New advertising industry initiative should protect the independent press, not just major outlets like the Boston Globe
If there is one factor that has accelerated the rolling collapse of America’s local independent commercial newspapers beyond the rise of the Internet, it has been marketers stealing our advertising base. How? By going to all of our advertisers from coast to coast and saying, Hey, why pay for ads in newspapers when we can get many of them to run articles on you for free? A service we are happy to perform for a small fee …
The result? Every day, local newspaper publishers like us wake up to dozens of emails from marketers (sometimes called public relations, or “PR” people) trying every trick in the book to get us to run articles on their paying clients … who used to be our paying clients. Sometimes, we tell them to fuck off; occasionally, we help promote their clients since we still support businesses like restaurants despite the snub (see: this week’s lifestyle section); mostly, we try our level best not to get suckered by them in any way. Meanwhile, our salespeople gamely continue trying to drum up business for display ads in our print product and digital ads in our web and social media products.
Which is especially difficult during an ongoing pandemic that literally almost killed DigBoston and hundreds of other local papers like it dead in March 2020 when every single one of our advertisers—public-facing businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies all—pulled their ads within a week of the World Health Organization announcement that COVID-19 had officially gone global.
After decades of this hidden war, most independent US newspapers have either been bought on the cheap by a shrinking number of hedge-fund-owned multinationals, or closed up shop forever. DigBoston has now survived into our 22nd year, through what we hope is the worst of the pandemic crisis for small businesses, to see our advertising start to pick up again. But not yet to pre-pandemic levels. Already much denuded by constant direct assault by the marketers.
Advertising agencies, for their part, have only accelerated the crisis by continually shrinking the amount of ad placements in local newspapers that they recommend to their clients. Ad agencies in this era, it should be understood, are basically brokerages for advertisers acting as middlemen between them and generally large media organizations. One of their jobs being to tell social media- and porn-consuming advertisers that big newspapers like the Boston Globe still exist. Which we would find hilarious if their job wasn’t also to ignore smaller news outlets like ours and hasten our demise. Whether intentionally or not.
So imagine our reaction to a piece in Editor & Publisher last week discussing a new initiative by Boston-based ad agency Allen & Gerritsen—who are apparently feeling all the feels about the damage their industry (and their more evil twin, the marketing industry, one assumes) has done to local news publishers. Called “Protect Our Press,” A&G have partnered with the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies to do that thing that powerful entities generally do when they kind of want to be helpful to society’s have-nots but only if it benefits them in some way: Create a pledge.
“Protect Our Press calls on agencies, brands, publishers and individuals to take a pledge. It asks agencies to create a meaningful target, such as 20 percent of their programmatic budget to news sites; brands to review and rethink their approach to local news investments; publishers to create smarter, better value for Protect Our Press participants, and individuals to subscribe to one or more local news publishers.”
What does this mean in plain English? Ad agencies will promise to maybe possibly increase the amount of ads they toss to local news outlets. But publishers have to give them even more of a break on ad prices than they already do. And, oh right, the 12 individuals who are ever likely to see this pledge agree to subscribe to at least one local news outlet if they don’t already. Nice touch.
But ok, we can poke fun, yet we’re willing to play along. Like what the hell, right? Maybe getting some more ads by cutting our rates past the bone is still better than not getting those ads.
However, as usual with this kind of top-down initiative, execution is the problem. Because all of this is clearly an idea hatched over drinks at some elite cocktail party of the type that schlubs like us never get invited to. So A&G and pals didn’t rush out of that debauch with a list of all the independent Boston area newspapers that really need help. And immediately contact us to sign their pledge and get in line for some new ad revenue.
Oh no no. No Bay State Banner, Dorchester Reporter, Jamaica Plain Gazette, El Planeta, El Mundo, Sampan, or DigBoston for them. No struggling independent newspaper that actually needs more sales without delay appears to be on their radar.
Which local publisher, then, is to be the first recipient of their supposedly guilt-ridden largesse? The Boston Globe. The largest news organization of any kind in the Northeast. Owned by billionaires John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry. And, sure, there are rumors that the Henrys are getting ready to bail on the Globe. But for now, A&G is working with the one news organization that was mostly likely to have its owners at the aforementioned cocktail party.
Leaving local community newspapers like DigBoston where exactly? Continuing to struggle for survival day to day. Partnering with other community newspapers on economic initiatives where we can. And maybe going under for good if the pandemic surges back in the fall. Or if ad sales never get back to the low bar set just pre-pandemic.
As such, here’s a suggestion for A&G et al: If you’re really serious about helping local news organizations nationwide survive in the coming months and years, then you should make a list of independent newspapers and other smaller news outlets—starting right here in Boston—and invite us to be participants in the Protect Our Press initiative as soon as possible. Like do us the courtesy of coming to us rather than making us sign your pledge and wait to see if we get a reply from you.
For DigBoston, we’ll make it easy for you. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our phone number is 617-426-8942. Ask for Chris, John, and Jason.
We’re not holding our breath that you’re actually going to help us. But we do hold out hope that you all are at least somewhat sincere in wanting to keep the local press alive in the interest of democracy. As we do.
Now it’s up to you to prove our hope to be well-founded.
For businesses looking to offer direct support for local independent journalism by advertising in the Dig, please email email@example.com.
Chris Faraone is editor-in-chief and associate publisher of DigBoston. John Loftus is business manager and publisher of DigBoston. Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.