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Friday, August 26, 2011

The biggest news on Sunday

By Dick Hirsch

This is one of those times when I’ve decided to save the best for first. For a lot of people it is routine to go in the other direction. They insist on saving the best for last, an approach I’ve employed in certain appropriate situations. But not today.

Here is the best part: readers of the Sunday paper value the cents off coupons more than the stories.

It grieves me to write that sentence but it doesn’t surprise me. Some time ago I noticed that in sorting through the various sections each week I was giving priority to the chain drugstore ads rather than the news sections. That is a sad confession for someone who has spent most of his career putting ink on paper.

How do I know this about the preferences of readers of the Sunday paper? It’s no secret. The editor revealed it in one of her occasional columns designed to embrace the readers. She discovered it while observing the responses of members of two focus groups being interrogated by a marketing researcher. When asked what they liked best about the Sunday paper, the unanimous reply was “coupons.”

The big shots observing the session---publisher, president, editor and other executives---were all shocked and perhaps mortified, the editor wrote. She explained that the editors and reporters considered the Sunday edition their weekly showpiece, reserving the most compelling or informative materials for that day.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. Rather, they should have been gratified because they played a critical role in promoting that attitude. They elevated savings coupons to a primary position, perhaps even more important than the news and features. For several years the Buffalo News had posters mounted on the steel boxes dispensing papers with copy often like this: “$189 worth of free coupons this week,” or similar message.

That campaign conveyed the feeling to readers that the coupons were THE reason to buy the paper, not just a reason, but THE reason. When the number of boxes on the street was reduced as circulation dropped, similar messages regularly were plastered on page one, atop the masthead. There is no more prominent position. It was usually printed in color and reported the value of all the coupons that had appeared in the paper that week. Some newspaper executive or a committee had decided that the number of coupons was a positive factor, worth emphasizing. They were trying to convince people to buy the paper because the buyer could benefit financially by redeeming coupons that were worth more than the cost of a subscription. They were hoping and wishing the strategy would work in attracting new readers and perhaps some new coupon advertisers.

You surely are aware of the adage that advises: “Be careful what you wish for.” Caution about wishing has frequently been urged because the possibility was that you might end up actually getting your wish but later regretting the result. Of course composer Buddy DeSylva had a different view when he wrote about wishing: “Wishing will make it so, just keep on wishing and cares will go...”

But times were simpler then. The main product for newspapers really was the news, although there have always been subscribers who were attracted by the ads. A top editor once told me the ads were news, too, and anyone in the editorial department should understand that. However, I can’t imagine the editor of a major newspaper of that period worrying about the views expressed in some market research project.

Today’s newspapers are in a tenuous state; years ago they were able to fend off the competition of television and maintain their role as the leading news source, but the Internet has proven to be a more virulent foe. Newspapers are supplying a very large share of the news available on the Internet but most of the papers have been timid and have not yet found a way to derive profit from that service.

Oh, no! Is this going to be another column about the bleak future outlook for the daily papers? I didn’t start out that way but I do worry about the prospect of growing old without a paper to read.

What about the importance of coupons? Hey, when demand for your product is declining, any factor that results in satisfying a customer and motivating a purchase must be considered positive. The quest continues. A week after the public disclosure of the focus group, the red headline on page one read: “$845 in savings inside today’s paper.”



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