Press muse – It shouldn’t be just business

I can hardly claim this to be an exhaustive account, but over the past month or so it seemed rather difficult to get a dose of the day’s big news from the front pages of Singaporean English-language newspapers.

I first noticed this on 18 November, when The Straits Times threw around its main section a translucent coversheet promoting Volkswagen’s new Polo model. See-through it may be, readers would have been severely distracted from the front page content by this novel advertisement.

A month before Christmas, on 24 November, Today set the shopping ball rolling, selling its first two pages to John Little.

Then the SEA Games beckoned and Milo got into the act, placing ads on the front two pages of the 8 December issue. Perhaps inspired by Today’s example, The New Paper proceeded the very next day to whore out its first three pages (and the back page) to the milk beverage brand.

My Paper hummed to the same tune. On one day, you might get a full-page advert for Ginvera facial care products fronted the issue, without a single line of news in sight. On another, you might get Linda Chung sporting a wistful look, hoping that will convince readers of the wondrous nourishing qualities that Bio-essence attributes to its Hydra Spa Energy sleeping mask.

From 3 to 24 December, 12 out of 16 weekday Today issues carried a full-page advert on its front cover. Over the same period of time, My Paper did the same for 7 out of 16 issues.

What ever happened to the news? Not quite as important as the cheques waved in the faces of newspaper executives I imagine.

Sure, the cover pages aren’t actually labeled as page 1. When Today, for example, carries full-page adverts on its de facto first two pages, it labels them as part of the “cover wrap”, and the third page becomes the de jure first. But still, newspapers without the news on the cover? Something is wrong with that, no?

That these newspapers could do this so often (and indeed get away with it) is pretty damning indictment of their attitudes towards their audience. Page 1 is the most important of any newspaper, and to plaster it with anything but the biggest news story for the day would be bad form and a great disservice to readers. In this regard, the local freesheets are probably the worst perpetrators. Pick up a copy of SPH’s My Paper or MediaCorp’s Today and more often than not you wouldn’t know what the big news was until you reach page three.

To be fair, the newspaper business model is highly dependent on advertising revenues, and more so for freesheets. But even conceding this fact, it would appear that Today is a tad too willing to whore its pages out for some dough.

In terms of amount of advertising as a proportion of total print space, the 9, 10 and 11 December issues are particularly damning. Using rough calculations (in interest of transparency I explain my methodology below), I noted that over 58 pages worth of space out of 80 pages in the 9 December edition were taken by advertisements – a whopping 72.6 per cent. There was a slight improvement the next day, with just under 71 per cent advertising. On 11 December, the figure went up to nearly 74 per cent.

For the 16 weekday issues published from 3 to 24 December, my sums indicate that on average over 65 per cent of the paper’s print space would be taken up by advertising. That means almost two-thirds of Today‘s content in the past three weeks were not news. You could be forgiven for mistaking it for a free shopping catalogue, with some random news slapped in between the salacious models and massive discounts.

But perhaps the freesheet business model necessitates such high volume of advertising. Or the high incidence could be a consequence of the Christmas shopping period. Advertisers after all would be more eager than usual to splash the cash for ad space. As such, I will make a significant but probably useful compromise, so as to provide some kind of context to Today‘s advertising numbers – I hazard a comparison with their rival freesheet My Paper.

Before I do so, it is important to consider possible mitigating factors. For a start, it should be noted that from July 2008 to June 2009 My Paper has averaged only eight per cent of the daily readership, in contrast to Today‘s 18 per cent. Advertisers may therefore feel more inclined to advertise with Today, which may account for the discrepancy in proportion of advertisements.

However, this inclination may be moderated by the papers’ advertising rates. As a basic guide, Today charges a base rate of $28-$30 per column cm on weekdays compared to My Paper ‘s $19 per column cm. It is also more expensive to buy front page ad space in Today; an advert 12cm tall by eight columns wide (slightly under half-page) would cost from $12,745.15 to $13,655.52 on weekdays, while a full front page My Paper advert (29cm tall by six columns wide) would cost $12,000.

There are still problems with this comparison nonetheless. Ideally, to test whether the Christmas season was crucial in propping up advertising volume, I would want to make a comparison with the data for the rest of the year. Alas, I’m but one man; unable to devote this much time and effort to collate this information over a sustained period.

Having considered these caveats, it nonetheless appears that My Paper is a lot more prudish when it comes to printing advertisements.

In the month before Christmas, My Paper had only two issues in which the advertisements took up over half of the print space. In the 26 November issue, nearly 55 per cent of its print space was occupied by adverts. Of the 11 December issue, just over 26 of its 52 pages were devoted to advertising.

