help but see the many benefits we’re providing every day.
  • We would offer daily consumer “maven” columns, pointing out local consumer bargains, opportunities and shopping tactics.
  • Online, we would give bargain-conscious consumers a great place to go, showcasing the best local deals, discounts and opportunities in a convenient, searchable form. We would add maven advice, mapping, coupons, deals discussions, video, email alerts and so on. We can so do much more digitally than hit-or-miss display ads on news pages!
  • Based on all of this, we would market ourselves relentlessly as the consumer’s best friend and most effective buying tool. The message might be something like, “Your passport to better living in (name of market).”
  • We would tease some of our best deals and our maven advice in radio and cable TV ads and targeted online RTB display ads. Again — “Your passport to better living!”
  • In sales calls, we would tell the flip side of this consumer-value story to local businesses. Once we are positioned as the  No. 1 destination for consumer buying information, we will also be seen as the best place for consumer-facing advertising.

In the print era, we became the go-to destination for consumer information without even trying. In the Internet era, we need recognize that our value in that space is dropping fast. We need to be all about maximizing that value in a conscious, constant and rigorous way.

It’s up to us to rebuild the consumer value proposition, and it will take clear vision and strong leadership to achieve it. The good news is, we can give consumers  much, much more ad value if we step up and make it happen.

This, along with new attention paid to making news content more engaging and relevant, will dramatically juice the consumer’s perception of our value. Now, when we expect them to pay more for our products, we need this one-two punch.


Posted on April 22, 2013, in Advertising, Audience, Disruption, Media business model, Revenue and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. The only paper I read, personally, is the Sunday paper and it is mainly for the advertisements. I don’t look at the paper for news content anymore, because I can’t really trust it anymore, but I know most advertisements don’t lie. They try to get you to buy their product but they don’t flat out lie.

    I think this is a genius idea. Great article!

    Black and White Copies


  2. Well said, Steve. So difficult for an industry that’s been news-centric for centuries to shift gears and allow the advertising department to lead the team. I guess it’s the definition of “news.” For many, a half-price sale at JC Penney this weekend is certainly breaking news!


  3. I do think the ad value is going up. It makes the competition for getting the best ad out even harder. I had to ad that, and to agree with Gordon above! Granted it always seems like JC Penny is having a half-priced sale.

    A new interesting marketing tool I’ve noticed is texting. I get texts from some of my favorite stores (Pier 1, Charlotte Russe,) to tell me about exclusive sales they’re having.

    Fantastic article again.

    Black and White Copies


  4. I couldn’t agree more. Wrote 2 articles about a similar subject, the latest inspired by this article and another:

    Why are local newspapers adopting digital solutions that don’t leverage their content, audience and brand? They should be adopting advertorial like you suggest!


    • Thanks, Trevor. But to be clear, I’m not talking about advertorial. I’m talking about the actual ads themselves — making sure that they give consumers genuinely attractive offers.


  5. My daughter recently tried to place a print ad she had created. She’s no beginner, having spent many years in the ad biz. The newpaper called her back and said her ad was “dull” and offered to redo it. The paper’s ad looked like a busy web page, lots of pictures and banners and type faces. She did not use it. Reminds me of the saying hanging on the wall of a ad agency president I knew: “It’s not creative unless it sells.”



  2. Pingback: Everyday goal for local media companies: The greatest show on earth | MediaReset

  3. Pingback: The Separation of Church and State is Killing Local Newspapers. Advertorial Content Marketing is the Solution. - LocalVox

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