Society Pages: About To Make a Comeback?

August 30th, 2013 · No Comments · journalism

By Denise Tessier

“Old” Mexico in many ways is reminiscent of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s  – Coca Cola is made with real sugar, people still burn their weeds and grass, children ride bikes and play in the street past dusk in most small towns, and even residents of small cities have a choice of daily newspapers, generally two or more.

Sinaloa state, for example, has several dailies – sold on the streets by vendors wearing vests emblazoned with the paper’s logo (my favorite Mexican newspaper name is El Imparcial – The Unbiased– based in Hermosillo). Mazatlán has Noroeste, El Debate, and El Sol de Mazatlán – and that’s not counting its tabloids and two English newspapers for expats. Like the Albuquerque Journal, these newspapers run international and national news stories while covering nearby towns and the home city with local reports that range from the latest narcotic-related death tolls to vehicle crashes and environmental stories – plus sports, opinion and culture and the arts.

In addition to the fact that Mexican newspapers still have a fat classified ad section, there is one glaring difference between Mexican newspapers and those in the U.S.

That difference: Mexican dailies have a society section, usually four pages or more, full of photos and captions. This section goes beyond what one might remember of American society pages that ran until the 1970s – beyond weddings and ladies’ club teas and accounts of elaborate functions hosted by wealthy movers and shakers.

In Mexico, these society sections carry full-color, multi-photo page-spreads of birthday parties for 2-year-olds, baby baptisms, quinceñeras, weddings and other social milestones, like graduation parties and farewell fests for youngsters heading off to college. In Noroeste, the section is called Gente  (People).

Unlike the news sections of the paper, these photos are placed on the society pages because people pay to put them there.

So, they’re a money maker for newspapers – and they also benefit local photo studios. I once wandered into a storefront labeled El Debate in the town of Escuinapa, thinking I could get a paper, and it turned out to be a photo studio devoted almost solely to taking pictures of society events for residents of the town, and just for placement in El Debate.

So, it’s interesting to see American newspapers like the Albuquerque Journal taking a tip from south of the border as they explore ways to stay financially viable in the internet age.

Here in New Mexico, the push to sell congratulatory ads started with smaller papers like the Mountain View Telegraph, an edition of the Albuquerque Journal, which a couple of years ago started offering ad space for families to congratulate their graduating high school seniors, a fundraising strategy high school yearbooks have been using for decades.

It not only makes sense financially for community papers to run these ads; it invests residents in their local paper. Community papers are the future of newspaper journalism – as they were in the past, before papers expanded their spheres of influence – and by their nature are likely the only media to fully cover the local community and make sense in terms of investment by local businesses through advertising.

Now the Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest circulation daily, is looking for that investment by local residents, too.

Last Saturday (Aug. 24), the Journal devoted three-quarters of a page to ads packaged as “CELEBRATIONS, Share your special day. . .” This grouping of celebratory photos included two weddings, two engagements and a graduation, all with captions, plus a sixth labeled “Champions,” the latter of which featured a photo of youth members of the 2013 Paradise Hills Little League Major Athletics team that had scored a win June 15.  A single “Celebration” ad also ran the day before on page A8, celebrating a couple’s wedding anniversary in a color layout four inches deep and three columns wide.

In the past, the Journal has run ads bought by family and friends honoring birthdays. One popular idea has been to run a childhood photo of someone with a caption like “Lordy, lordy, look who’s 40!” But these were placed by individuals and not part of a concerted effort by Journal advertising to encourage purchase and placement of such ads.

In fact, the “celebrations” (so far) do double duty by also serving as a Journal ad encouraging others to buy one. The package tag line says:

 Celebrations features engagement, wedding, anniversary and special occasion announcements, plus birthday greeting and congratulations to graduates and honorees on their accomplishments.

So far, it looks like such ads can only be placed by calling the Journal’s ad department (823-4444), rather than online. And according to the Aug. 24 group of ads, the next “Celebrations” will be published Saturday, Sept. 7. So, it’s not a full section yet. But someday, it might become one,  as people get used to the idea of placing them, just as they do obituaries.

Focusing on local people in this way is kind of a return to the past for newspapers. Even high school journalists know the best way to get people to buy the paper is to run local names. “Celebrations” is a natural segue from the Journal’s late-to-the-game decision to sell space for photographs in its obituary section (which, from the number of photos, has been popular with the public). (Obituaries are purchased on behalf of families by funeral homes, and are not free news space, as explained in a previous post.)

In another attempt to stay solvent in the mass media age, the Journal also this month joined other newspapers in running large ads created by the Newspaper Association of America touting the importance of newspapers.

This “Newspapers Deliver” campaign is an effort to attract more advertising, and “‘Newspapers Deliver” ads have run both inside the Journal and full-page size on the white folded sleeve used to stuff the paper with advertising inserts.

The basic message of these ads is that, of all available news media and advertising outlets:

Newspaper media content and advertising rate as the most trusted, most valuable and most engaging. The numbers tell the story.

According to the ad’s numbers, seven in 10 Americans read content from newspaper media each week (158 million U.S. adults), 144 million of whom read a paper copy. The ad also says 59 percent of young adults (18-24) read newspaper media weekly (across all platforms). And the ad makes this claim, which is hard to dispute:

Newspaper-generated content is so valuable it’s taken and repeated, condensed, broadcast, tweeted, discussed, posted, copied, edited and emailed countless times throughout the day by others.

The ad also touts newspapers as being trusted over other media, quoting a Nielsen National Cross-Media Engagement Study, published in April, which found that 56 percent of adults said they trusted newspapers, a higher rate of trust than for social media (37 percent) or local television (52 percent).

This week, too, the Journal touted itself on Page 1 with a story announcing that in July the paper’s web site, ABQjournal.com, had hit the 1 million mark in terms of visitors. The story said:

ABQjournal’s apps and digital replica editions are posting record gains as well. Almost 4,000 readers per day consume the newspaper replica digitally. Readers of our replica are much more like our print readers, often spending more than an hour per day looking at Albuquerque Journal pages and reading an average of 27 stories.

Readers of the Journal – myself included – spend an hour a day with it because it is the media outlet best equipped to bring truly local news to residents of the metro area – news we won’t get on the internet from dailies like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.Those papers have the yeoman’s task of trying to cover their own local news while filing stories that inform about the nation and the world (stories more likely to come from an outlying local media outlet or stringer than a staffer of either Times).

But best equipped doesn’t always mean every story or even the whole story, which is why New Mexico is fortunate to have — filling in some of the gaps — so many community newspapers, plus online independents like New Mexico Compass, New Mexico in Depth, New Mexico Mercury and others, each of which has its own strengths. None of the latter, however, has the paid staff and financial resources of the Journal.

“Fueled by creative, fresh ideas, very real, very positive changes are afoot in the industry,” the Newspapers Deliver campaign ad in the Journal says.

Whatever  one thinks of the Journal’s choice of news placement and of the opinion pieces it runs, this reader, at least, is rooting for the state’s leading daily to enjoy the fruits of those “positive changes,” and not only survive but flourish to the point where reporters have more space in which to publish what they find. In a more perfect world, all those online independent staff writers would be rewarded financially for their efforts, too.

Meanwhile, bring on the paid society pages and “celebrations” and see where they lead. It is hoped they will result in even more residents feeling vested in the performance of their local daily paper, and pay off for civic discourse via more column inches for serious journalism.

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