The Special Sections Debate

Some Say They Generate Big Dollars; Others Argue That Their Benefits are Exaggerated.

Annual restaurant guides. Seasonal back-to-school primers. Monthly literary supplements.

Whatever the theme, whether the rotation be light or heavy, special sections are an integral component of the publishing schedule of most alternative newspapers.

“We do about nine or 10 [special sections] every year,” says former Metro Pulse Sales Director Charlotte Klasson, who recently left the paper after five years. “They give our sales people — and the paper — the chance to make big money. Right now, for example, there’s not much going on in Knoxville. But a special section is a time where we can emphasize a particular issue and hopefully make it into a high-dollar opportunity. To me, they’re another reason to call on and attract advertisers.”

During any routine week, says Klasson, Metro Pulse’s ad revenue ranges between $10,000 and $25,000.

“But with a special section,” she says, “that can be increased three times over.”

There are some, however, who don’t concur with Klasson’s bullish attitude.

“Most papers can tell you their version as to why they have special sections,” says NUVO Marketing Director Kerry Farley. “But ask them how they measure this success and resource expenditure beyond the one week, and you get blank looks. How many papers have an exact formula that measures what they want to achieve with the results? How many track hours spent on selling, design and writing and match these expenditures up with the sales results? My guess is most sections done by most papers don’t even break even on these sections, and they don’t even know it.”

The Edge

The folks at The Phoenix Media Communications Group are big fans of special sections. Their three alternative papers — in Boston, Providence and Worcester — publish them regularly. Every month, for instance, each paper runs a special literary section and a gay supplement.

Says National Sales Account Executive Everett Finkelstein: “[Special sections] give us an additional edge. They tend to be a compilation of what we’re doing. Say if we’re doing a dining guide, we try to get new advertisers, but we also try to get our current clients to take out bigger ads for it. We don’t go after special section ads as a one-time sale. Anybody can run just once. What we try to do is use the sections as a way to lure new advertisers and keep them.”

When should a paper think about doing a special section? “It all depends on the market,” says Finkelstein. “Maybe a paper’s not attracting bookstores, then they should look to see if there’s a market in their city. If there is, maybe there’s an opportunity to run a special supplement. If there isn’t, they should look to other areas of business they’re not currently attracting. Is there a market of home furnishings businesses they can target?”

Finkelstein concedes that special sections generate extra costs and staff hours. But he disagrees with the argument that the cost is too high.

“If you’re running lean and mean,” he says, “maybe you’re running too lean and mean. If there’s not enough time to develop the special section and new business, then maybe that’s indicative of not having enough personnel or resources.”

Madison, Wisconsin’s Isthmus runs a generous roster of special sections: parenting, personal finance, technology, a winter guidebook — just to name a few.

According to Isthmus Advertising Director Linda Baldwin, the paper’s Annual Manual, published in late summer, is so successful it has become a staple — like the phone book — in virtually every home in Wisconsin’s capital city.

“Originally [the Annual Manual] was a back-to-school thing,” says Linda Baldwin. “Then we had new businesses and others approaching us asking to advertise. It’s evolved to the point where now it’s a user’s guide to Madison. There’s a resume section, listings for support groups for gay parenting, for people who have cancer, listings of every [phone] number people need to know. It has everything.”

To illustrate how special sections can be effective, Baldwin describes an incident involving a rug merchant who was approached by an Isthmus AE a few years back.

“In one of our special sections,” she says, “we were planning to run a story about how to buy a rug. We approached this retailer and told him how this section would target and appeal to his specific customers. He ended up advertising with us and today he still advertises with us every now and then.”

The Rub

Amy Austin, advertising director at Washington City Paper, doesn’t believe in special sections. The 96,000-circulation alternative runs very few of them. Two, to be exact: a quarterly literary supplement and an annual primer for recording studios.

Austin considers special sections “more of a marketplace for dailies and city magazines than alternatives.”

She says that City Paper’s editorial department has trouble generating any enthusiasm about special sections, and she understands why.

“[Special sections] are sort of smarmy in my opinion,” says Austin. “They’re kind of like selling out your editorial for the sake of advertising.”

Instead of pitching special sections, Austin argues that her staff’s time is better spent trying to convince clients to advertise in the core paper over an extended period of time.

“Chances are that [an advertiser] isn’t going to become a regular advertiser even if you get him to run in special section,” she says. “The way I see it, the readers who want to buy [a product] will do so whether or not that retailer advertises in a special section or in our regular paper. I think sales people are better off attracting businesses to the core product because that way the paper and the business will get the greatest return.”

Willamette Week’s enthusiasm toward special sections has ebbed in recent years. According to Russ Martineau, the paper’s vp of sales and marketing, the Portland, Oregon weekly did 22 of them in 1994. By last year, they were down to nine.