On the whole, My Paper was nowhere as prolific as Today was in selling ad space. The proportion of ad space in My Paper in the past month (calculated from 19 issues dated 30 November to 24 December) averaged at only just above 26 per cent.

The difference between the two freesheets’ numbers is startling – nearly two-thirds in Today compared with just over one-quarter in My Paper. Even factoring in readership share and advertising rates, it would seem that MediaCorp is somewhat more cavalier about selling off its print space than SPH.

These phenomena – whoring out front pages and print space – are symptoms of a more fundamental problem. Satisfying the reader is no longer an unqualified standalone priority for those who run newspapers. For better or for worse, the news media has evolved into a commercially-driven enterprise, mostly run by proprietors whose prime concern with the journalism they produce is its profitability. To this end, satisfying the readers’ wants is important insofar as it brings in the money.

It may not be a stereotype to say that newspapers each pull off their own balancing act, between satiating executives’ quest for profits, journalists fulfilling their professional sensibilities and meeting the needs and wants of their readers.

The formula varies. Some pander far too much to readers, seeking to entertain and patronise rather than inform and educate. For instance, The Sun, the leading British daily tabloid and the 10th largest newspaper in the world in terms of circulation, fuels moral panics and doles out generous helpings of crime, political and celebrity scandals and a daily topless female model on page 3.

Similarly, the Daily Mail finds its success – sustaining circulation over 2.1m in the past decade – in fashioning itself as the ‘voice of middle England’, pitching news and moral hysteria to its readership of lower middle-class white Britons, at the expense of journalistic ethics.

There are perhaps better ways to balance competing priorities than these unsavoury approaches. It might be in the form of the Guardian Media Group, which owns amongst its titles The Guardian and The Observer. Unlike most other media organisations, the GMG “does not seek profit for the financial benefit of an owner or shareholders”, but aims to “sustain journalism that is free from commercial or political interference” whilst upholding liberal values and its public service ethos. The Group in turn is wholly owned by the Scott Trust, created in 1936 to “preserve the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity”, whilst championing “its principles” and promoting “freedom of the press in the UK and abroad.”

But while they aspire to lofty ideals and exhibit greater transparency than many other British national dailies, the Group’s flagship papers attract only a modest print readership – the Guardian consistently comes in second last in the circulation league table of national daily newspapers, while its sister paper the Observer records similarly poor numbers. Clearly, not many readers care for noble philosophical aspirations or transparency in journalism.

Then there is the straying too far in the direction of sheer profit-making – the blind application of the commercial logic by ditching news for adverts on the front page, or filling print space with more advertising than journalistic content (see: pleasing shareholders and screwing readers). Today seems to heading in that direction, which I consider an unfortunately myopic choice and likely damaging in the long-run.

But the bottomline is what it is, newspaper executives may well sense that it is creeping up in these bad times and decided that something has got to give. Perhaps the past month of high advertising volume was Today‘s way of capitalising on the Christmas consumption boost. Maybe the flagrant selling of “creative buys” and “cover wraps” was done to sucker corporate clients as the economic recovery increases their propensity to spend.

It remains to be seen whether Today has put its readers off by swinging too far towards profit maximisation. But it shouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves that readers don’t pick up newspapers to be told that it’s marvelous what Milo can do for them. They rather wish to find out something new and relevant about their community and their world, to be entertained, and hopefully be informed and educated as well. Editors and executives will do well to remember that.

Methodology

The proportion of advertising in the freesheets were calculated by dividing the amount of print space taken up by adverts (in number of pages) by the total number of pages in the main section of the paper. I defined print space as the space on the pages of the paper where content is normally placed – it did not include the margins and normal layout elements like page numbers, dates and section headings.

I classified adverts by the following sizes – full-page, half-page, quarter-page, 1/6-page, and 1/8-page. Where adverts do not fit exactly into these size categories, I would round it down and place it into the next smaller size category (for example, an advert which takes up 1/5 of the page would be counted as a 1/6 page ad). In the case of 1/3 page adverts, I recorded them as two 1/6 page adverts.

All commercial adverts were included in the calculations. Movie and television listings were not considered to be advertising, although movie posters were.

In calculating the proportion of advertising in Today, I disregarded any supplementary sections. This is because supplements do not contain news content, and tend to have soft adverts (especially fashion catalogues, a la magazines) which form much of its content. Also, My Paper doesn’t do supplements to my knowledge. Therefore, including supplements in the calculation would skew the results to the disadvantage of Today.

Given the roughness of such calculations, it must be emphasised the percentages are meant to be a crude, but I think nonetheless useful, guide.

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~ by spiegel2071 on January 7, 2010.

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