By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
We need to get a few things out of the way right here at the top. Please tell me that I am thin-skinned. Thank you. Now I would like you to tell me this is all just sour grapes. Great. And finally, please tell me I'm just jealous. Hey, that was easy, eh?
Now I would like to tell you all about City Hall's new idea for an official list of "recommended newspapers" that city government should spend your tax dollars supporting. And try to look at it from my point of view, will you?
Here I am: I am sitting through this long, very droning PowerPoint deal, a briefing last week for the full city council by Frank Librio, head of the city's public information office. I have always liked Librio, but I have always hated PowerPoint with a passion.
Librio is telling the council all about his idea to centralize the city's $1.3 million annual advertising expenditures, now scattered over many departments, under...oh, guess who! You got it. One Frank Librio. And now he's getting to the part where he tells them which local newspapers should get the city moolah.
Librio says the city should spend the vast preponderance of its tax money buying advertising in The Dallas Morning News. Surprise, surprise. But the News does happen to be the city's daily paper.
Now he says the city should spend some more money with Quick, the Morning News' free-distribution daily digest. He misleads the council a bit about what a good deal Quick is, and I will get back to that in a second.
But the point is, most of the white council members are nodding their approval. You can see it on their faces: Oh, yes, very smart. Spend a ton of money with Belo. Good thinking, Frank.
Librio says the city also needs to spend money on advertising in Al Día, the Morning News' Spanish-language newspaper and in a couple other Spanish papers. Council members Garcia and Salazar are nodding approvingly: Good market strategy, Frank. Support the Spanish-language press.
Now he's telling them the city needs to support the black papers—the Dallas Post Tribune, Dallas Weeklyand the Elite News. Yes, yes: Our black caucus is nodding its approval.
He says we should support the Voice, the city's leading gay and lesbian newspaper. It seems to me several members start to nod and then quickly correct themselves, but it's clear there is a lot of support for the Voice.
So what do we think will happen when Librio gets to the money that City Hall needs to spend in the Dallas Observer?
Hey, I don't normally busy my little head with things like this. I am what's called an "editorial person." Under normal circumstances, we editorial people are to our newspaper's owners what the Rockettes are to the Rockefellers. We are encouraged to be vivacious, and we are discouraged from thinking too seriously about the business end of things.
But ever since I got PowerPointed by Librio, I have been looking into why the city might spend some money buying ads in my newspaper. It wasn't easy. The publisher of my own newspaper sees me coming with a notebook to interview him, and you'd think from the look on his face somebody's sick iguana had escaped.
But our group publisher, Stuart Folb, did speak to me, and he did provide me with audited readership numbers that show the Observer reaching an audience 62 percent the size of the Morning News audience in a two-month period.
More to the point, perhaps: Almost half of our readers do not read the Morning News. So if you save back some of what you were going to spend on Morning News ads and spend it with us instead, you greatly increase the overall reach of your ads.
Look, I am far from knowledgeable about this stuff, even after discussing it with people who are. This gets to be a fairly technical business. That's why they have advertising agencies. Advertising agencies specialize in advertising. They actually do know about this stuff, as opposed to your typical city employee.
So back to the city council briefing session with Librio and his power points: What do we think is about to happen when he tells the council how much money should be spent with the Observer? Well, gosh, I don't even have to tell you that, do I?
All of the nodding—yes, yes for the white people newspapers and yes, yes for the black people papers and the Hispanic people papers and yes for the gay people papers—all of that is going to come to a screeching halt and turn on a dime. All of those smiles are going to turn upside down.
Many of the council members are going to say, "But, Frank, we don't like the Dallas Observer! The Dallas Observeris always catching us with our pants down! We don't like newspapers that catch us with our pants down. We don't want to use the city's tax coffers to help them catch us with our pants down."
So, guess what! He doesn't mention the Dallas Observer. Nowhere on the list of official government-approved newspapers is the Observer, even though our sales staff can make a closely reasoned argument, supported by hard numbers, that we are the single most cost-effective supplemental print ad buy in the city.
Of course, I called Librio later. I asked him why we weren't on the list of government-approved newspapers. At first he tried to tell me it was because we didn't have a government-approved audience.
"The Observer is a very selected and targeted audience," he said. "Most of our messages won't fit."
Aha! Interesting! Because the story I get here is that our demographics are very diverse, skewing young and urban but with a significant slide up the age and income scale.
So I asked him: "What is our audience?"
"I'd have to look at my backup, which I don't have right now," he said. "We did a bunch of research and made major studies, and I can't remember what your demographics are and that kind of thing."
Hmm. Can't remember? Really? I asked him if he or anyone else on his staff had ever even called us. You know, like to ask us any of these questions as part of the "research and major studies" they carried out.
"Honestly, we may have overlooked the Observer," he said, "and that was probably inadvertent."
So now in the space of about two minutes we have gone from the misplaced backup from the research and major studies to the fact that they never even called us, but it was "inadvertent." This part is very difficult for me to swallow.
Back when Librio was Mayor Laura Miller's chief of staff, I remember speaking to one of his recently departed interns. She told me in fairly breathless tones that it had been her most urgent and crucial task every Wednesday to rush down to the second basement parking level of City Hall and wait for the week's new edition of the Observer to be delivered so that she could rush back upstairs and shove several copies into Mr. Librio's trembling hands so that he could slip into the city council meeting and make sure they all got their copies so they could see whose pants were down that week.
But then a while later he forgets we even exist? Yeah. I'm sure.
I told Librio I thought he had devised a politically correct list of newspapers that could be trusted not to catch any downed pants. And at that, he bristled:
"My staff conducted the research independently," Librio said, "and politics did not play into the list of primary recommended media, period, with no uncertainty."
So, how about that research? For example, the research Librio provided to the council showed Quickwith an audited circulation of 150,000. That caught my eye, because I knew our audited circulation at the Observer is usually around 100,000, and the story I had always heard was that our circulation was better than Quick's.
I called Alison Draper, Quick's publisher. I have known and respected Draper since she was our publisher, before Belo hired her away from us because they decided they needed somebody who knew how to sell newspapers.
Draper was adamant. She said Quick's audited circulation is 95,000—that's less than ours—and she said neither she nor anyone else at her paper would ever tell anybody anything different.
"There's no 150,000 being thrown out around here," she said. "We take it very seriously, as you can imagine. And I am telling you, there is not a piece of printed material in this entire building nor any information that's in the public domain or in the client material that states anything outside of 95,000 for Quick."
I called Librio back. He gave me the name of a sales rep who he said had told his people the circulation was 150,000. I called Draper back. She said that sales rep doesn't work for her.
Please let me be clear: I'm not getting on Draper's case. She's being a straight shooter. My beef is entirely with Librio, who has stitched together a bunch of phony-baloney "research" as camouflage for a political hit list of local media to be rewarded or frozen out of the tax-money goodies at City Hall, based on how many pants they have or have not caught down at City Hall.
And you know how simple it would be to remove all doubt and prove me absolutely wrong? Easy! Take all of the advertising decisions at City Hall out of Librio's hands and turn them over to an ad agency, to people who might actually know what they're doing and whose motives would be to spend the money effectively instead of using tax money to carry out political vendettas.
Like that will ever happen.