“A lot of papers don’t take into consideration the losses that incur with special sections — the extra editorial and production time and printing costs,” says Martineau. “If your sales staff, for instance, is out trying to establish new clients for a home furnishing section, then they’re not calling their core clients. That’s an unforeseen loss many people don’t think about.”

Like City Paper’s Austin, Martineau doesn’t think it makes sense to do special sections without the support of editorial: “It’s almost nuts forcing [editorial] to do them if they don’t want to. And even if you do a special section, you may end up having your great writers write about something they don’t know anything about. And when the business owners who advertised read it, they can tell. It ends up being mediocre for everybody.”

NUVO does ten to 20 special sections per year, including an arts guide, two restaurant guides and a section on body, mind and spirit. But Kerry Farley says they’re only undertaken because they “bring the other 51 weeks up in terms of contract value.”

Special section costs, says Farley, are “hidden by a cloak [of high sales revenue] that’s very misleading.

“If you do a special section and it doubles your weekly runlist, everyone raises their hands and cheers and then you have the publisher saying we should do more of them. What’s forgotten is — to do them well — it requires three to six weeks of advance planning, an enormous amount of extra work and promotion. There’s a danger here. The real question is: Are they more profitable than the weekly work of the normal paper? Most times, I don’t think so.”

Farley argues that special sections are only successful if they help to maximize the targeted industry’s ad content throughout the year. For instance, he believes restaurant guides are counter-productive unless they serve to bolster the cuisine section all year round.

Farley says the quandary is compounded at the AAN convention when sales managers from larger papers tell those from smaller markets about their successes.

“Smaller markets can’t do these big special sections,” he contends, “nor can they match the efforts a larger paper puts forth in promotion, marketing and the size of the sales force … The conventions do lend themselves to a lot of copycatting, and as most panelists are bigger papers it does more harm than good to 75 percent of the attendees who can’t possibly replicate their results.”

The Bottom Line

The Colorado Springs Independent “does a shitload of special sections,” says its Advertising Director Teri Homick, “about 20 per year.”

The Independent’s fall “student survival guide” is one of the biggest cash cows, according to Homick. An earned [contract] rate is charged to current clients; new advertisers are offered a “promo” (13-time) price. Designed as a center section pullout, it usually runs around 20 pages; this year’s goal is 28. It’s teeming with theme-type editorial on such things as thrift shops, cheap eats and no-cost diversions.

Homick says advertisers love it and so do readers. Such a popular special section can “double, sometimes triple” weekly revenues, she says.

But Homick is quick to add: “I wouldn’t say we like doing them. Some of our special sections are great; some are really crappy. Ones such as new business and holistic-type stuff that we did in the past — we’re debating whether or not we’re going to bring them back …

“If 30 percent of your advertisers are in special sections, what’s the point? [If] all the work it takes to package and put these things together are for one-time deals, it’s not worth it. We really try to sell frequency. We try to tie new [special section] clients in with 13- or 26-time contracts, because if we aren’t selling the core product in the preceding and proceeding weeks, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Willamette Week’s Martineau says papers should do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to publish a special section because it’s the bottom line — not an inflated runlist — that counts.

“You have to look at the extra costs involved,” he says, “the extra hours of work your staff has to put in and factor all those things. You also should look at what kind of profit you want to make. For us, we wanted to make no less than 25 percent.”

In Colorado Springs, the staff tries to predict what the special section costs might be, says Homick: “Though it’s not an exact formula, we always look at the cost up front first.”

NUVO’s Farley admits he’s “been banging [the special section] issue around in [his] addled brain for quite some time.”

“Each salesperson,” he says, “is accountable for a set percentage of revenue for the year in order for the paper to meet its goals … For us, any non revenue-producing activities — tear sheets, weekly meetings, billing, etc. — are extremely wasteful and must be managed accordingly, and special sections are one of the biggest time killers.”

So how do you gauge the success of a special section? At NUVO, they do it by measuring efficiency.

Farley tenders this formula:

A = Runlist total for the entire issue

B = ROP ads (non-special section ads)

C = Contract residuals, i.e., the total value of additional ads sold to clients who began buying space in the paper because of the special section

D = Total value of contracts renewed after the initial contract

Subtract B from A. Add that figure to C and D. Divide that sum by the total hours worked by the staff on the special section.

The special section was successful if that figure — revenue generated per hour — exceeds the paper’s goals. Using this formula, Farley says, some special sections that have a high runlist total actually net out as the least productive because of their dependence on one-time insertions and the exorbitant hours spent selling, designing and writing.

“[There’s a] proclivity of the publisher or sales manager to evaluate the effectiveness of the section sheerly by the runlist total,” says Farley. “If they hit it, the section is good, if they don’t, it’s not.”

Martineau agrees.

“For a publisher to say we need to increase the number of special sections,” he says, “is kind of idiotic, and ultimately doesn’t address any sort of long-term solution to increasing revenues.”