As advertisers commit more money to free-standing inserts and other options, the so-called Best Food Day is becoming less and less important, says John Ruf, a partner with consultancy New England Consulting Group.
But editors and ad sales reps recognize the importance of the food section to the whole newspaper product, since 73% of all adults read it, according to Newspaper Association of America.
To rectify the situation, some of the larger dailies are aggressively revamping their food section and trying to recapture grocery and package goods advertisers.
"We sell 80,000 additional copies [of the Los Angeles Times] on Thursday because of the food section," says Mark Wurzer, director of advertising, who adds that the grocery business is very important for the food section because readers are looking for coupons as well as recipes and articles.
The key to a food section with sizzle is an upscale format with lots of color-on a par with the upscale food magazines readers are used to seeing.
That's the opinion of executives at the Times and Chicago Tribune, both of which recently introduced retooled food sections that focus on quick and easy recipes for time-conscious working people as well as easy-to-clip recipes and articles on healthy food and ethnic cuisine.
"We had to make the food section more relevant to more people by paying more attention to the health and fitness issues, and giving them the kind of editorial we are used to seeing in food magazines," says Owen Youngman, Tribune features editor. "Time constraints are more of a factor-we needed to acknowledge that."
The Tribune's "Good Eating" was introduced in January.
To boost the new section, the newspaper's parent Tribune Co. created a "Good Eating" half-hour TV show for its CLTV cable channel in
the Chicago area. Shot in the Tribune test kitchen, the TV show features the lead story from that week's food section and airs on Sunday before the section runs and again on the following Saturday.
"We are into content re-use across multiple media," says Mr. Youngman. "We don't see the sense in using something once and throwing it away as we start to build multimedia databases. We might be early starters in the race, but we won't be there by ourselves."
The Los Angeles Times introduced its new two-part section, "Food," last month. The launch was supported by a newspaper, radio and direct-mail ad campaign, and promotions, all created in-house.
The promotion features a "scratch & sniff" card dropped into the paper every day for two weeks. There are eight different cards with food scents that readers can sniff.
The consumer can write his name and phone number on the card and deposit it at a Ralphs store to become eligible for prizes that include vacations and shopping sprees at the store.
Mr. Wurzer says the promotion is successful and generates a lot of attention from local radio disc jockeys who scratch and sniff on the air to guess the scents of the cards that smell like lemons or bananas, etc.
Ultimately, Mr. Wurzer says, he's hoping other major supermarket chains will join the promotion.
The major goal, however, is to bring more advertisings from national package goods brands and local food brokers into the section.
"Competition [for these national advertisers] from direct mail is very strong," Mr. Wurzer notes, "and most notably from Advo [Systems]. What we're trying to do is focus on all the things a newspaper can provide that perhaps a direct mailer cannot."
Improving services for grocery advertisers was a key element to the Tribune format changes.
The Tribune moved its Best Food Day from Thursday to Wednesday at the request of preprint advertisers, and competing newspapers responded in kind.
Major food and over-the-counter drug preprint ads are dropped on Thursday and then Sunday. With the old schedule, many newspaper readers didn't see the insert until Thursday night. With the Wednesday section, the ads are seen and used for Thursday shopping.
In many cases, the Sunday insert circulates as early as Saturday.
By pushing the food section back, it gave the advertiser "another day of life," says Jane Migley, Tribune food, drug and liquor advertising manager.
The shift also supported the Tribune's Local Values direct-mail program, delivered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Those moves seek to turn an industry trend that's driving down the space available for run-of-press food sections to the point of almost nonexistence.
"We have loads of supermarket advertising, but the stores choose to have it in other sections of the newspaper. Some newspapers are making the food section part of the rotation of the daily lifestyle section, [and] food editors aren't very happy about that," says Cathy Barber, food editor of The Dallas Morning News.
"The major fear of food editors is that they could lose their food sections," says Dale Curry, food editor for the Times Picayune in New Orleans, and president of the Association of Food Journalists.
"I was afraid of that, too; that's part of the reason we did this," says the Tribune's Mr. Youngman. "Pages have been going down; advertising has been migrating to FSIs and some migrated right out of the newspaper into direct mail..... That's why we put so much time and effort into this project.
" We saved the food section in our town," he says.
"There's more options on the plate and the dollars are spread more thinly," says Deborah Hernan, NAA VP-director of marketing and advertising.
She adds that in best-case scenarios, newspapers are working toward forming marketing partnerships with advertisers.
"Some of the smarter newspapers want to be the information provider in their communities, no matter how the advertiser wants to deliver and how the consumer wants to receive it," says Ms. Hernan.
"To deliver what a retailer needs, [newspapers] will provide packages with ROP and total market coverage. With database and direct-mail product, a newspaper has the names and addresses of everybody who is-or has been-a subscriber. They can help their advertisers craft targeted messages," Ms. Hernan says.
"For many papers, it's too late [to save their food sections]," says Mr. Wurzer. "We are going to do everything we can to keep our grocery business."