For University of Arkansas junior, Josh Taylor, sorting through the day’s news can become a chore. As he flips through one of the several newspapers found on campus, Taylor scoffs at the placement of certain advertisements and wonders what the future holds for news publishers.
Ask any expert, and they will tell you; print journalism has been on the decline for years. While technological advancements usher in a new era, publishers of newspapers everywhere are searching for innovative ways to monetize the service they provide the public.
For many publications, this means focusing more attention to the sale of advertising space. And as publishers increase the amount of ads featured in their issues, one begins to wonder whether the success of a newspaper is defined by the revenue it can generate or the predominance of its news product.
According to a report in Advertising Age, American newspapers began featuring advertisements as early as the 18th century. But has the reliance of present-day print publications on ad space revenue interfered with the aim of providing the public with quality news content?
One former publisher suggests that it may have.
Laura Brosious is a student at the University of Arkansas, and served as publisher for the University’s “chapter” of The Odyssey during the paper’s first semester on campus.
The Odyssey is an extension of the Indiana-based Olympia Media Group, and can be found on over 45 college campuses across the United States.
As publisher, Brosious was responsible for generating revenue for the paper’s production and distribution costs through the sale of ad space to local businesses. Because The Odyssey is free, funding relies solely on those sales.
“The goal,” she said, “is truly to make money. And once you’ve made enough to print now, you need to make more so that you can print again later.”
According to Brosious, advertisers are aware of declining print media readership. To get and keep an advertiser’s business, a newspaper must appeal to readers as consumers rather than just recipients of news.
“Advertisers don’t want to buy ad space in a boring newspaper,” she continued. “The first thing you need to do, if you were going to start up a newspaper, is to make it interesting to the people you want to read it”
“If you rely on advertisers – whose business you want to keep – to fund everything,” she explained, “you can easily fall into publishing stuff directed to entertaining the clients’ intended audience. I don’t think that is journalism at its best, to be honest.”
For publishers like Brosious, the quality of a paper’s news product can be determined by its need to attract and keep advertisers.
Amy Butterfield is a sales executive for the University of Arkansas’s original campus publication, The Traveler. It is Butterfield’s job is to reach out to potential advertisers and to maintain a positive relationship with past and present clients.
“The news content is very important,” she said, “but you can’t print a paper without money. If a paper doesn’t attract the right readers then companies aren’t going to invest any of their advertising budget in it.”
“Luckily,” Butterfield continued, “The Traveler isn’t funded 100 percent by ad sales. But there are some that are. So if they can’t attract clients with their content, they don’t get to print… [We] just have to accept it as a part of the business.”
But accepting this type of production model doesn’t necessarily make it right in the eyes of some ad sales executives. Chris Holland is a regional sales manager for Olympia Media Group. He oversees ad sales for The Odyssey on campuses throughout the south, including the University of Arkansas.
“I do have mixed emotions about advertisements, but I think most would consider them a ‘necessary evil,’” Holland explained, gesturing quotations with his hands. “Businesses need money to function, ads provide revenue, thus ads are vital to our business.”
He added that sales executives for The Odyssey strive to make the ads they feature engaging and relatable, and not just shameless plugs. But Holland does not credit the driving force behind his paper to be the revenue it is capable of creating. He claims the newspaper’s real success is driven by the relationship it creates with the reader.
“Consistency is something I consider important,” said one reader, Josh Taylor. Taylor claims to read from four or more different newspapers daily. “It’s important for a newspaper to establish what they’re going to print and stick to it.”
In Taylor’s opinion, a newspaper’s success is dependent on loyalty to what its target audience wants to read, whether it is a quality news product or not. Trying to attract a much broader audience can cost a newspaper its readers and then its advertisers.
“A paper that puts an article about Kim Kardashian opening a marriage counseling service next to an article about recent developments on the protests in Egypt won’t keep a solid demographic reading,” said Taylor. “But consider; what you see printed in the pages of any publication has been supported by the company that chose to write the check.”
Some suggest that increasing profit margins and maintaining news quality are not mutually exclusive choices for publishers.
As a writer for The Traveler, Alex March believes a successful newspaper is a result of balancing its responsibility to the public with creating appeal for potential advertisers.
“I would hope that the quality of news content would not have to be sacrificed,” he said. “I would hate to see one of my own articles cut for that reason. I’m sure most writers feel the same way.”
He explained that newspapers like The Traveler strive to maintain a quality news product and a stable profit margin.
“I think a good newspaper does a pretty good job of balancing news and sponsored content without getting in your face… A newspaper’s purpose is to get news out to the public. In a situation where news and profit conflict, papers should choose to report the news and hope for the best. It’s a balancing act. You just have to find a mix that works.”
Steven Chen has plenty of experience with this balancing act. The NPR intern was once the Editor-in-Chief of the University of Southern California’s Trojan Times.
“In theory,” he said, “nobody would sacrifice the quality of the news content for advertisers. But unfortunately, the economics of the print business is not very favorable for a publisher. So, a lot of smaller media outlets have been blurring the line between advertising and news content.”
He continued, “In PR, which I like to think of as journalism’s evil sibling, many publicists often try to ‘buy’ certain news coverage in exchange for privileges like being covered in a more positive light.”
According to Chen, publishers’ are given the choice of whether to sell themselves out for an advertiser or not. But regardless of this, he explained, the reader will determine a newspaper’s success by deciding whether or not to even pick an issue up.
“I believe that readers are naturally inclined towards quality news,” said Chen. “If forced to choose, I think that producing quality news is the most important duty that any newspaper has to its readers.”
Ultimately, it is our decision as readers of the news to determine the standard of quality it sets out to achieve. The success of a newspaper is not dictated by the revenue generated in ad sales or by a superior quality news product; success is determined by your support.