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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Obituary Section

Posted By on Tue, Jan 13, 2009 at 2:36 PM

There's a certain kind of blogger -- well, not so much the bloggers as some of the people who comment on their posts -- who relishes every omen that the end is coming for the dreaded MSM.

And we at City Paper live to give the people what they want.

So I'll point to Pittsburgh Rides, the Post-Gazette's newish motorcycle column. I started hearing some grumbling about this -- from both inside and outside the news room -- shortly after the column launched last fall. But I'll confess that last week's installment was the first time I really looked at it.

As with previous installments, this edition was written by Rocky Marks, a guest writer who, a tagline at the end of the article tells us, "is operations manager at Hot Metal Harley-Davidson in West Mifflin." (He also hosts a weekly radio program on 660 AM.) This would, no doubt, help explain why Mr. Marks' article asserts, "[w]hether you're a Harley-Davidson fan or a metric motorcycle fan, there is something to be said for the manufacturing of an American icon."

What the tagline doesn't say -- and what you can't tell from the online version -- is that directly beneath this feature is an advertisement by ... Hot Metal Harley-Davidson in West Mifflin. 

This is, well, unfortunate. It's what we in the business call "advertorial" -- a case where an advertiser composes something that looks like an article -- in everything but name. And yet ... I find that I can't get too outraged by it. 

For one thing, it's so obvious, with the ad right there and everything. It's not like anyone is trying to fool you ... unless you just read online to avoid paying for the print edition. In which case, as I've argued before, maybe you deserve to be fooled. (UPDATE: Plus, on further reflection, it's not quite as bad as all that. The current piece, for example, isn't really about how great Harleys are. It's about going to motorcycle rallies throughout the year. Though doubtless if you wanted to attend these functions riding a quality piece of American manufacturing, Mr. Marks would be able to give you some pointers about where to purchase one.) 

For another, you're going to see this kind of thing more and more often. The Tribune-Review has already run pieces by Jennifer Antkowiak, a former KDKA-TV anchor, that were thinly veiled advertisements for some of her business interests. And even papers that know better, like the P-G, are going to find it harder to resist these kinds of deals. In case you haven't heard, these aren't great times for the industry. 

Stuff like this Harley-Davidson piece is an unfortunate, but probably inevitable, response to the fact that newspapers haven't figured out how to make money from the internet. It's still the ads in the print edition that pay the bills. So the effect of the internet -- at least where print media is concerned -- is to isolate the consumer of content from the advertising that pays for it. In that sense, it's the print equivalent of TiVo, the recording device that makes it easy to skip through the ads on your favorite TV show.

In both cases, the content provider is responding to a new technology in the same way. TV broadcasters increasingly place the ads directly into the shows themselves -- I've noticed The Office is especially guilty on this score, mentioning Staples and other advertisers in the script. In the P-G's case, the advertiser is actually writing the script himself. 

Of course, it's just a column about motorcycles. It could be worse. The problem is that if present trends continue, it probably will be. 

Speaking of those trends, the Tribune-Review has responded to cutbacks at the P-G by planning some buyouts of its own

Trib Total Media, which publishes the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and other newspapers in the region, announced a voluntary buyout for employees today.


It provides up to one year's pay, up to 36 months of health-care benefits and other payments to full-time, non-union employees who accept the offer.

"We are facing the same revenue issues everybody else has," said [president and chief executive Ralph] Martin. He described the current retail sales and advertising environment as "soft."

Unlike the P-G, who phased in a buyout plan by offering it to the most senior employees first, the Trib is making all of its 983 full-time employees eligible for the offer. 

But even at this grim hour, the Trib can't help buy take a swipe at its rival. Of the buyout Martin says, "We know it's one of the most generous because we've seen what many other companies have offered." And two paragraphs later, the paper launches into a recounting of the P-G's buyout offers -- taking time to note that its rival "also raised the P-G's newsstand price from 50 cents to 75 cents on Dec. 15."

Stay classy, Tribune-Review! We'll all be meeting each other on the unemployment line soon enough. 

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