How even a bad print publication can survive

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Note: This was originally printed June 2012 in the print edition of Campus News.

Right next to me is a copy of the worst newspaper in America, perhaps the world. No, it is not THIS paper! (That would be impossible, anyway, as this paper couldn’t possibly be published at the time of this writing, unless I had some sort of space-time media power, like in the old show “Early Edition,” where the protagonist got tomorrow’s paper today – and why would you think that anyway?)

I have a thing for bad papers. Like some movie aficionados must see Ed Wood films – so bad, they are good – I stop at out of the way pizzerias, gas stations and delis when on the road, and I am on the road a good deal, delivering newspapers, and pick up whatever local pubs I can find. I read through all of the stories and get into the heads of the people who live in these towns. I try to imagine what life might be like there.

Every year for the past decade, my wife, daughter and I do practically the same trip mid-winter. We fly to either Vegas or L.A. via Southwest Airlines (I wait for the bargain fares to pop up), visit Disneyland (no serious lines there in the winter; I hate lines) and while driving across the desert (I can do Disney to Vegas in three hours), we stop at this nowhere gas station with overpriced gas and get two things: Chocodiles, a Hostess pasty that no longer is available in the Northeast for whatever reason, and a copy of a horribly schlocky newspaper called The Nickel Shopper. It is based out of Victorville, Calif. Even the ads have misspellings. Many look like they were made on a 1980s style Commodore 128 with a dot matrix printer.

I have kept a copy of this paper. I am unsure exactly why. Somewhere in my psyche in a dream-analysis kind of way there is an interpretation for my attachment to this paper.

But that is not the newspaper sitting next to me. My recent find was when I was in Putnam County, N.Y. While the ads in what’s called Our Town look professional, and there are lots of them, the editorial copy is totally ridiculous.

The editor of this free publication just takes anything that is sent in and prints it. The cover story of the April 16 edition is some horrible fairy tale that is impossible to follow. After the writer’s byline – I won’t name him – it says Copyright 2003. So this story, adorned with clipart of a dragon, a wizard and a princess around a castle, titled, “And They Lived Happily Ever After,” was first written nine years ago?! The author didn’t rethink this story (and delete it!) in all this time? He has not written something better?

The story is not only bookended by copyright notices, but also a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, all characters are coincidental, it may not be reprinted, etc., etc. What a sad way to go through life, worried that someone will steal your nine year old, two-page fairy tale. That someone might mistake a story with dragons and wizards as non-fiction and sue. Believe me, Spielberg isn’t reading it thinking BLOCKBUSTER!

Anyway, that this is a cover story in a publication that hits dozens of grocery stores, diners and delis, is a total slap in the face to the advertisers, who bought space in this thing. The rest of the stories just seem to be copy-pasted jokes from the Internet. I was in a pizza place when I picked this up and wondered, Who would read this? And if the content is not only unreadable, but an actual deterrent to picking up the publication, the ads certainly aren’t being read.

But it must be the only game in town, as there are lots of ads in it. It would seem a competitor could easily swoop in, publish a few readable stories, and steal all of the Our Town advertisers. I used to know an ad seller who would call that “prospecting.”

But people aren’t starting new publications anymore. The trend is mom-and-pop publishers going to the web and opening Patch franchises or sites like them. The only problem is Internet ads don’t really work.

Maybe some types of digital ads work – say for attracting either really cheap purchases, like McNuggets, or for once-in-a-lifetime purchases, like a swimming pool – but for most items and services, people just ignore Internet ads. GM recently abandoned Facebook citing this. The national click-through rate for Internet ads is a measly .08%. That means less than one person out of a thousand clicks on an Internet ad. In most readership areas, that’s like five clicks! If you’re an advertiser, you’d have better luck tacking Xeroxed flyers on telephone poles.

Certainly, more than five people have read this article. And perhaps many even waded through “And They Lived Happily Ever After.” Some people just need to read when they eat or wait for a barber or doctor. I’m in that club, and apparently you are, too.

Phone books are mostly gone, many places, including New York City, are taking down billboards as they are eyesores, and we’ve already realized that Internet ads are a waste, so, for many small communities publications like The Nickel Shopper and Our Town are the only game in town for advertisers.

So maybe I hang on to these publications because, warts and all, they hang on.

I’m thinking this publication may do the same.

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