Two Guest commentary by Herb Strentz and Douglas Burns
Thanksgiving Day stuffing — on your doorstep, at a price
By Herb Strentz
Thanksgiving Day stuffing is a tradition in journalism — celebrated on front doorsteps across Iowa as subscribers pick up that day’s newspaper. With all the advertisements and inserts, the stuffed Thanksgiving Day paper seems the size of a small turkey.
It’s the biggest newspaper of the year and has been so for 80 or more years. There’s a lot of sociology, history, economics and politics in that paper — all part of the stuffing.
For example, the rise of the Sunday newspaper and of holiday editions wasn’t possible until dime stores and other commercial enterprises produced the advertising to make mammoth editions profitable. Retail interests prevailed upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to set Thanksgiving as the next-to-last Thursday of November to guarantee at least a one-month Christmas shopping season. (Two years later Congress made it the fourth Thursday of November.)
Yes, a lot goes into the recipe for the Thanksgiving Day paper.
And The Des Moines Register has added still another ingredient — a $1.25 surcharge that will be tacked onto the payments subscribers make from their credit cards, bank accounts and other billings.
The Register is one of the few newspapers in the nation to levy such a fee. The Fresno Bee in central California in a published advisory to readers announced it will have a $1 surcharge to “help offset additional operating expenses for the production of this edition.”
A spokesman at the Newspaper Association of America said he was aware of a third newspaper with such a surcharge and surmised there were maybe a few others. While he did not name the paper, he said, the surcharge “has been received by the subscribers without ruffling a feather.”
Same seems to go in Des Moines. The existence of the surcharge surfaced exclusively in a Cityview Civic Skinny column. While the surcharge reportedly was also in place last year, I couldn’t find it when reviewing our bank statements and Register EZPay charges. (When you sign up for such payment, you agree to pay increases in subscription rates.) The publisher at the Register did not respond to e-mail questions about the charge, and a fleeting phone inquiry also drew a blank.
No matter, because — at the heart of it — these points are clear.
• Putting out the Thanksgiving Day paper costs more than usual, and subscribers don’t come close to covering the expenses of production and delivery on a normal day.
• People are willing to pay more for the ad-rich, insert-stuffed paper. And delivery people likely feel they should be compensated when heavy lifting is required.
• Nevertheless, reactions include outrage that the Register wants readers to subsidize the paper’s cost of generating the revenue and profits that are part of its Thanksgiving feast.
Let’s take those in order:
Costs: The $16.13 a month in EZPay for the Register does not cover the cost of the newsprint to produce those papers and the costs of delivery. Forget about the costs of getting the news and printing it. The Fresno Bee is about the size of the Register, with daily circulations of about 126,000 and 117,000 respectively, and Sunday at 154,000 and 205,000, with the Register leading. Both papers are based in urban areas in agricultural regions. Ray Steele Jr., a retired Bee publisher, was a young reporter on the paper in the 1960s, when I was, so he readily shared information with me. He figured newsprint costs for, say, 200,000 copies at 20 cents a paper, with another 20 cents for utilities, handling and processing. Add 15 to 35 cents a copy for delivery. On Thanksgiving, he said, they paid carriers 10 cents more an issue for the stuffing. That totals 65 to 85 cents an issue, without costs of reporting, printing, salaries, etc. The Bee spends about $10 million a year on newsprint. Jeff Gledhill, the vice president for operations said, “Assuming a Thanksgiving scenario of 72 pages and a press run of 175,000 papers, we’ll consume 43.5 tons of newsprint… A good round number for the current market price is $600 (a ton).” Using the $600 figure, amounts to $26,100 for newsprint.
Gledhill added, “From a production standpoint, there are other issues that add to a high cost for that day. The inserts are an incredibly large challenge on the production and distribution areas… (A)ll of this work is done on top of the normally scheduled production so at times there are no options but to pay overtime.”
People will pay more: On the other hand, forget about costs, because the demand is high and people will pay more for the paper. John Murray of the NAA says advertising sells newspapers. “Our…single-copy-buyer studies document that advertising is the number one reason…for buying a Sunday newspaper,” particularly for younger women.
Murray points out that many papers charge the Sunday rate for single copy sales on Thanksgiving Day: “We did a survey of 405 newspapers in January and 35 percent were charging a premium for Thanksgiving Day, none reported lost sales.”
