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Newspaper boxes in Toronto (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
Newspaper boxes in Toronto (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Papers step up in battle for eyeballs Add to ...

It's not often that a newspaper actually tries to be behind the times. But when Toronto Star readers picked up their paper on April 10, the first thing they saw were some not-so-current events. Half of the front page was dominated by an old-fashioned typeface. "Hit Cuba if other means fail - Kennedy," one headline read.

A flip of the finger quickly told the story: on the inside of the wrap that obscured part of page A1 was an ad for the new mini-series on the History channel, The Kennedys. The fake front-page copy - real headlines plucked from pages past - was a lure, using historical context to build interest for the advertiser's product.

The paper may have been reaching back, but this push was all about the future, and the Star is not alone. Many newspapers are promoting unconventional advertising methods to woo marketers and keep sales moving, at a crucial time for newspaper brands.

Even as the economy and the ad market have turned around, the print media have continued to face declines in some markets. Publishers are doing new and innovative things with their online and mobile products, and digital revenue is rising, but print ad sales - on which even the most forward-thinking publications depend for the lion's share of their overall revenues - remain challenged.

Publishing giant McClatchy, which owns the Miami Herald among other papers, reported this week that its print advertising revenues dropped 14 per cent compared to a year ago, even as other advertising segments such as TV and online have kept pace with the recovery in the past year. Gannett Co. and The New York Times Co. also reported first-quarter ad declines.

Postmedia Network Canada Corp., which owns the largest chain of papers in Canada, has adopted a "digital first" strategy and enjoyed an 8.6-per-cent boost in digital sales in the first quarter - but it wasn't enough to make up for print declines. The company still depends on print for just over 65 per cent of its total revenues, and roughly 92 per cent of its ad sales.

That means even if it comes second, print is still a priority - and while front-page "gatefolds" like the Star's are nothing new, the efforts to boost the print ad product have become more urgent than ever. That publishers have become much more accepting of having advertising on the front cover is one example of this.

"I came out of the editorial side, and I hate anything that obscures the front page," says the Star's publisher, John Cruickshank. "But I'm delighted that it works."

Other markets are taking notice. American newspapers, while slow to innovate at first, are catching on to the trend. In the fall of 2009, the L.A. Times did its first ever full front-page wrap ad, for the HBO series True Blood. Last March, Johnny Depp appeared to burst through the headlines in full Mad Hatter costume, in a promo for the Alice in Wonderland movie.

John O'Loughlin, the Times' chief revenue officer, realized how uncommon the experiment was in the U.S. when his counterparts across the country began calling him, asking how he'd ever convinced the editorial side of the paper to agree to it. But he says it's hard to argue with the premium such big-play ads can command. At the Times, such ads can cost up to 300-per-cent more than regular print ads.

There are concerns that come along with such advertising - mainly, that they detract from the newspaper's ability to appeal to their other customers: readers. The Globe and Mail has so far been cautious about front-page wraps, or even the half-coverage of gatefolds. Globe publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley is concerned such moves "really degrade the brand."

However, the Globe has agreed to them more often for inside sections, most frequently in the Life section. This Saturday, the Globe Arts section will feature a partial wrap of its front page promoting a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The paper has also agreed to what is known in the industry as "belly bands," a strip of advertisement wrapping around the paper like a belt. And new printing press capabilities mean the paper will begin experimenting with "French doors" - a section wrap split down the middle that opens like a set of doors.

Wraps are not the only strategy newspapers are exploring more intensely. Like other papers, the Globe is moving toward more "custom content" that goes beyond the old standby of advertorials labelled "special advertising content." An example of this is a magazine produced in partnership with Sunnybrook Hospital, which went out to its donor base, telling the story of what has been going on at the hospital. The hospital chose themes for the stories and gave access to doctors and research staff, which was put together by the newspaper and marked clearly as a partnership between the two. The Globe was then able to sell print ads within that sponsored product as well.

"It's a new revenue stream for us, customized content, and we have plans to develop this further in the new fiscal year," Mr. Crawley said.

Postmedia is also doing more custom content. The company has worked with Grey Goose vodka, sponsoring its "Worthy 30" list of most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. The list ran in the National Post, with Grey Goose branding running on the cover of the weekend section, and its silhouetted goose logo printed alongside the headline. The print buy included ads for the vodka that had the newspaper text running along the shape of the bottle and the glass. It allowed the alcohol-maker to place its product next to content that specifically targeted its key demographic.

Such content has to tread carefully to protect the newspaper brand's integrity, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. But that is still possible - and necessary, since this kind of tailored content is unlikely to go away.

"We are past the point where there is no connection. Advertisers are going to have a connection to the content they're next to, because that's how you target your customer," he said. "There's a difference between saying 'we'd like to be near stories that are relevant to our customers,' and saying 'we want to vet the content.' Or 'we want to have product placement in your news story the way you have in movies.' That's a very different line."

It's not just plunging print revenues that have pushed innovation, says Sunni Boot, CEO of ad buyer ZenithOptimedia. Commuter dailies such as the free Metro papers have been much more open to different kinds of ad possibilities, and that has pushed others to compete.

"It's not a closed market. You have to woo us," she said. "Anything that helps our message stand out in a different way, it's just fantastic. It makes newspapers more sexy for us."

One thing is clear: there is still a meaningful amount of ad sales that will continue drifting away to the Internet - meaning that newspaper brands are also working hard to offer more on the digital side. Often, that means bundling more digital products with print products. Many papers pair front-page wraps, for example, with a brand's takeover of all the space on their websites' home pages. But print also remains a priority.

"Newspaper companies are likely to keep experimenting with more aggressive advertising strategies to have some compelling proposition for their advertisers," said Mike Simonton, a media analyst with Fitch Ratings in Chicago. "And they'll just have to balance that with the needs of the newspaper franchise."

"Other advertising sales have ended in positive territory at the end of 2010 - Internet, TV, even magazines. Newspapers have yet to turn around," said Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor who now writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, works as an industry consultant, and lectures at the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley.

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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