Can Morning News keep its hands clean--while getting personal?
The Dallas Morning News has stepped into the personals business--including "900" numbers, as well as "men-seeking-men" and "women-seeking-women" advertising.
After years of shying away from a realm it clearly considered too controversial--the ads offended some advertisers and readers--the News has made two moves into the lucrative business.
But--in what appears to be an attempt to insulate itself from potential fallout--neither step involves the placement of partner-seeking ads in the pages of Dallas' Only Daily.
The News' first foray, of course, is its relationship with The Met, which has actually retained Dallas' Only Daily as a consultant to boost its personals business. Like the Dallas Observer, the Met contains a back-of-the-paper personals advertising section.
The News' second--and more direct--step into the business is "DateMaker," a personals-listing service on the Internet. Ads for DateMaker have been appearing for several weeks in the Morning News--without any hint in the ads that the paper has anything to do with this personals service.
But operators answering the "800" DateMaker number listed in the ad freely inform callers--whose location they know instantly through "Caller ID"--that the News has contracted for the personals service with Newspaper Voice Services in Buffalo, New York.
The "800" number allows callers to place personals ads free of charge. The personals--or at least some of them--are listed on the DateMaker Internet site. The advertisers also record a brief voice greeting, accessed only through a "900" number.
It is the "900" number that produces the cash.
DateMaker browsers looking for love must call there. A sunny, recorded female voice on the number answers: "Thank you for calling DateMaker Online, brought to you by The Dallas Morning News and Newspaper Voice Services of New York."
The caller is advised that he or she must be 18 years of age and that time on the service will cost $1.99 a minute. "Our service has been designed to help you find new friends quickly and easily," the recording explains.
The "900" number includes some personals the Internet listing does not.
One feature of the service allows the caller to specify his interests, such as gender ("If you are a male, interested in meeting males, press 3") activities ("dining and dancing," "playing sports") and range of ages. The system then plays pre-recorded messages of personals advertisers whose interests match those of the caller. A caller who finds one of them appealing can then leave a voice-mailbox message and phone number for the advertiser, who can later retrieve the messages.
One advertiser on the service described himself this way: "I'm a gay black male...easy-going...I also like a guy with a nice beard and mustache...I'm dying to hear from you nice sweet guys...."
All of this, of course, is quite similar to what the Observer has been doing in print for years--and what both the Observer and The Met are doing through their own 900 numbers.
What's striking is that the News has stepped into this enterprise--and the calculation with which it has attempted to distance itself from the operation, to avoid angering advertisers and readers who might find it offensive.
There are certainly some of those in Dallas. In past years, some Observer advertisers, for example, have become targets of a letter-writing campaign from a small group called Dallas Association for Decency, whose members complained that the paper lacks commitment to "family values" and threatened to boycott the advertisers.
How interesting to see the News in the very same business.
And how typical for Dallas' Only Daily to try to have it both ways--to chase the dollars the personals business offers, while hiding its venture into the romance realm from its advertisers and its readers.
News to advertisers: This won't hurt
It's always interesting to see how the News feeds its advertisers bitter medicine--the annual rate increase.
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This year's came in a three-paragraph letter from General Advertising Director Charles Gerardi, dated December 1 and addressed: "Dear Valued Advertiser."
"Within the next few weeks, you will receive your new General or Local General Rate Book (#71) from The Dallas Morning News. Advertising rates will increase effective January 1, 1996.
"As you are well aware, the past 18 months have been among the most challenging times our industry has ever faced. Unprecedented increases in newsprint prices levied by paper manufacturers have challenged our medium to remain your most cost-efficient alternative. We remain committed to operating our business as efficiently as possible, while still providing the quality that you have come to expect every day.
"We appreciate your continued support of The Dallas Morning News and look forward to serving your needs even more effectively in 1996.