Building new ad revenues could start on the obit page

An interview with Stephanie Padgett as she begins her fellowship year.

About five years ago, Stephanie Padgett was doing market research to help smaller, Midwestern newspapers and radio stations. It was quite clear that her research on how to reach more consumers would be useless if the media companies didn’t change their old habits. For instance, she recalls one group of sales reps that resisted new ideas and didn’t like this Internet stuff, she recalls, so they sabotaged their own colleagues who were selling online ads. They even made up an internal memo to say the online data wasn’t accurate.

“If you don’t ask advertisers if they want the internet, you’re leaving the fries and a coke on the table.”

Stephanie Padgett

Padgett likens the ad sales reps shunning Internet sales to the Golden Rule of the Golden Arches: “When you go to McDonald’s, they ask you ‘Do you want fries and a Coke with that?’”Padgett says. “If you don’t ask advertisers if they want the Internet, you’re leaving the fries and a Coke on the table.”

Her experiences working with small and medium-sized newspapers helped shape her research proposal as one of the 2009-2010 Donald W. Reynolds Fellows. During her year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Padgett will gauge how those media companies are faring with their online advertising, then identify a paper or two where she can test new ideas on how to increase their revenues. “A lot of newspapers are so wed to the old model, the classified section,” Padgett says. “We’ve got to build a bridge between the old world and new and increase revenues so they can survive.”

She wants to focus on the smaller media outlets because newspapers like The New York Times “have plenty of people trying to figure out this challenge. But not too many people are talking about Peoria and Toledo.” Padgett is already at home at the University of Missouri because she’s been an adjunct professor teaching in the Strategic Communications program as part of her employer’s “executive on loan” program. The company, Empower MediaMarketing, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is one of the largest independent media agencies in the United States. Its husband and wife team founders, Mary Beth and Bill, are both J-School alums and Honor Medal Recipients in 2007. Both had successful advertising careers at Leo Burnett, and wanted to help Mizzou.

The other half of Padgett’s role at Empower is serving as client strategist for EmpowerED, the division that focuses on schools and non-profit organizations. “I like this split of work because it allows me to keep a foot in the advertising world, which is changing rapidly and share this experience with the students.” Padgett learns while teaching. “It’s been a whole lot of fun.”

While the bulk of her career has been in advertising and sales, Padgett worked on the other side of the newsroom while a student at the College of William and Mary where she earned a B.A. in English. She was news editor of The Flat Hat and editor of jump!, a monthly entertainment magazine. She laughs when she recalls her summer job in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she got the typical intern assignment, covering the Fourth of July festivities. Along the way, one of the newspaper’s ad sales reps lobbied her to mention the advertisers in her news report. “I managed to get him fired,” she says.

Mary Beth Price became an early mentor, leading Padgett to work for her twice. One of the highlights at Empower MediaMarketing was designing the advertising campaign when Nicoderm, a nicotine patch, went from prescription to over-the-counter sales. It was one of the first prescription products to switch to direct-to-consumer advertising. The company did the same for Nicorette gum. “We used in-flight media and other strategic innovative placements, including sponsoring the ball drop at Times Square, to beat sales projections,” she says.

“If you can leverage the obits, you can fund an investigative reporter, which is what we need newspapers to do.”

Figuring out such unconventional ad opportunities is key to newspapers. For instance, is there a way to leverage the obit page? Perhaps there are ads, for instance, for investment firms for newly inherited funds. “If you can leverage the obits, you can fund an investigative reporter, which is what we need newspapers to do.”

Padgett plans an October “Online Swap Meet” for newspaper folks to come together to share the one thing that has been a success. “If we get 20 ideas and implement 10, we all grow.”

“If we can’t figure this out,” Padgett says, “we’ll lose this valuable resource called the news industry.”


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