No more Sunday ad supplements -- unless you subscribe

Time for another installment in the ongoing drama:  The Death of Print. 

For decades, many newspapers have been delivering their Sunday ad supplements to everybody in their circulation area—even non-subscribers.  The Chicago Tribune is about to end that practice.  

Once upon a time, sending the Sunday ads to everybody used to be great for advertisers, says Owen Youngman.  He teaches digital strategy at the Medill School of Journalism, and he ran the Tribune's interactive side in the 1990s. 

"It was the best way to make sure that every household in Chicago knew what the price of lettuce was going to be this week," he says.

That was then.

"Now, thanks to Google and other technology, we’re in a world where, instead of one audience of 3 million, which the Tribune might have served with its million copies, it's now 3 million audiences of one," he says.

Interesting bit of history:  This practiceblanketing the whole ciruculation area with the ad supplementwas actually an early innovation in using databases to target audiences. 

In this case, the trick was getting the database to identify which households were subscribers and which weren’t.  That way, a newspaper could promise advertisers they weren’t paying to hit the same household twice.

That data has only gotten more refined, says Randy Novak, an executive with NSA Media, a company that sells ads in local papers to national advertisers.  

It’s not a million copies of the same ad that are getting distributed, he says.  Actually, it goes down to the ZIP code-- and sometimes to smaller areas than that.

"So, if I'm a grocer," says Novak, "and I've got a location with three, four, five competitors out there, then one way I can try to drive traffic is by being very competitive on the price of milk."  

In other words, cut the price just at that location.  And target the ad to people who live right by that location.

Another surprise:  The Tribune actually has a new print product that’s a hit. And Novak thinks its success has to do with why this blanket delivery is going away. 

That print product? The Sunday ads.  People actually sign up to subscribe to them. They don’t want the day-old news cluttering up their doorstep, but the ads are still a draw.

"Studies show that people still want to look at the ads in print," says Novak. "They still want to do their comparison shopping."

In this way, readers are catching up with the way advertisers have always looked at newspapers.

"As news consumers, we look at the newspaper as editorial product," Novak says. "It's really a distribution vehicle, and if you think about it, they have the people going out at five in the morning anyway."

So why not use that infrastructure, he says, "and continue delivering ads even if we can't deliver the news?"

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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