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Seattle’s Newspaper Battles for Respect (or Loses It)

October 26th, 2012 by dk

Print journalism has taken steps to dramatically reshape itself this month, but we won’t know for a while where — or even whether — that new shape will fit into the shifting media landscape.

Newsweek announced it will abandon the print medium altogether beginning the first of the year, opting for an online edition only. The Seattle Times has tacked in the opposite direction, aiming to prove the viability and value of print by giving two Washington campaigns a combined $150,000 worth of advertising between now and Election Day.

Seattle’s experiment is the more interesting of the two, possibly because Newsweek’s experiment would be old news in Seattle. For over a century, Seattle had two daily newspapers, the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After a decade of losing money, the Hearst Corporation transformed the P-I into an online-only newspaper on March 17, 2009.

The Seattle Times Company might have imagined they prevailed over a major competitor that day. If only. Since the emergence of the Internet, newsprint finds itself increasingly fighting electronic media more than other newsprint products.

Whether it’s a national newspaper, a local Penny Saver, or the phone book, newsprint is fighting for the survival of the medium, not just their own title. The Seattle Times Company decided it wouldn’t go down without a fight. Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, called it “the weirdest media business decision I have ever heard of.”

If you own a television or a mailbox, you know where most political campaigns spending goes: direct mail flyers and television ads. If you happen to live in a swing state, political consultants have bought almost every available television spot. Strategists used to call this media-buying strategy “carpet bombing” but it now has escalated to what they call “wall-to-wall” advertising, crowding out all competition. That means fewer ads reaching Ohio living rooms this month that sell actual carpeting.

Why do political campaigns use so much television and so little newsprint? Because newspaper readers are discriminating and demanding. They want information, at least during those moments when the newspaper is in their hand. Gathering and presenting information is expensive and occasionally cumbersome.

Television viewers, on the other hand, want to relax. They want to be entertained. They want to feel good. If you can gather some cheery images and attach them to your candidate or cause, there’s a good chance those viewers will take that warm fuzzy feeling into the voting booth with them. Image ads have been shown to be especially effective with voters who haven’t diligently gathered a lot of information on their own.

Newspapers have never challenged this conventional wisdom head-on — until now. If full-page color ads can work for a blockbuster movie or for a car dealer, why wouldn’t they work for a candidate or a cause?

The Seattle Times is providing $75,000 of advertising on behalf of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and the marriage equality referendum. One is slightly ahead in the polls, the other is running behind. One leans to the right politically, the other is supported most by the political left. Both are consistent with the newspaper’s editorial board endorsements.

No one is claiming that was considered. Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman explained, ”The news department was not part of the discussion or the decision to do this.” Over 100 newsroom employees signed a letter to their boss objecting to the experiment, warning that the owners’ decision “threatens the two things we value the most: our independence and credibility.”

Modern newspapers maintain a firewall between their reporters and the newspaper’s editorial board, but this experiment points to another firewall between the newspaper’s operations and ownership. Erect too many firewalls and it begins to look more like a maze and readers could get lost in the process.

If you love the feeling of newsprint in your hand, you should be rooting for The Seattle Times Initiative for Political Newspaper Advertising, regardless of your political persuasion. If their “gift” sways the election, advertising dollars may return to newspapers. You can be sure there are carpet companies who need to reach potential customers in Ohio.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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