Giving away the store.

Monday, August 23rd, 1999

Because we don’t subscribe to the Journal-Constitution, (despite the persistence of the nice folks who call at dinnertime to offer it to us), we certainly appreciate that the AJC folks take the trouble to send us, unsolicited, some leftover advertising material just to fill out our Monday mail. Here, you didn’t get enough credit card offers, so read about this great price on chicken at Wayfield Foods! Or perhaps you need a good place to order thousands of return address labels, or get a great deal on some roofing, or clean every rug in your house for $12.95.
Gosh, that’s nice. Of course, they may be doing it to fulfill something their ad people call "guaranteed circulation," which means that for a certain price, they assure folks like Wayfield Foods that everyone in a certain zip code-not just those who pay for the paper-get their hands on their ad. Of course, that’s just about all that happens to it-the insert sails from the mail pile into the wastebasket without making much of an impression
So why kill the trees for something they know no one reads? The newspaper’s answer is simple: the advertisers are paying them for it. Okay, advertisers, why are you paying? Because the newspapers tell them it’s effective. Okaynewspapers, why do you tell themah, forget it.
There’s actually the same kind of disconnect happening as traditional media tries to find its way in the world of new media (that would be that Internet thing.) We’re a newspaper, says (for example) the New York Timestherefore our mission of gathering and reporting the news must continue on the web. So, fine, how will people pay for it? Well, most sites give the content away in exchange for the opportunity to show readers banner ads which link to other sites. So do you read banner ads? Yeah, well that’s what the Times finding out in research-people have developed scanning instincts that basically ignore the banner ads-they become all but invisible. (I haven’t come across anything that says that the same thing happens with newspaper ads, but if that ‘Reach’ ad insert in my mail is any indication, it’s invisible advertising too.)
There’s an increasing faction in the newspaper business of alarmed beancounters: we’re giving the store away! We’re telling people what we know for free! This won’t work! (This of course, ignores the fact that advertiser-supported television networks have done quite well with this model.) Dave Barry in a recent column (which, you guessed it, you can read on the web: is firmly in the camp who says giving it away is nuts. He says "Sometimes we run advertisements in the regular newspaper urging our remaining paying customers to go to our web sites instead. ‘Stop giving us money!’ is the shrewd marketing thrust of these ads."
Well, maybe we’d give papers money for online content, Dave, if there was a small ‘pay here’ coin box attached to our computer monitors. Until it’s that easy, though, we’ll prefer free, even with those invisible ads, thanks very much.