Monday, May 30, 2016

In praise of homegrown news (the survival of weekly papers)

My first full-time reporting job came from a small weekly paper on Long Island. Called Suffolk Life, the paper served as the launch pad for the careers of a number of superb journalists and scholars. And me.

No one becomes wealthy working at a weekly paper. Because he couldn't pay me very much, the publisher, the late great Dave Wilmott, Jr., allowed me to gas up from the same ancient Esso-esque pump that filled his delivery trucks.

A few years later, as a public relations practitioner, I continued my appreciation of weeklies, especially when promoting lifestyle products and how to use them. My rationale: place a story in a daily paper, and that edition will likely be discarded when the next day's paper arrives. Place the same story in a weekly, and that paper lives in readers' homes for a full week before its replacement shows up. I get seven chances to grab your attention, not just one.

Local weeklies. (c) DKassnoff, 2016.
Today, Suffolk Life is out of business. And many weekly papers, consolidated into chains that have shareholders to answer to, are little more than glorified "shopping guides" or pennysavers. (One PR placement service still insists on calling them "suburban weeklies," even if they're nothing more than classified ads and bake sales.)

In my community, a chain that owns eight weeklies and one daily did away with all the weeklies' reporters, subsisting on columns provided by local elected officials, submitted photos taken by doting parents with dubious photographic skills, and news releases from local colleges. Another local weekly runs little more than copy provided by religion-based news services, except for a rare announcement of a new clergy appointment. And let's not even discuss the dubious quality of their online versions, where concepts such as responsive design have yet to take hold.

So, are weeklies still a viable PR channel?

Yes -- as  as long as there's a modest amount of locally written editorial content. Without an article or two written by local reporters, there's little motivation for readers to read a newspaper. The locally written articles provide a cloak of authenticity that extends to stories generated by legislators and PR operatives like me.

That's why I like the Hometown News of Honeoye, N.Y. True, it publishes the generic "Supervisor's Report" from town hall and news releases from the governor's office and the local state senator. But its editorial content also includes stories penned by local writers. I may not care as they do about Baltimore orioles (the birds, not the ballplayers), local crafters, or bear sightings -- but I appreciate that neighbors in the vicinity of Honeoye Lake feel compelled to write about them.

And, I hope, other readers care enough to read those stories, too.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Customer experiences in the paper clip empire

When a U.S. federal judge in early May told Staples and Office Depot/Office Max that their proposed merger was dead, I was busy grading papers. But now, a couple of weeks later, I say: "Good on ya," Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.

By Takkk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
I'm the guy personified in an old Staples TV ad, singing "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," when back-to-school supplies go on sale in late July. I've strolled the stationery aisles of independent drugstores, looking for a hard-to-find ink refill or discontinued ballpoint. (All-time favorite: Pilot's long-gone GX300.) And, I've been an advocate of Staples, because they often have what I need.

But not this time. True, a Staples/Office Depot merger would have better competed with Amazon and Wal-Mart in the office/home-office category. But it would've doomed many smaller stationers, and perhaps crippled the buying cooperatives that educators use to obtain affordable supplies for classrooms. The little stationery and costume store in Olean, NY -- The Paper Factory -- could become a casualty of a mega-merger.

Staples, without adding Office Depot, has plenty of work to do, in terms of customer experience. For one, the last time the two office supply giants tried a merger in 1997, they urged customers to "buy now," because the merger would mean higher prices.

And, despite more than a decade as a steady (if not loyal) Staples customer, the company still doesn't have Clue One about me or my email preferences. Their email blasts arrive at least once daily, with an average twice-a-week sale on Hewlett-Packard printer ink. If Staples looked at my purchase history -- which their rewards card program enables them to do -- they'd see I haven't bought (or owned) an H-P ink cartridge or printer since before the millennium.

One thing Staples gets right: their Twitter presence. When I asked for the option of receiving promo emails once a week, not daily, I received a respectful, pleasant response from their social media manager, who said they didn't offer that choice. But she'd pass the idea along to the merchandising team at Staples' Framingham, MA offices.

By User:Yskyflyer (own work (2 feet from my computer,
On my Desk)) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Message to Staples: you've got the data. Look at what your customers buy and want. It's easy. (Yes, I did that.)

At some level, Staples knows how to listen to its customers. But in the wake of the discontinued merger, significant improvements in the company's customer experience efforts aren't coming anytime soon.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Sports Authority's last shot

News item: Sports Authority, once a thriving sporting goods superstore, announced yesterday it's closing all 450 stores. Drowning in $1 billion in debt, the chain -- and its 14,000-plus employees -- are history.

And so is its inventory of snake shot. More on this in a moment.

By BrokenSphere (Own work) [GFDL  CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
More nimble sports merchandisers figured out how to do what Sports Authority couldn't. Dick's Sporting Goods created a somewhat upmarket experience (read: firearms and golf stores-inside-the-store) that Sports Authority couldn't match.

And, if you're a die-hard fan of a particular team, there's no limit to the number of online sellers of numbered jerseys.

No one wants to see less competition in the marketplace. Competition means pricing strategies that can benefit consumers (who may already be saving for their next pair of $200 LeBrons). But a quick visit to Sports Authority's web page shows they offered the same FitBits and Nikes sold everywhere.

Was there a compelling reason to visit Sports Authority?

For me, yes. Although its store in my town closed years ago, it served my need -- or, rather, my dad's -- about 20 years ago. He called from Florida, asking if I could buy him ammunition for his handgun. Something called "snake shot," which he needed for, well, killing snakes on his heavily wooded property.

Few local gun shops in my northeast town carried this particular ammo, but Sports Authority believed all its stores across the U.S. needed this ammo to control the snake population.

I bought boxes of the stuff, shipped it down to Florida, and delighted my dad, who ostensibly went out to dispatch many serpents to oblivion. If he were around today, dad could simply order snake shot online, rather than ask his non-shooter son to track down the odd-looking shells. But it made a good story -- especially the part where I sweated how to send ammunition through the U.S. Mail without arousing suspicion.

Thanks for the memory, Sports Authority.