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Sunday, March 17, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Reader Advocate

What Sells Newspapers? A Lot More Than The News

``THEY only print terrible things to sell newspapers!''

Many disgruntled readers say this when they call me.

Is it true? Do journalists deliberately set out to hook you in with sensational headlines that scream controversy and catastrophe?

Well, yes and no.

Editors and reporters at The Times want to draw your attention to the stories they report. Sometimes an overzealous or ``clever'' headline may sabotage that effort.

As I researched reasons people buy newspapers - at least The Times, I must confess - I held several misconceptions that you may share.

What sells newspapers? It's a strong, nearly equal, combination of news, newsfeatures and, believe it or not, advertising.

News coverage remains significant. The day-to-day coverage needs to remain focused, well-written, fair, accurate and include stories that interest readers, or has information they believe they either want or need.

The top-selling weekday (Monday through Saturday) editions of The Times last year and so far this year featured major news stories. Jan. 16's issue headlined ``War begins'' leads the list this year. Including an ``extra'' edition (published after the day's usual final deadline of the day), it accounted for three times the normal single-copy sales for one day: 94,190.

Last year's top-sales day, Nov. 26, featured a front-page follow-up on the I-90 bridge collapse. The headline was ``New bridge in

danger.''

.

Editorial opinion and reader input are an important footnote in the news mix.

On a day-to-day basis, newsfeatures sections (Tempo weekly entertainment section, Scene, puzzles, TV Times, comics and much more) are as important, and in some cases even more important, as news when it comes to sales. The same is true of advertising.

The only edition of The Times to sell out last year, May 21, contained two discount coupons for a major airline. A similar coupon offer for another airline resulted in a sales jump last month on Feb. 8. Readers buy newspapers when they think they'll get in on a bargain.

Sunday's paper, which has a subscription base of about half a million Times and P-I readers, sells an additional 103,613 single copies. Single-copy sales manager Ron Madler says a big draw for those readers is advertising. Yes, the coupon inserts that make environmentalists cringe and those classified sections that don't seem very reader-friendly actually account for a large number of Sunday's single-copy sales.

Eight out of the top 10 highest-selling newspapers for 1990 were published on Fridays, the day the Tempo section (entertainment news and events listings) is in the paper. On some of those Fridays, the combination of news and newsfeatures probably contributed to the larger sales volumes. On Nov. 30, for instance, the front-page headline was, ``Bush offers to talk peace.'' But Tempo is credited by Times research analyst Carol Dahl with a significant reader appeal week in and week out.

Again, coupons play a role in Tempo's appeal. Several ``twofers'' (two for one coupons) are advertised in the section. But Arts and Entertainment editor Jan Even points out that, like all news sections at The Times, newsfeatures works separately from the advertising department. ``Ads give readers information, certainly,'' she says. ``But there's no relationship between the news in Tempo and the ads that appear there.''

Another feature traditionally claiming a larger-than-average audience is Wednesday's Food section. Food editor Sharon Lane says The Times' goal is to provide useful information on specific foods, health claims, nutrition research and food safety in addition to the standard recipes and prepackaged information. Again, discount coupons create a reader demand.

Comment: No doubt about it - ``hard'' news is, as always, crucial to the credibility of any newspaper, but features sections obviously are increasing in their value to the overall health of a newspaper.

By comparison, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sales show a similar pattern. The best-sellers' dates may vary from those of The Times, but overall sales are strongest on Fridays and Wednesdays.

Are newspapers in the midst of an evolution? Definitely.

Reporters and editors will have to find more and better ways to cover and present the ``hard'' news.

Newsfeatures sections see themselves tackling subjects and issues that are considered news you can use - news that relates to your quality of life as well as entertainment reports and features that many readers make part of their daily lives. It is becoming an increasing attraction for more and more readers.

Not everyone sees this trend as positive. But it is a fact, and one that could be used to motivate journalists to improve the quality of reporting in every category of news to appeal to readers who want more hard-hitting news coverage as well as the popular newsfeatures.

Colleen Patrick is a privately contracted consultant, not a Times employee. Questions? Call the Reader Advocate at 464-8979 or write: P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Fax: 464-2261.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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