Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It's Time for the 50-50 Club

The Zellots at Tribune Co. have gotten rid of a big chunk of their news staffs -- although it's interesting that they also were criticized for imposing a 50-50 ad ratio. When I got into the business the ratio was generally 60 percent ads, 40 percent news. An alleged primer called "How to Run a Newspaper" on Wikibooks says: "Some publications use a ratio of 50 percent advertising to 50 percent content, while others use a 60/40 ad-to-content ratio, and still others use a 70/30 ad-to-content ratio. While each publication determines its own ratio, the closer to a 50/50 balance you maintain, the better your publication will be viewed by your readers. The reason: it will seem like they have actual content to read -- not just ads to pass by in a vain attempt to find your content." Gee, maybe Sam Zell did a Wikipedia search and said, "Aha, 50-50! Wow, this Wikibooks page explains the whole newspaper business to me."

An AJR article about the former Thomson Newspapers in 1998 said: "The ratio used to be 60-40 -- 60 percent ads, 40 percent news. Any local newspaper that can get 40 percent now considers itself riding high. But the 40 is ads." So if the newspaper business went from 60-40 ads to 40-60 ads, it wasn't strictly through its own desire, it was a lack of ads. And was Tribune really running all of its newspapers at a 40-60 ad ratio pre-Zell? This is, after all, the allegedly bean-counter-run Tribune Co., the organization whose only aim in life was to destroy the Los Angeles Times. (As opposed to today's Tribune Co., whose only aim in life apparently is to destroy the Los Angeles Times AND the Chicago Tribune.) Actually, it's hard to tell. Roy Greenslade in The Guardian indicates that Philip Stone in Follow the Media said they were, but the article is behind a pay wall so I can't tell what it really said.

Since Tribune clearly cut space, their news-to-ads ratio was higher than 50-50. But 20 years ago, when papers were chock-full of ads from Dayton's and Donaldson's and Powers', a 50-50 news-ad ratio would have been seen in most markets as manna from heaven. It still would at most Gannett papers, I expect. I assume they had space budgets based on 1990s ad volume and hadn't adjusted downward.

More to the point, I cannot find a story -- perhaps I am just not looking hard enough -- in which anyone asked Tribune what its previous news-ad ratio was across the chain, or called the Newspaper Association of America to ask whether it had any figures on what the typical news-ad ratio is in an American newspaper today. Indeed, many blogs referred to a 60-40 news-ad split as if it were a tradition of long standing, if not divine origin. It was far easier to simply decry the whole Zell business than to ask if what the Zellots are up to had any standing in our business today -- or even the traditions of our business. Zell says: I have to do this. There is no money. I have to save these businesses. Journalists say: We don't trust you. You didn't treat us with sufficient respect. You are a tradesman who does not understand what we do. We do not wish to lower ourselves to work for you in the first place. (But sometimes a check is just a check, of course.)

Zell's ideas may not work. At least he and his associates are putting ideas on the table instead of saying, "God, we bought a pig in a poke, let's just do nothing and let it collapse and sell the real estate." When they put ideas on the table, many journalists respond, "Those ideas have already been tried and failed." Some have, not all, and some have only been tried halfheartedly. (Not that Zell won't try some only halfheartedly himself.) We say, "We know the answer. Good journalism. It's not our fault it isn't working financially. It's your fault. But don't tell us what we should do. Who do you think you are, a brain surgeon?"

What is it about our business that when people show up and say, "We want to save your frickin' business," we tell them to go frick themselves? As it turns out, one of America's best journalists has just told us something about this in an article in the Atlantic, to which we will turn next.

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