Our Daily Bread
The advertising slump that's afflicting daily newspapers across the country, including the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, can be measured using any common household scale. Simply put, most issues weigh less than they once did because advertisements that fund extra pages are coming in more slowly. As a result, there are days when a single business seems to be propping up the Denver dailies: American Furniture Warehouse, owned by Jake Jabs.
Okay, that's an exaggeration: Many major department stores and other national firms advertise regularly - their inserts continue to thicken the weekend editions — and quite a few local retailers are maintaining their commitments, with several liquor dealers standing out from the crowd. (If not for wining, the whining would be even worse.) But American Furniture Warehouse runs big spreads in virtually every edition of the Post and Rocky, and subscribers often receive their papers sheathed in AFW bags. The wrappers that encased the July 4 edition presented the company's logo in stirring red, white and blue — a glorious symbol of commitment that sales reps undoubtedly saluted.
In some ways, Jabs's ongoing affection for the dailies seems incongruous. After all, he was the only major advertiser who formally objected to the joint operating agreement that married business operations at the Post and Rocky. In a 2001 federal court appearance, he fulminated against the unfairness of this alleged monopoly even as he claimed that his finances wouldn't be hurt if he dropped newspaper advertising entirely.
Six years later, everything is different. According to AFW marketing director Andrew Zuppa, Jabs's company spends "several million dollars" annually on advertising, and he estimates that nearly 40 percent of the total is used for print ads, with the Post and the Rocky receiving the largest chunk of that change by far. (AFW also advertises in Westword.) Moreover, Zuppa presents an unexpectedly compelling defense of the strategy, which pivots on another seeming contradiction: The antiquated nature of newspaper advertising is actually an attribute. "There are more and better filters for people to be able to weed out ads," he says. "But if you're getting a newspaper and you're reading it, you have no new filter for that ad. What other media can say that?"
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Of course, AFW continues to buy oodles of television spots, which have turned Jabs into one of the city's most familiar pitchmen. Yet Zuppa says the prevalence of digital-recording devices that let users speed past commercials has caused AFW to rethink the way it uses its TV budget. The company is presently running fewer ads in popular prime-time programs, since many people record shows for later viewing and skip the commercials. "You definitely need to find the places where people are watching live television," Zuppa maintains. "That's why news products gain a certain value — because I'm not going to record and watch yesterday's news."
Another way to counter the TiVo effect is to infuse entertainment content with advertising messages so viewers can't avoid them. Earlier this year, for instance, the company came up with a tie-in to the CW series America's Next Top Model, whose average episode is clogged with de facto pitches for Cover Girl makeup, Seventeen magazine and more. Working with Channel 2, which airs Top Model locally, AFW sponsored a Colorado-based model competition, complete with live events. Zuppa says the promotion was a big success and expects AFW to try it again.
Zuppa feels that radio advertising is also being negatively impacted by technology — "You're competing with iPods and digital music," he points out — and he sees online advertising as a very tricky medium. "We have developed an evolutionary ability to block out Internet banners," he says. "You have to add motion, video or sound, and there's an infinite capacity to do that. But if you use too much flash and motion, you may have just advertised a reason to hate you." Although AFW is currently employing modest Internet ads with basic appeals and limited blinking and winking, "I don't know how effective it is," Zuppa concedes.
AFW was also one of the largest participants in third-party sales, a Denver Newspaper Agency initiative in which the company paid to deliver newspapers to non-subscribers in desirable areas. The DNA recently cut back on this tactic, but the move wasn't prompted by anything AFW did.
Clearly, Zuppa thinks newspaper advertising is still a valuable tool — and if the dailies' demographic isn't as young as it once was, older people buy furniture, too. "It's a little bit hard to grow audiences with newspapers," he allows, "but at least you have a sense for who these folks are, what they want to see, and what messages work."
Youngian philosophy: The latest buyout offer at the Denver Post caused recent hires to sweat — and no wonder. The Denver Newspaper Guild-negotiated contract that governs most newsroomers says layoffs of union members are dictated by seniority — so if too few older workers targeted by the buyout took the deal, their youngest colleagues feared they'd be handed their heads. In the end, only non-union types were sent packing, which should have reassured relative newbies. Yet two of the Post's least wrinkled (and most productive) staffers — Robert Sanchez, on the sports beat of late, and business reporter Will Shanley — are leaving to take non-newspaper gigs. Sanchez is going to 5280 magazine, and Shanley's joining up with Linhart Public Relations. While both speak glowingly about their time at the Post, they admit that the uncertainties of today's newspaper industry played a role in their decisions.
Sanchez's move was partly inspired by his desire to stretch as a writer, as well as by 5280's cool factor with members of his peer group. He mentions encountering two twenty-somethings who were much more impressed with the idea of him working at the magazine as opposed to the Post, which typically won him points with readers "in their sixties." But he concedes that the April buyout announcement presented by Post owner Dean Singleton and editor Greg Moore made a big impression on him as well. "Dean said the next couple of years will be difficult," he stresses. As for Moore, he "doesn't want to lose people he's brought in. But if for some reason Greg left, I'd really just be a number to MediaNews — and I have two young kids, a wife and a mortgage."
For his part, Shanley says he received feelers from Linhart through a friend who worked there, "and I thought, if there's ever a time to leave the news business, this seemed like an ideal opportunity to go to a firm that's in the position to grow." In contrast, he acknowledges that "the news business is obviously going through a rough patch — and five years from now, will it be a much better environment?"
Moore hopes changes can help improve this outlook at the Post, and in a late June staff meeting, he discussed some options in between exhortations that attendees not share the conversation with yours truly. Among the most controversial notions was combining Denver & the West and Business, thereby doing away with a stand-alone business section. The business crew's numbers are down: Shanley's gone, reporter Greg Griffin will soon split for a year-long fellowship at Columbia University, scribe Julie Dunn is on maternity leave, and editor Todd Stone took a job at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. However, Moore declined to discuss what impact, if any, these absences might have on a potential Business merger. "I can't be questioned about every element of communication internally," he e-mails. "What I can tell you is the idea of combining business and metro is not even approved, and I am not sure it will happen."
Meanwhile, at 5280, the news is considerably more upbeat. In addition to the Sanchez hire, editor Dan Brogan notes via e-mail that the mag recently expanded a photo-editor gig, that it's interviewing for an articles editor, two sales reps and an online manager, and that it's in the midst of launching a custom-publishing division with another new hire. On top of that, he's getting bigger-name talent to contribute, including J.R. Moehringer, author of the best-selling memoir The Tender Bar, whose profile of Fort Collins musician Jeff Finlin is in the July edition. "We seem to be in the midst of another growth spurt," Brogan says.
The printed page isn't dead yet — especially if it's glossy.