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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Have you read any interesting inserts lately?

By Dick Hirsch

When I was young and unsophisticated I believed that the most important role of the daily newspaper was reporting the news of the day as well as writing about persons and places the editors deemed to be newsworthy.

It was an essential service, I believed, almost a quasi-public function, charged with the responsibility of finding the truth, worldwide and local, and informing the readers. It was a service unavailable from any other source, and when an editor invoked the importance of “The people’s right to know,” it was often portrayed with missionary zeal.

So I signed up. I never gave too much thought to the other aspects of the business of daily publishing. That was relatively colorless and unimportant labor like selling advertising, printing, and delivering the finished product.

I don’t recall how long it took, but one day I woke up and suddenly realized that the men and women who worked in the other departments had important roles to play, too.

“Hey, if we didn’t sell ads, how long do you think we would stay in business?” one of the guys from advertising once asked me. It was a question I had never considered and for which I had no answer. But it prompted a new respect for those sales people who marched out and sold the idea of advertising in the paper as a means for various businesses to increase their customer base, their sales and their profits.

One day, in a hallway conversation, the editor told me: “The ads are news, too.” I nodded as if I agreed, but I didn’t believe him.

I confess this bit of personal history now, at a time when daily newspapers are in decline, struggling to determine their role in an entirely fluid news atmosphere, in which they are no longer regarded as the primary source. They have fewer pages, fewer readers, and, on many days, the saddest and skimpiest collection of advertisements. The story is the same in most places.

But somehow, the newspaper, especially the Sunday edition, has retained its role as a dynamic advertising medium. The newspapers may be getting slimmer, but the total delivered package is bulky with inserts, which have provided a life-sustaining infusion of revenue for the papers. The Free Standing Insert or FSI is an advertising circular, often printed in color on coated paper, that is printed elsewhere and supplied to the paper, inserted, and delivered. The paper has no production costs and charges the advertiser for including the advertising material as part of the paper, inserting the ads and delivering to subscribers and newsstands. This has become an important service for retailers and a major income source for publishers.

On a recent Sunday I decided to examine the inserts with more than the usual care. There were 34 different inserts in my paper, accounting for far more material than was contained in the editorial columns. I was motivated to conduct that kitchen table investigation because I keep reading negative stories explaining that newspapers are an archaic medium, with circulation eroding and most people getting their news from cable TV or the Internet.

That may be true, but if it is, then the advertising managers for some major national retailers don’t agree. They are spending big money to produce inserts and have them distributed to readers. Of the 34 inserts, six were for supermarkets or grocers, 25 were for national advertisers and three---Broad-Elm Tire, Orville’s and Rosa’s---were local companies.

All the usual suspects were represented. I won’t recite the whole list, but it included Kohl’s, Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penney, Circuit City, Best Buy, Office Max, Office Depot, Pep Boys, Dick’s and Lowe’s, as well as the three major national pharmacy chains, to mention a few. Some of those listed are direct competitors.

Those companies and the others I didn’t mention all have statistics indicating they are generating sales and deriving benefits from using the inserts. If the response is poor, the contracts would not be renewed and the money spent with other media. Sunday is the big insert day for the papers, but more inserts are showing up in the daily editions.

Yes, the newspaper equation has changed, but the publishers are maintaining their grip on a substantial share of the shopping audience. If you still like to read, they furnish the material, only now it is the ads that dominate. As the editor once told me, the ads are news, too.


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