THE MEDIA No News Is Bad News

The magazine-style supplement is keeping the newspaper ad salesmen happy. But how about the readers?

Someone should write a sequel to Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page and call it Sunday Supplement. It could be all about the trials and tribulations of a crusading food editor and her battle to publish a controversial new recipe for spinach crepes. It might even include a juicy subplot about the fierce competition between two “Living” section editors to break the story on ceiling fans.

The story might not play too well in the nation’s newsrooms, but it’s sure to leave more than one publisher or advertising manager laughing – all the way to the bank. After years of getting no respect, the weekly supplement has emerged as the unlikely savior of the flagging newspaper industry: During the past three years, dailies from San Francisco to Chicago to Miami – including The New York Times – have turned to the supplement as a hedge against sagging circulation and sluggish advertising sales. The supplements vary in style, but their substance – some would say lack of it – is the same: Following the lead of regional magazines like New York, Texas Monthly and D Magazine, the inserts purvey dining and nightlife guides, travel and fashion tips, society gossip, and “10 best” recommendations on where and how to buy everything from Oriental rugs to children’s orthodonture.

The goal is to capture a piece of the so-called “contemporary urban market,” and apparently it is being achieved. Newspapers that were watching readers literally die off are beginning to reach the desirable 18-to-35-year-old market segment – readers who get their hard news from television and who have the time and money to spend on the good life. The Times propped up its sagging daily circulation by 35,000 after introducing three weekly supplements, “Weekend,” “Home,” and “Living.” The Miami Herald added a significant chunk to its weekly advertising budget by launching a 16-page supplement aimed at the city’s middle-class Spanish-speaking population.

In Dallas, the supplement craze has added fuel to the newspaper war. Though neither the Herald nor the News suffered circulation declines during the early Seventies, both had noted troublesome demographic trends: Advertisers wanted to reach the “young adult,” and the average newspaper reader was middle-aged at best. The battle began as early as 1975, when both papers introduced weekend entertainment guides, but the competition did not become fierce until the past year: In the past nine months, both papers have launched slick weekly fashion supplements and so-called “consumer” sports sections that concentrate on participatory sports like jogging and raquetball. The News has re-packaged its Sunday women’s coverage into two inserts, “Trends in Elegant Living” and “Trends in Lifestyles,” and talk persists that both papers will soon convert their Sunday magazines into home and garden supplements. Now that the papers have found their market, one wonders how much it can bear.

So far, it is bearing up quite well. The Herald’s once-pitiful Saturday readership has grown by some 50,000 since the paper introduced “Week End”; both papers report Sunday circulation increases of more than 10 percent in the past three years.

Of course, Dallas is a growing city, and such circulation increases might have come anyway. Where the supplements are really proving to be worth their weight in newsprint is in advertising sales. Because of their soft, non-controversial content, updated demographics, and youthful readership, the supplements are an irresistible buy for many retailers who are tired of sharing a page with the obituaries. And because they celebrate and encourage consumption, the supplements afford the advertiser the most favorable of “editorial environments.” The News’s “SportSpectrum” is not so much designed to increase Tuesday sports readership as it is to encourage Cullum and Boren to buy more tennis shoe advertising. As John Rector, the News’s vice-president for advertising, says, “It’s safe to say the advertising we sell in the supplements represents inches we would not be selling otherwise.”

Anything in journalism that makes money that easily is automatically suspect; in this case, some critics wonder if the Herald and the News have espoused the credo of British publisher Lord Thomson, who once said, “I buy newspapers to make money to buy more newspapers to make more money. As for editorial content, that’s the stuff you separate the ads with.” The supplements are a success on the bottom line, critics say, but they are a success at the expense of good, solid news coverage. Resources and manpower are being poured into mere fluff, while reporting on utility rate increases, taxes, public safety and big business continues to be benignly neglected.

It’s an issue well worth raising, but some distinctions ought to be drawn. The Herald has invested a bundle in its supplements – three fulltime editors don’t come cheap – but it has invested an even larger bundle in its news operation. Since the Los Angeles Times bought the paper in 1971, the newsroom budget has increased by 60 percent. Under the circumstances, few could argue that “Week End” and “Style” are published at the expense of the front page: Day in and day out, the Herald lives up to its designation by Time as one of the top five newspapers in the South. The same cannot be said of the News: While 20 new writers and editors have been hired to handle its supplements, far fewer have joined the news operation. Small wonder “Fashion! Dallas” and “Guide” have grown so popular: They are meaty reading compared to front page offerings like “Liz Smith goes home to remember mother” and editorials about the Alger Hiss case.

But all of this skirts the real issue. My major question here concerns execution, not concept. I do not share the sanctimonious outrage of the journalism purists about the supplements per se: Service can be a legitimate form of journalism (yes, journalism) if it truly provides a service. A dining directory or a shopping guide can be of immense value to the city dweller if it offers critical insight and encourages not just consumption, but discretionary consumption – where and how not to spend his hard earned money as well as where and how to spend it.

On this count, neither paper is above reproach: Of the new supplements, only the News’s “Fashion! Dallas” approaches any kind of quality in content or graphic design. The others are generally little more than “the stuff you separate the ads with.” The Herald’s “Week End” is a gloomy mass of agate type and fuzzy photos apparently designed by a sadistic cryptographer: Even if you’re brave enough to browse through it, you’re not likely to find what you’re looking for; even if you find it, you’re not likely to understand what it says.

The News’s counterpart, “Guide,” is slightly more readable, primarily because of the nearly rational format and the weekly offerings of its arts critics. But “Guide,” like “Week End,” insists on a laundry list approach to its listings. Its dining directory is not any more a “guide” than the Yellow Pages. A recent issue listed both Arthur’s and something called the 94th Aero Squadron in the steak-restaurant category with no critical distinction drawn between the two. Pity the poor newcomer or conventioneer who assumes the two restaurants are of equal quality. More bothersome is the supplement’s warped sense of “discovery.” Uncovering a great fashion bargain or a new bar is a legitimate journalistic pursuit. But “Guide’s” recent offerings in this vein – “What did we ever do before the advent of air conditioning?” and “The proof is in the putting – a guide to miniature golf courses” – hardly measure up to the sophisticated needs of its readers.

Perhaps the most offensive supplements are the News’s Sunday tandem, “Trends in Elegant Living” and “Trends in Lifestyles.” On a recent Sunday, the two sections included the following: “Texas Luxury on the Hoof: Ranchers mix money, cattle, art and politics into their own brand of chic”; a shorter item that advised, “In antique business, everything is scarce”; a “lifestyle” piece explaining how “living underground has its advantages, a Texas couple discovers”; and 14 engagements and 34 weddings.

If all this sounds like a case of the pot calling the kettle black, that’s because it probably is. This magazine and others like it have been guilty of passing off mere filler in the name of serving the “contemporary urban market” too. Like the papers, we face the problem of simply coming up with enough legitimate service content to hold up the advertising. But the line between useful service material and pap is a crucial one to draw. It is, like all matters of journalism, a question of priorities: Press critic A. J. Liebling once said that a newspaper’s role is to make money, but its function is to report news. That applies to the Sunday supplement as well as the front page.

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