Bob Hudson, who retired in 1985, was a longtime Register and Tribune and Cowles Company executive — holding every senior title in circulation, advertising and marketing, at one time or another. He points out that even in the 1930s people voluntarily paid more for the Thanksgiving paper — albeit indirectly in tips that week to their carriers. Thanksgiving, not Christmas, was the bonus time. But Hudson will also point out that the so-called “little merchants” have been replaced by adults. Adults expect to be paid more when they have to work harder and might organize into a union if their expectations aren’t met.
Outrage: Granted costs and demand are high, and the subscription costs are relatively low. But as Steele observed, “That said, there is a lot of extra revenue from all those preprints” and Christmas ads. At budget time, the upcoming Thanksgiving bonanza is not a surprise. Should a surcharge be levied because the newspaper experiences more costs in making a lot more money? To critics, the $1.25 fee is levied because it can be, and because it makes more money for the corporation, perhaps more than $140,000.
The Register is one of the few papers in the nation to levy such a surcharge. Given the economics of the newspaper industry, the Register will not be so lonely next year. It’s just ahead of the field. And keeping quiet about it. CV
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.
By Douglas Burns
If it were Clive, people would care
American “Indians,” said the brilliant Native American writer and leader Vine Deloria Jr., are probably invisible because of the tremendous amount of misinformation about them.
That assessment from the late Deloria, an Iowa State University graduate, is no doubt one of the reasons you likely know more about Paris Hilton than what should be one of the biggest news stories in America.
A couple of years ago The New York Times ran a Page 1 story on Paris Hilton. Is she drunk? Is she in jail? Does someone have a new video of her giving it up? Is she wearing underwear?
Meanwhile, deeper in the newspaper, on Page 9 to be precise, there was a horrifying story about a suicide epidemic on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
According to The Times, in the first 10 weeks of 2007, tribal authorities were called to three suicides and scores of attempts — “a total of 144 so far this year, at doctors’ best count.”
The reservation has a population of about 13,000 people. That’s roughly the size of Clive.
Imagine if 144 white Clive kids had tried various means of killing themselves in a matter of months?
The Des Moines Register would be covering it with Pulitzer Prize eyes. “Dateline” would be camped here, and Larry King would be asking Dr. Phil to diagnose it all.
Schools would be shut down, and some people in Clive might even stop going to Bed Bath & Beyond or Jordan Creek Mall.
But, alas, these are Native Americans.
There is no such alarm.
This Rosebud story is not isolated. American Indians have a suicide rate that is 70 percent higher than that of the general U.S. population, while Native youths have the highest rate of suicide of any group in the nation, according to Indian Country Today.
“It’s so many, it’s hard to get the numbers,” Eileen Janis told me last week. She’s the outreach coordinator for a sweeping suicide prevention program, the year-old Sweet Grass Project, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, west of Rosebud. A day after we first talked, Janis called back and told me she’d just been summoned to deal with another apparent suicide, a Native American girl who was found hanging.
There are undoubtedly many ways our nation can respond to this crisis. Getting more medical services and mental-health professionals in place would be a good place to start.
“Federal prisoners have better health care than we do,” Janis said.
It might also help if the country gave a damn.
One white girl goes missing from a Target in Kansas, and parents and the nation grieve as one. But more dead Indians? Who watches westerns anymore? Change the channel.
But we can’t look away from this. We must see the tragedy. We must add this up in our hearts.
The Native American story is a national shame, and Rosebud is another chapter.
Aside from discussing the broken treaties and genocide that cleared the land of the native culture and made way for adjustable-rate financed McMansions and Wal-Mart Supercenters, there is another reason to respond in Rosebud or Pine Ridge or Fort Belknap with whatever resources they need.
Native Americans were there to save others centuries ago.
“When Indian people remember how weak and helpless the United States once was, how much it needed the good graces of the tribes for its very existence, how the tribes shepherded the ignorant through drought and blizzard, kept them alive, helped them grow — they burn with resentment at the treatment they have since received from the United States government,” Deloria wrote in his 1969 classic, “Custer Died for Your Sins.”
A quick rip: It is preposterous that Iowa State University does not better celebrate its great graduate Vine Deloria Jr., the most significant civil rights leader for Native Americans in the last century. If the late Deloria would have been an African American or women’s rights leader with similar accomplishments, he’d be well-known. No doubt about it. This is a massive oversight by the administration at ISU and a situation that demands attention. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.