I am hard pressed to say what I like the least about our home-town newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. “Like the least” being a polite way of saying, “detest the most.” I have been a dutiful subscriber for probably a quarter of a century, and seen various features and aspects of it come and ago. Throughout, it soldiers on – not as good as the New York Times, but considerably better than most everything else that’s out there.
Now I know there’s been a lot of talk about how the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times, recently has undergone what euphemistically might be referred to as a “change of ownership.” Furthermore, there’s this new-fangled thing called the Internet, which seems to be wreaking havoc on most old-school media, particularly newspapers. “[T]he entire newspaper industry, is struggling. It is suffering a slow decline by a thousand cutbacks. … The current state of financial affairs — caused by the continuing withering of print advertising revenues, shifting reader demographics and the seismic upheaval of the Internet — has made it extremely hard to continue,” Sorkin, A., “What to Do When Rupert Calls?” New York Times (May 6, 2007).
The transition from physical goods to their ephemeral digital counterparts has significant ramifications, not only for the flow of information throughout society, but also for the poor wretches still laboring in the newsroom. Many of whom evidently are startled to discover that their work now must be re-purposed for on-line delivery, in addition to (and maybe soon, in lieu of), newsprint. The key demo – younger readers – “have grown up immersed in the Internet and with the ability to adapt rapidly to new technologies, giving them a comfort level with things that newspapers are just discovering, like blogs, podcasts and video clips.” As a result, newspapers are “just buying out the people who are earning at the top and replacing them with people at the bottom, but those people at the bottom know how to put up podcasts and video,” Seelye, K., “Times Are Tough for News Media, but Journalism Schools Are Still Booming,” New York Times (May 15, 2006).
One consequence of these trends is a rabid scavenging for revenue, where ‘ere it may be found. Newspapers, conventionally understood, only have so many ways to make money (in addition, of course, to cutting costs). One is subscribers. Unfortunately, subscriber attrition is at an all-time high (i.e., retention is at an all-time low), as (ex-)subscribers migrate to more palatable information-providing alternatives. “[N]ewspaper executives are watching anxiously as the number of online readers grows while the number of print readers declines,” Seelye, K., “Can Papers End the Free Ride Online?” New York Times (Mar. 14, 2005).
Another is classifieds. Let’s get real, though, when was the last time you looked at a newspaper classified column? A recent report from the New York Times on its 2nd quarter 2007 financial results: “‘Classified advertising has been much more difficult than we expected going into the year,’ … [the spokesperson] cited weak demand for help wanted and real estate ads in particular, with the latter segment affected by a broader downturn in the national real estate market,” Schwartz, N., “Weakness in Advertising Reduces Earnings at Times Company,” New York Times (Jul. 26, 2007). Fact of the matter is, The Recycler took over print classifieds years ago, and Craig’s List has done the same thing, on-line. Which particularly is annoying, as the people at Craig’s List seem to be motivated primarily by eleemosynary purposes, which is a real drag when you’re trying to compete with them as a for-profit company.
This leaves display advertising, which is where the real money is. And which is where the greatest erosion of newspaper revenues has occurred. No longer content to swallow their ad rep’s palaver about the reach and effectiveness of full-page, four-color inserts, major advertisers increasingly are redeploying their assets to on-line media. It’s not a complete transition, and there still is a lot of newspaper advertising (particularly from department stores, car dealerships, national accounts, and their ilk). However, the trend is undeniable and, for the newspaper, frightening.
“The newspaper industry broadly is suffering through a decline in advertising revenue, its main source of income, and analysts say that trend is a fundamental, long-term shift, not part of up-and-down cycles. A report on the industry published last week by Goldman Sachs said that in light of the expanding economy, ‘the magnitude of the recent declines is extraordinary,’ and that May was ‘the worst month we’ve ever seen in a nonrecession period.’ … 2007 is shaping up much worse than even the dourest predictions, with ad revenue among the major newspaper companies down about 5 percent through May,” Pérez-Peña, R. & Story, L., “Job Cuts Averted as Bid for Journal Stays Open,” New York Times (Jul. 9, 2007).
One consequence of this – or so goes my thesis – is that newspapers increasingly are grateful for marginal advertisers. These are small firms who never would have dreamed of placing an ad in a big-city newspaper, say, a decade ago. One of the main reasons why is, they would have been shunned, spurned and laughed out of the lobby by the paper’s ad sales team. They would have been rejected for cultural reasons, that is, reasons specific to the culture of the newspaper ad sales team, which, like the big-game hunters of yore, predominantly was schooled in bagging large, national account advertisers. Today, however, the noses no longer are upturned, and these entrepreneurs (let’s call them) are embraced with open arms. Because they bring with them a scarce and valuable economic commodity – money. It doesn’t matter who they think they are, or who they think they’re reaching demographically, or what objectives they’re attempting to accomplish ideologically. All they have to do is pay their bill.
And this leads to ads like the ones placed almost every day in the Los Angeles Times by Donald T. Sterling. Mr. Sterling evidently operates a local sports team. He has a law firm. He owns a number of apartment buildings, which seem to have trouble attracting minority tenants. He endorses a number of charitable causes, primarily sponsored by a certain prominent Old Testament religion. And he has a very large head. I know all of these things, not because I’ve done any background research on Mr. Sterling, but because I’ve seen multiple iterations of ads he’s placed in the Los Angeles Times over, say, the past year.
This one is not atypical. Like the village square of some tribe of aborigines, it features a row of disembodied heads, each of which person (when connected to their head, that is) has, or purports to have, some connection with the event in question. Without fail, all of the heads are slightly smaller than Mr. Sterling’s; his always is slightly larger. The ads always are in shockingly bright primary colors, never in black-and-white. They always seem to be congratulating someone – either the heads, Mr. Sterling, or some organization. They never seem to have any apparent or ostensible purpose, like, f’r instance, advertising a product or a service.
In contrast to Mr. Sterling, we have the series of ads placed by a firm called Beverly Hills Jewelers, featuring someone who goes by the name of Odette. These definitely have a purpose, which is, to attempt to induce people to purchase merchandise from the store. Ms. Odette’s name typically is followed by the initials, “V.P.” For a long time, this was suggestive, as if it might comprise part of, or stand as an abbreviation for, say, part of her surname. Lately, though, this has been clarified, and it now is clear they stand for the (undoubtedly, honorific) title, “Vice President.” Unlike any number of CEOs who enjoy appearing in their ads, Beverly Hills Jewelers must have a very ego-free President, for only Odette ever has been featured. Either that, or Odette really is the President, merely masquerading as Vice President. There is plenty of precedent for this – one only need consider Dick Cheney vis-à-vis George Bush. Odette always is posed jumping with excitement at the terrific bargains to be found at the company; or, with her finger to her lips, pursed, as if about to tell a secret re: same. Yes, 80% off does seem like quite a deal, maybe I should check it out!
I cannot speculate about the effectiveness of the Beverly Hills Jewelers ads, because their target constituency clearly is Persian women (Iranian families now comprise something like 1/3 of the demographic of the City of Beverly Hills). From a McLuhan-esque standpoint, they are “hot” ads, in that they aggressively “pitch” the product or service being offered, as opposed to being illustrative, or suggestive, like (e.g.) ads by Apple, or Nike. They personally annoy me, but then again, I’m not in the right demo. At least they offer a product or service. Therefore, they are far less annoying than the Donald T. Sterling ads, which have no discernible purpose, and, as mentioned, typically feature the row of heads. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this in ads before, and it troubles and disturbs me greatly.