BIG-CITY DAILIES EYE NATIONAL STAGE; JOIN THE CLUB: ADVERTISERS STILL VIEW MOST NEWSPAPERS AS REGIONAL

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At the annual PaineWebber media conference in New York last December, The New York Times Co. presentation ended on a sweet note. After his speech, CEO-Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. distributed chocolate bars enclosed in silver foil to attendees.

The wrapper boasted, "$1 Billion Bar, Tastes Great, More Billing," a cheeky reminder that the Times had surpassed $1 billion in advertising revenue for the year.

Wall Street analysts who consumed the candy bars were riding a different sort of high, though, when they began to gush about the publishing company's financial prospects.

In September, Competitive Media Reporting, the leading source for ad spending benchmarking, announced plans to reclassify The New York Times as a national newspaper -- a status Mr. Sulzberger had long sought in an effort to gain additional business from national advertisers.

Only two other newspapers -- The Wall Street Journal and USA Today -- are recognized by CMR as vehicles that can provide advertisers with "national print buys."

CHANGING MINDS

Changing distinctions on paper is one thing. But changing advertisers' minds is another. For The New York Times -- or any other paper with a city in its title -- gaining national prominence isn't an easy endeavor.

Marketers classify most newspapers besides the WSJ and USA Today as regional buys. They typically spend a hefty chunk of their ad budgets on TV as a way to reach the largest number of consumers possible, and then turn to the Journal and USA Today when they want to reach business leaders.

"If you have a big announcement to make for a telecommunications or finance client, those newspapers are a logical, tactical opportunity," said Mike Bracken, media director at Temerlin McClain, Dallas. "It's a chance to make a lot of noise and get more attention from one placement."

But some media buyers aren't yet convinced that even large-city papers can transcend their geographic boundaries and appeal to an all-encompassing audience, as the Journal and USA Today do. As a result, the road to national stardom is a long one.

"The New York Times still has a pretty dramatic skew toward the Northeast part of the country," said Susan Bentzinger, media director for Media That Works, Cincinnati. "So it is entirely appropriate for a national advertiser to use it if their distribution has a strong Northeast skew, or if they are trying to influence opinion makers."

NOT PART OF ROUTINE

National marketers aren't necessarily opposed to reaching out to the regionals; they just aren't in the habit of going to them first. Take, for instance, AT&T Corp. Earlier this month, when the telecom giant wanted to tout its wide range of services to business customers, it chose to break the campaign in the Journal and USA Today.

As for the Times, AT&T plans to take out full-page ads this week as the marketer kicks off the second phase of the print effort.

"That media buy was a traditional approach to take when you are thinking about using national newspapers," said Burke Stinson, AT&T spokesman. "The New York Times is clearly prestigious, and there is certainly no drawback to using them for national exposure. But on an emotional level, it still has `New York' in its title, which makes you think of them as more of a regional."

`USA TODAY' ALONE SEES GROWTH

The newspaper industry as a whole has been battling circulation declines. Of the Big 3, only 16-year-old USA Today experienced significant growth in the past decade.

Yet, as national ad vehicles, size alone is not the top selling point for all three papers. None of these papers' circulation exceeds 2.5 million, while a national magazine such as Time has a circulation of 4 million-plus.

For the period March through September, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, USA Today's circulation Monday through Thursday was 1.65 million, while Friday circulation was 2.08 million. The Journal's circulation was 1.74 million Monday through Friday. The Times' was 1.07 million on weekdays, 1.63 million on Sundays.

The national dailies have moved beyond their newspaper roots as a mass medium to become targeted vehicles, and ad sales pitches stress quality not quantity. That is tricky positioning for what is essentially a product with a one-day life span.

In today's world of instantaneous news via the Internet and 24-hour cable news stations, just how many people are buying the paper every day might not matter as much as what kind of people are reading it.

Unlike magazines, a daily newspaper is not something a consumer holds onto. So getting as many people as possible to see an ad the day it runs is more important than whether the paper is paid for or not.

`NUMBERS JUST ONE FACTOR'

"Numbers are a factor, but they are just one factor," said Carolyn Vesper, associate publisher, senior VP-advertising, USA Today. She added that where a paper is distributed counts as much as who pays for it.

"If it's a Marriott hotel in downtown Manhattan, and the paper is in the lobby, exactly who that newspaper was originally purchased by or given to is less important than it was at a Marriott in Manhattan," Ms. Vesper said. "Most of the people in that lobby are going to be business people or a similar demographic. It's different people, but the right people."

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today this past year traded barbs about creative circulation statements. The Journal questioned USA Today's free hotel distribution, while USA Today balked at the Journal's bulk subscription policy for corporations.

`WSJ' DOES OWN STATEMENT

The Journal even created its own Statement of Total Circulation last fall to better enable it to compete with national consumer magazines, and recently it released an updated version comparing its circulation numbers to USA Today's.

The WSJ bills itself as a national business publication that just happens to be produced on a daily basis, said VP-advertising Paul Atkinson. USA Today also was a national medium from its inception in 1982.

The New York Times, after years of battling it out in one of the most media-rich cities, always sold itself as the quality read of the intelligent, affluent New Yorker, said Daniel Cohen, the Times' senior VP-advertising. Making the leap to the newspaper of the intelligent, affluent U.S. citizen is a natural extension of what The New York Times brand denotes.

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