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Advertising keeps newspapers afloat



Every time you plunk down a buck fifty for this paper, that doesn’t even pay the utilities. The real money to run a newspaper comes from advertising. Without the sales department, nobody gets paid, but without editorial, there’s nothing for the sales department to sell.

We have the editorial half of that equation down pat—we are journalists—we win almost all the South Dakota Newspaper Association awards. But three other departments are essential to get this paper to you. Sales has already been mentioned, but there is production, the people who build the ads, and lay out the pages, and then there is circulation, the people who mail the paper off all over the world, and drive to the far fringes of Lakota country to hand deliver.

This has been the model for most of the last century, and during that time, newspapers have been in steady decline. First it was radio, then TV, and now the internet, all vying for the public’s interest. Americans exercise their lap dogs more than they do their attention spans. Lakota country is no different.

Older people tend to read a newspaper. Younger people, tend not to read at all, but to the extent they do, they read it off the internet. Newspapers understand that with each passing day, the newspaper reading generation keeps journeying to the spirit world, and the young people get married, have families, and incrementally alter the community, alter the relationship with their local papers.

Sturgis just lost their paper. Actually, they lost it long ago. The Rapid City Journal had a satellite operation in Sturgis. They closed it. Eventually they must transition to the internet. The printed newspaper is just about dead. The staff at the RCJ has been reduced dramatically, and the sad part is, when that transition occurs, the coverage will not be as professional or nearly as comprehensive.

The transition will not be easy, because the hard part is getting advertisers to understand they need to advertise with the online edition. Declining readership, and a failure of the advertisers to grasp how to continue to reach their customers, pretty much killed the Rocky Mountain News.

The Native Sun News Today added the word “Today” to emphasis we now have the capacity to get updated news to you daily, from our website. But no big ideas about switching to the internet work if you have no advertisers. Papers struggle to learn how to make money from the website, because what worked with the newspaper just isn’t working with the website.

Sales must sell ads, to get paid, to pay the salaries of those in editorial, production, and circulation. Selling ads wasn’t easy when you knew what you were doing, when the advertiser knew what they were getting, but it is doubly hard now. Many papers will not make the transition in the next decade. They will disappear. Local Facebook traffic is about all the news many small communities in South Dakota now have. The good news is, the big papers, like the New York Times, have been working diligently to stay afloat, and for the first time, their website made more than their printed paper.

It used to be much more difficult to find a competent journalist than find someone to sell ads. Selling ads is what you did when you couldn’t write well enough to be a journalist. Not the case these days. To sell ads you have to have skill and smarts. Being a go-getter, obviously, is always the main ingredient, but newspapers are desperate to find fresh blood to lead that transition to the digital age. Keeping a quality sales staff is difficult. Many start enthusiastically but wind up sitting at their desk frustrated and unproductive.

Every newspaper’s fate hinges on that moment, when sales shake hands with prospective advertiser, and column inches are dry-erased on the sales board back at the office. I never appreciated that as a young journalist. If I had to work half as hard at finding stories as sales does at accumulating column inches, I would have quit newspapers long ago.

To the extent I can do anything to help sales, I do, and there is plenty I can do, ethically, without turning myself into sales. Special sections are a good way to combine journalism and sales in a cooperative effort that benefits everybody, including the community. Our LNI special section is coming this week. It starts as just talk at a table, then you must sell the ads to pay for it, write the stories to fill it, and production must place all the ads and stories in a creative format that pleases the reader’s eye.

The community has banners for the LNI down town, it is a big thing. But for a long time, daily papers and merchants ignored it except the original Lakota Times and Indian Country Today. They devoted entire sections of the paper to the LNI. That coverage was only possible because sales sold the idea to advertisers. These sales people are forgotten, but they had a lot to do with LNI success, and I have learned to honor and appreciate their efforts.

(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

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