This Is the Strangest Newspaper-Business Story I Have Ever Read

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Seattletimes-frontpage.jpgI really want to just tell you about this utterly strange business decision in the Seattle Times. But I thought it might be more instructive -- and more fun? -- to ask what you would do in their situation so that you can appreciate the severity of their challenge ... and the eccentricity of their decision.

YOU ARE: a media company executive. You own the Seattle Times. Profits are endangered. Ad dollars are down. Political ad revenue is down, especially. Your job is to find a solution.

FIRST: Consider some obvious possibilities. You can hire more sales people to pitch advertisers, including political campaigns. You can ask your current sales team to try harder, target smarter, pitch pithier, innovate! You can pinch pennies and layoff expensive editors, cut your travel and reimbursement budget, stop publishing on certain days, shrink your circulation, that kind of stuff.

SECOND: Consider some slightly less obvious options. You can invest in a new section that concentrates on the software revolution to attract targeted advertising for a Seattle audience. You can supplement revenue with new business divisions that you think could be profitable in a year or so, like an events arm or an annual conference.

What do you DO?

While you're thinking, here's what the Seattle Times Company did. It bought two advertisements in its own paper on behalf of political campaigns. It's as if The Atlantic replaced a "house ad" for The Atlantic Wire with a square that said "Exxon: Just a great, great company." As Dylan Byers reports:

The ad is part of an independent-expenditure campaign with no coordination between the paper and the campaign, according to a statement from The Seattle Times. The ad appears on page B6 and says [Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob] McKenna is a "choice that will make us all proud" and praises the candidate's time as Washington state's attorney general. The advertisement states that "no candidate authorized this ad. It is paid for by The Seattle Times Company."

Try telling an old, long-time Seattle Times reader that a Seattle Times Company endorsement in the Seattle Times is not in fact a Seattle Times endorsement but in fact an Seattle Times Company "advertising initiative." (Predictably, readers and journalists are angry.)

If you're thinking "buying an ad in your own newspaper doesn't make you any money," then yes, you are technically correct. But, you are not yet thinking at the expansively creative level of the Seattle Times Company. Their theory is that the advertisement will prove so demonstrably valuable that future political campaigns will learn to pay $100,000 of their *own money* to the newspaper. In other words, it's an inherently misleading and hollow advertisement designed to persuade companies that advertisements have meaning and value.

I've been chastened enough by predictions to stop making them -- at least too many of them. But rather than guess the fate of this decision, I'll settle for saying: This is pretty much the weirdest media business decision I have ever heard of.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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