Every Sunday at the grocery store I walk past a rack containing my local daily newspaper. As I wheel my cart by, I glance at the front-page headline – something that’s supposed to scream out and say, “pick me up!” It never happens – that is, until this weekend.
The newspaper is The Virginian-Pilot, a 170,000-circulation daily where I spent a dozen formative years as a reporter and editor. When I was a copy editor, a colleague once told me how to write a great headline. “Imagine a kid selling newspapers on the street, yelling out the headline.” That bit of advice helped me win a dozen headline-writing awards.
But on this past Sunday it wasn’t the headline that grabbed me. The front page (which looks like it was designed by committee) had two headlines: “Ghouls Rule!” and “Our New National Park.” Those are about as likely to get me buy the paper as the sign on the potato rack that says, “Russet potatoes.”
The headline that captured me was bigger and more colorful than anything on the front page. It also held greater creativity and news value than anyone on the copy desk apparently had the energy to think of the night before. The headline: “$240 in Coupons This $unday!”
It was both sad and heartening. Heartening because at least someone was thinking about how to sell newspapers. Sad because it wasn’t the people responsible for making the product compelling to the community every single day.
Like many newspapers, the once-formidable brand of The Virginian-Pilot is no longer strong enough to sell newspapers on its own. That power was lost many years ago with the proliferation of local news and information both on TV and the Internet, as well as many years of newsroom downsizing. At this particular paper, Page 1 reflects the diminished brand of a longstanding, two-time Pulitzer-winning product: The front-page flag is small, pushed off to the left and crowded out by things above, below and to the right of it.
The same is not true of all newspapers. Many have held fast to what they do best in print. I was in Little Rock a few weeks ago and found The Arkansas Democrat Gazette chock full of news. (This Sunday’s top headlines: “Arkansas 31, Vanderbilt 28” and “Kabul bus bombing kills 12 Americans.”) I read the entire paper on the flight home and got a robust slice of life about what’s important to the people of Little Rock. A few months ago I visited Colorado and found much the same with The Durango Herald, a small newspaper that remains the voice of the community.
I guess I should be glad that marketing departments can take charge and find at least something of value to help sell the paper. After all, the same percentage of people read the advertisements in Sunday’s paper as read the news. The Internet can’t touch the newspaper when it comes to delivering the most comprehensive package of what’s for sale in a local community on that particular day. Try to Google that.
Things are changing, however. Three industry efforts are pushing out newspaper circulars and other local advertising that might just usurp the daily newspaper’s stronghold on that more valuable breaking news of the day: Where all the big sales are. Those efforts include Gannett Co.’s ShopLocal.com, Suburban Newspapers of America’s Zip2Save.com, McClatchy Corp.’s FindnSave.com, and The Associated Press’s iCircular.com. I’m not certain these efforts will ever replace the daily newspaper as the No. 1 source for current sales information for local markets, but they certainly hold the promise of doing so.
In this tough economy, I suppose that shelling out $1.50 on the prospect of saving $240 is as good a way to sell a newspaper as any. At the rate things are going at some newspapers, they’d do better to fold the paper so the advertisements could become the front page.