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Tough Times Help and Hurt Syndicates.

"Newspapers sneeze, and syndicates get a cold." That colorful take on an old saying comes from Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG), as he describes how newspaper cost-cutting can affect feature distributors.

"We had a pretty good year, but obviously we didn't have as good a year as we could have had if newspapers were in boom times," adds Robert Duffy, president of Universal Press Syndicate.

Newspaper cost- cutting can hurt syndicates when papers cancel features, decline to buy new ones, or seek lower rates for syndicated content they do run. But there's also a positive side for syndicates: Newspapers that reduce staff to save money have to fill their pages with something -- and that something is often syndicated content.

"Buying a syndicated feature is much more inexpensive than paying a staffer," observes Margo Sugrue, national sales director at Creators Syndicate.

Of course, syndicated material can't duplicate a living, breathing newspaper staffer -- and certain kinds of content can only be generated locally. But newspapers can do well with syndicated content covering topics such as food, travel, entertainment, and home furnishings, notes John Twohey, vice president for editorial and operations at Tribune Media Services (TMS).

"In some cases, readers don't differentiate between local content and third- party content if the quality is high," says Twohey. Tim Cien, manager of sales and marketing at Copley News Service, adds that newspapers can generate local sidebars to accompany syndicated content.

Another way newspapers economize is by shrinking their newsholes to save on newsprint costs. So syndicates have to fight hard to keep feature cancellations to a minimum and come up with new sales.

"We made our sales goals last year, but we had to work twice as hard to do it," says WPWG's Shearer. One way the syndicate is trying to keep that momentum going this year is to have its sales reps spend about 25% more time on the road than they did in 2005.

Syndicates are also softening the impact of newspaper cost-cutting by finding more clients beyond their traditional base of general-circulation dailies. These customers include commuter newspapers, Spanish-language publications, and newspaper and non-newspaper Web sites. (Some syndicated features sold to Internet clients are designed specifically for online use.) There are also customers who buy content on a one-shot basis via a syndicate's Web site.

In addition, some syndicates offer paginated products that give newspapers a chance to earn enough ad revenue to make money from the product, or at least break even. And Copley encourages clients to save feature-budget money by finding local advertisers to sponsor certain columns. "You've got to be flexible and adapt," Cien says of Copley's approach during a time when many newspapers are economizing.

Some syndicate executives say the present time is tougher than usual for newspapers. "The circulation losses are real, and they are sobering," says Shearer, although many people who don't read print newspapers do visit online newspapers.

Other executives recall periods that were tougher than today's cost-cutting environment. "The two worst I remember," says Creators President Rick Newcombe, "were the severe recession of the early 1980s and right after 9/11."
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Author:Astor, Dave
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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