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From AJR,   April/May 2005  issue

Find Your Niche   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Unlike other Lee papers, the North County Times isn't fond of readership surveys or putting out niche publications. "Not yet, but they will be," former Lee CEO Lloyd Schermer says when I mention this.

Niche publications are clearly a main part of the strategy of many Lee papers. The Quad-City strategic business unit in Iowa, which includes the Quad-City Times in Davenport and the Muscatine Journal, publishes seven of them--weeklies, monthlies, bimonthlies that are distributed free, as inserts in the newspaper or to homes or in newspaper racks. Not only do they give different content to readers, the niche outlets provide alternatives for potential advertisers. The Wisconsin State Journal publishes nine niche publications. The Billings Gazette puts out a quarterly city magazine and collaborates with the other Lee papers in Montana on a twice-a-year travel guide. "I think a lot of newspaper companies are looking to grow readership and grow market share, and that's one vehicle in addition to improving your own paper," Gazette Editor Steve Prosinski says of the niche initiatives.

You can't spend money unless you're making it. And these niche publications are clearly revenue-generating ventures. But the Wisconsin State Journal found that things can get dicey when you involve the advertisers in helping to determine what the publication should be.

Before the debut of its monthly Capital Region Business Journal in April, the State Journal set up an advisory board, a group of local businesspeople, to give the paper feedback on what they'd like to see in such a publication. Word got out, thanks to reporting by Madison's afternoon paper, the Capital Times, that the advisory board was made up of advertisers who each had paid $25,000 to be a "charter sponsor" of the publication. The paper had sold two sponsorship packages: One, for $20,000, included perks such as ads in every issue and a presence on the Web site. The second, for $25,000, included similar guarantees plus a position on the board, which would meet a minimum of six times a year with the publisher, editor, business editor and CRBJ editor. (The business journal was profitable with its first issue.)

The Times' stories raised the question of whether the State Journal was selling access to top advertisers. (The Times, daily circulation 19,000, and the State Journal, circulation 92,000, jointly own Capital Newspapers, which splits all profits 50-50 between the two papers, but is not technically a JOA.)

To defuse the controversy, the State Journal quickly added to the board community members who were not advertisers, a step Editor Ellen Foley says was planned all along but was overlooked in the push to nail down the content of the business journal. Foley says the paper and local businesses didn't want any kind of "quid pro quo" journalism or advertorial content that appears in many business publications, and the paper invested in newsroom resources, hiring an editor, a reporter and a designer to make this a quality endeavor.

Both Foley and Publisher James W. Hopson say there was never any intent to sell access. If they could do it all over again, they would make sure those nonadvertisers were on the board from the beginning, a move they say solves the problem.

"Do you think that anybody can buy influence with this newspaper for $5,000?" Hopson says, focusing on the difference between the two advertising packages. "We've got people that spend 200 times that much with us that can't buy influence with the newspaper. And don't even try, ever. So why we would be influenced for a lousy $5,000 is beyond imagining. And it's just nonsense."

The Capital Times did run a correction of its original story, Hopson and Foley are quick to point out. The correction says the Times did not make clear that the difference between the $20,000 and $25,000 packages was not simply membership on the board. The higher level also included, according to the clarification, "sponsorship of two annual Business Journal events, a chance to have their names on the cover of the publication (a benefit that the sponsors have turned down) and a greater amount of advertising on the Internet."

Lee CEO Mary Junck and Vice President of News David Stoeffler stand behind the paper, saying they don't see this episode as spawning a perception of a conflict of interest, and they trust Hopson and Foley to handle the issue. "I think Jim and Ellen have done a good job of describing what was in their mind," Junck says. "Why this isn't a conflict of interest, why people shouldn't be excited."

State Journal staffers believe their bosses had honorable intentions, but some are very bothered by the perception the advertising arrangement creates. "It was wrong for us to sell ad packages that include a promise of access to our journalists. I hope it never happens again," says investigative reporter Andy Hall. He and Dee Hall, his wife, who is also a reporter for the paper, each wrote notes to Hopson and spoke to Foley about their concerns that the paper could lose its credibility in the community. They say nothing similar has occurred in their 14 years at the paper.

The State Journal has also launched a weekly entertainment publication, called Core, to compete with Isthmus, a Madison alternative weekly. Marc Eisen, Isthmus' editor, questions whether the advisory board will hurt or help the paper's ability to provide real coverage of the business community. "Sometimes," says Eisen, "you have to make your advertisers angry to write a good story."

For more on Lee, See "Lee Who?," June/July 2005 by Lori Robertson.