Holiday Guides Can Be Naughty or Nice

At alternative newsweeklies, these profitable sections might have spicy editorial content or none at all

Sex sells — even during the holidays.

Last year, The Stranger Editor Dan Savage decided to cash in on the controversy surrounding the Abercrombie & Fitch holiday catalog, replete with skin and sin. The Seattle paper’s holiday gift guide pullout, Strangercrombie, imitated the catalog’s racy tone, with some parody thrown in.

“If you’re going to have a catalog, you’d better have something to sell,” Publisher Tim Keck says.

This year’s Strangercrombie, published Dec. 4, is a 36-page tab packed with advertising. Pictured on the pullout’s cover is a pouty young woman leading a man on a leash; inside is a list of gifts and services donated by local businesses and personalities that readers could bid for on eBay. The 10-day auction raised more than $19,000 for Northwest Harvest, a Seattle hunger relief agency. Among the items sold is the chance to be a guest adviser for Dan Savage’s sex column, Savage Love (winning bid: $520), and a two-minute shopping spree at Easy Street Records (winning bid: $330).

“If you have something to sell, if you give (the proceeds) to charity, it makes your readers think you’re less craven,” Keck says, adding with a laugh, “even if you really aren’t.”

Publishing an end-of-year holiday gift guide is one thing alternative papers have in common with many of their mainstream rivals. “When you talk about holiday gift guides, it sounds very un-alternative,” Baltimore City Paper Publisher Don Farley says. The guides, however, can be distinguished by their attitude.

Five years ago, Baltimore City Paper took its guide from a supplement to a stand-alone, four-color publication that replaces the issue before Thanksgiving. At 236 pages, this year’s guide, “Merry Whatever,” is outstripped in size only by the paper’s “Best of Baltimore” issue in September. The gift guide contains the week’s news and features — usually 128 pages — but concentrates on the holiday theme. Special editorial content includes stories about Kwanzaa and the Christmas-tree trade and a cartoon about a paranoid Santa who fears the end of the world. Staff-prepared gift recommendations include the traditional (books, toys and clothes) and the unusual (custom-painted toilet seats and undergarments bearing hostile messages).

The balance between editorial content and ads in holiday guides varies by paper. Wausau City Pages Advertising Manager April Rosemurgy sold ads for the paper’s first gift guide, a pullout 8 1/2 x 11″ book, in 1994. That first guide was 32 pages. Now it’s up to 48. The book contains ads and editorial features such as holiday CD and book reviews, staff gift picks, a community wish list and local church schedules.

“Our holiday wish book is nothing out of the ordinary, editorially speaking. But, of course, it kicks the daily paper’s ass when they attempt anything similar,” Rosemurgy says. The guide has always focused more on ads than editorial, with merchants enticed by reduced ad rates. Grocery stores may be more willing to advertise at this time of year to promote gift baskets and party trays, she says. Rosemurgy likes the way the guide gets her foot in the door with clients who might be persuaded to buy ads at other times of year as well.

Offering discounts isn’t the typical route to a profitable holiday section. In fact, City Pages of Minneapolis charges slightly higher rates for ads placed in its guide, Sales Director Stephanie Hansen says. For five weeks, beginning before Thanksgiving, the paper runs 6 to 12 pages, each with the banner “Holiday Gift Guide,” in the middle of the book. Ad reps give clients the fifth week free with four paid weeks and use the opportunity to begin selling Valentine’s ads. This year’s guide grew by 40 percent, the biggest leap in its six years, Hansen says.

“I think you just need to have a good offer and to get out with it early enough,” Hansen says. Her staff begins selling as much as three months in advance. The guide has no editorial content. “We’ve always talked about it, but our edit folks are not too keen on it,” Hansen says, and she couldn’t justify the costs of hiring a freelancer.

The Fort Worth Weekly’s holiday guide has no editorial content this year because the paper got off to a late start, Publisher Lee Newquist says. Reps began selling ads six weeks in advance. Despite this, ad count and revenue for the 24-page glossy-cover pullout are up over last year. Newquist printed 60,000 guides that were inserted in the Nov. 24 paper and another 5,000 that were left at businesses for shoppers.

“We try not to let it cannibalize our regular paper [in ads],” Newquist says. The catalog draws business from places that don’t normally advertise in the Weekly, such as high-end restaurants, and attracts more elaborate ads from some regular advertisers, such as jewelry stores. Newquist doesn’t think his guide suffers from lack of editorial content, but he might incorporate it again only “if we had the right writer and I felt there was enough unique to talk about.”

The Austin Chronicle has several pages devoted to holiday ads in the first two December issues. Editorial contributions on the holiday theme — for example, reviews of holiday music and movies — are sprinkled throughout the paper. Advertisers who are members of the Austin Independent Business Alliance get a 5-percent discount, Ad Director Carol Flagg says.

For papers that do use editorial content, Advertising Director Bob Dea of Orlando Weekly offers this advice: Make local mainstream media model their guide after yours, not the other way around. The daily Orlando Sentinel’s guide “tends to lack personality,” Dea says.

No one could accuse the Orlando Weekly’s guide of the same.

“Pick a favorite Weekly writer and start shopping, or the terrorists win,” the guide’s subhead warns. The introduction doesn’t mince words, either.

“Let’s cut the pretense, shall we: Christmas gift guides are nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for newspapers to suck up to advertisers in an attempt to rake in a few more bucks during the holiday season.”

Putting shamelessness aside entirely, the Weekly’s guide is all about what the editorial staff wants readers to give them.

Ann Hinch is a freelance reporter based in Knoxville, Tenn. AAN staff contributed to this story.