Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Can They Give These Papers Away?

He had been there last week, and he was there again this week. But this time, I couldn't help but asking.

"Do you have much trouble selling those subscriptions?" "No, not at all," he replied. "How many do you sell?" "About eight to ten a day," was his response.

As you probably have guessed by now, the young man, named Jeff, was hawking Wendy McCaw's News-Press in front of the Ralphs grocery store in downtown Santa Barbara. I encountered him around six Tuesday evening as I was walking out of the store.

He offered me a copy of the paper from the large stack that was sitting on the table. I told him up front I wasn't interested in a subscription, but he assured me I could have a free copy without any obligation to purchase.

Then he told me what the offer was: three months of the paper for "free." Actually that was Monday through Saturday for free. I would be charged only for the cost of the Sunday paper, which is $1.50 per week.

And what is Jeff's cut? According to him: $20 per subscription, which goes towards tuition and books at Santa Barbara City College.

Now I'm no math major, but even I can figure out that $1.50 per week for three months works out to a total of $18, which means the News-Press is losing two bucks on each of those three-month subscriptions after they get through paying Jeff's commission.

Of course, I'm sure they're hoping that the subscriber won't cancel at the end of the three months.

Maybe Travis Armstrong ought to think twice the next time he characterizes someone else's newspaper as a "freebie."

The reality is that they could give copies of the paper away for free, and it could still be profitable. In the newspaper industry, subscription revenue doesn't even cover the cost of paper and ink. Advertising is the primary source of income and determines whether the paper operates in the black.

But, across the country, newspapers are reporting a double-digit drop in advertising revenue. While the News-Press may be light on content these days, it appears to have plenty of ads. In fact to this observer, the "A" section of the paper appears to be made up of no more than 50 percent news articles, with the remainder being ads and other filler material. Some in the industry would call it a "counting house" paper.

How much are those ads selling for? I can't tell you for sure, but reportedly, the News-Press rate sheet would show that a full-page ad in the paper goes for $3,000. A full-page ad in the Sunday Real Estate section, with its smaller tabloid-size pages, goes for $1,600.

But apparently, there are also deals to be had. According to at least one source (who prefers not to be named) certain advertisers can get a Friday-through-Sunday package of three full-page ads for $1,200, making the effective cost of each ad $400.

The Teamsters Union has been running radio spots this past week urging both readers and advertisers to boycott the News-Press. Will those boycott pleas be effective, and why don't more advertisers boycott? It's not because those reputed discounts make the News-Press the best advertising deal in town. Many advertisers feel it's the only deal in town.

Although it has been well reported that circulation numbers for the paper have dipped in the past two years, there still is no other daily paper in this area that approaches the News-Press in total circulation.

And the News-Press has leverage when it comes to certain advertisers. Real estate brokers who want to get their properties into the Sunday paper's open house directory can only do so if they buy an ad to go along with it.

I don't know about you, but I don't envy anyone who has to make an advertising decision in this town these days. Or who has to stand outside of a supermarket trying to sell newspapers.

* * *

In the free copy of Tuesday's News-Press I was given, I noticed that of the six locally-bylined stories, four were by Scott Steepleton. The other two belonged to Angel Pacheco.

The only thing that keeps me from referring to the two of them as being a "skeleton crew," is Steepleton's presence.

* * *

Late last week, the Santa Barbara Review posted an assessment of the local blogscape.

* * *

Weigh-In Wednesday. Two weeks ago, after losing five pounds in a week, I wondered if losing another five would be as easy. Turns out, the only thing harder than losing that next five pounds is canceling one's subscription to the News-Press. I'm checking in at 194 right now.