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Statesmanship: Watching the Editors' Ink Dry

The Statesman's retooling isn't fooling anyone

By Kevin Brass, Fri., June 12, 2009

Statesmanship: Watching the Editors' Ink Dry

Like many of the Austin American-States­man's recent moves, the "retooling" of the editorial pages is unlikely to send people scurrying to sign up for subscriptions. Instead of running the unsigned editorials down the left side of the page, editorials will now be stripped across the top. And the section will now include space for a daily local column, which is apparently a major shift for the editors, who didn't feel the need to include a daily community-penned commentary on the editorial pages until now.

In his announcement unveiling the new era, editorial page Editor Arnold Garcia Jr. opted not to mention that the changes also included the addition of a half-page advertisement in the two-page section. Perhaps he hoped no one would notice. Instead, after a brief run and what Editor Fred Zipp labeled "howls" of protest, the ad was moved, restoring the section to two full pages.

While the editors fiddle, the Statesman continues to lose paying customers. According to the latest report from the Audit Bureau of Cir­cu­la­tions, the Statesman lost 10.3% of its Monday-through-Friday paid circulation in the last year, from 170,308 to 152,691, the steepest decline in the paper's recent history. States­man Publisher Michael Vivio attributes the drop to several factors, including the decision to raise the newsstand price of the paper from 50 to 75 cents a day; the elimination of the TV guide section, Show World, which pissed off thousands of subscribers; and the move to stop distributing the paper in San Antonio and the Bryan/College Station area.

Some of the decline has been offset by the revival of Show World as an on-demand product. More than 13,000 Austinites are paying 25 cents a week for the guide, including about 3,000 new subscribers, Vivio said. "It points to what the industry needs to do going forward," he said. "And that's to offer custom subscriptions." The company's websites also continue to grow; traffic to www.statesman.com increased by 30% in the last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last Sunday, Vivio took the unusual step of running a densely worded full-page ad in the paper defending the state of the company against "fiction" and the "misleading buzz about newspapers in general," proclaiming, "We're strong."

But while the Statesman as a company may be strong, there is little good news for the stodgy ol' newspaper, the company's core product. Nationally, print advertising declined by 29.7% in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier, including a 42.3% drop in classified advertising, the Newspaper Association of America recently reported. (Part of what Vivio would apparently label "misleading buzz.") [Publisher's note: Chronicle ad revenue in local retail and classifieds is down as well.] Those numbers might explain why the Statesman remains unsold 10 months after Cox Enter­prises put it on the auction block, despite the company's insistence that the paper is a solid moneymaker. New York-based investment firm ZelnickMedia, one of five bidders for the paper, apparently pulled out of the competition last month, unwilling to meet the paper's $200 million price tag, Reuters reported.


This Is Your Life?

To help boost the company's image, the Statesman is in the midst of a yearlong promotional campaign, under the umbrella "Your Life. Your Statesman." Ads feature what the Statesman marketing department believes is a cross-section of its target audience, "based on research of Statesman readers and on results from focus groups," a press release explains. The actors express their vague connection to the Statesman in a form of slam poetry – an odd twist considering the paper is the Land That Hip Forgot.

"Your Life" is the type of generic brand identity campaign that made sense in 1982, when papers were fat and happy and could sell subscriptions to the blind. But I'll bet it does little to drive people to buy the paper. In fact, the Statesman is purposely ignoring the doomsayers who feel newspapers need immediate support. "At a time when newspapers are viewed as 'struggling' ... the States­man is showing that it has a healthy bottom line," said the company press release announcing the campaign.

Tweaking the brand was also the prime motivation behind the recent redesign of the paper's weekly entertainment insert, once called XLent, now redubbed 360 to match the name of the company's entertainment website. The move made perfect business sense. But instead of using the redesign as an opportunity to excite readers with more coverage and more to read, the editors focused on beefing up the same ol' relentlessly boring mix of restaurant reviews and calendar listings.

In similar fashion, the casual reader probably didn't even notice the changes to the editorial pages, except for the ad, unless they were thrilled by the cartoon appearing in the center of the page instead of at the top. The long overdue inclusion of a daily local commentary – "either from the staff or from outside the paper," Garcia explained – is certainly a baby step in the right direction, but why did it take so long?

Austin is full of excellent writers, yet they almost never show up on the editorial pages of the Statesman. Why hasn't the section been able to develop a single local columnist who appears more than once every couple of months? The paper regularly runs San Diego-based columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr., but the paper's editors can't find a local Hispanic columnist? (Garcia, who might feel he is the only representation the local Hispanic community needs, refused to comment.)


From the Mountaintop

The editors even ignore their own staffers. The only writer (outside the Sports section) deemed worthy of a column more than once a week remains aging huckster John Kelso. The paper has several excellent writers, some with national reputations, but the editors largely ignore them. Tech writer Omar Gal­la­ga, for example, is a regular on National Pub­lic Radio, yet he's lucky to get one column a week in the paper. Longtime political reporter Ken Herman was recently shifted to the editorial pages, where he will likely disappear unless he's allowed to write a signed column more than once every month or so, the feverish pace exhibited by Garcia.

So far, the new local commentary space has been dominated by academics and bureaucrats penning pieces with grabber headlines such as "LCRA agreement with San Antonio made much sense." It's been more of the same ol' voices writing in the same ol' Statesman-approved style. In his announcement, Garcia promised to reduce the space designated for the unsigned staff editorials, but it's been a minimal reduction at best, suggesting the editorial page editors still believe their opinions are more important than anyone else's.

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