Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene
Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
Part of my extensive media experience includes a stint as advertising director for a weekly newspaper here in Massachusetts. Before you're unduly impressed by the title, let me tell you about it.
First of all, I was only 19, and it was only a summer job. A friend of mine had just quit this prestigious position (which should have been my first clue) and offered it to me. Without a summer job myself (and anxious to enter the wonderful world of publishing), I jumped at the chance. It remains the worst summer job I ever had.
This small weekly newspaper had a staff of five -- including the publisher. There was the secretary, who handled subscriptions, billing, answering the phone and that kind of stuff. There was me, who sold ads. There was a woman who worked two days a week doing just the Help Wanted ads.
And there was a publisher (who mostly sat around). That left only one other guy. He was the editor. Also the newswriter. Also the photographer and typesetter. Also the guy who loaded the pages into his car, drove them to the printing plant, stood there while the paper was being printed, folded the papers as they came off the press, and drove them to the Post Office for mailing.
The publisher himself was . . . (How shall I say this?) . . ."ethically challenged." He was a sleaze.
When I was hired, he gave me a speech to read to prospective advertisers over the phone. I forget the exact numbers, but I was supposed to tell advertisers that we had a circulation of 5800 -- including 2000 papers given out free at local businesses. One day the editor/writer/typesetter heard me giving this speech on the phone, took pity on me and called me into his office when I was done.
"You sounded pretty good on the phone," he said. "You even sounded like you BELIEVED that crap. Do you?"
"Sure," I said. (I was 19 and naive).
He went to his file and pulled out the billing records from the printing company, which he tossed into my lap. "Bill, we only PRINT 2000 copies of the paper! Here's the proof. And we don't give away ANY free.
You're lying to people!"
"But that's what he TOLD me to say!"
"I'll bet! What ELSE did he tell you? What did he say was our advertising rate?"
"Uh . . . He said to tell people that our usual advertising rate was $2.50 per column inch." The editor started laughing, so I hurried with the rest of the explanation.
"But he said to tell people that we were having a sale and that I should charge them only $1.75 per inch." He was laughing harder now.
"And he said that I could negotiate. . . "
Tears were rolling down his cheeks.
"And that I could sell ads for $1.50 an inch, even."
He was howling by now.
"But that under NO conditions should I sell an ad for less than $1.25 an inch."
I waited until he calmed down (which took some time).
"From $2.50 to $1.25?" he said. "Didn't that give you a hint?"
"Uhhhhhhhh, no." I was great with words, even back then.
"It's lies, kiddo. All lies. Sell an ad for whatever you can get. Just do the best you can. It's only a summer job, right?"
Well, it was. So I listened to his advice.
The phone system in the office was one of those 5-line systems with little pushbuttons that lit up if you were on the phone, and I knew that the boss kept an eagle eye on MY line to make sure that I was cold-calling potential advertisers, dutifully reading the sales pitch he had written for me. I generally kept the line lit by calling my girlfriend. When she wasn't home, I kept right up-to-date on the recorded weather forecast and even the correct time. Anything to keep the button lit.
I did sell some ads. Some for $1.50 an inch. Most for $1.25 an inch. One guy wanted to buy 26 weeks of ads -- a full six months. I sold him those ads for 75c an inch. My boss hit the roof when he saw the contract, but honored it.
One scam he had was brilliant. He (correctly) figured that the people responsible for paying the bills at a large company weren't the same ones who placed the ads. So he kept "automatically renewing" an ad for a local department store. And our secretary kept sending them bills for the advertising. And the company kept paying them.
This went on for 5 years.
It went on until some woman walked into the store looking for window shades for $1.19.
"Lady, we haven't had window shades for $1.19 for FIVE YEARS! They're $1.99 now," they told her. She then (so the story goes) produced a copy of our newspaper from that very week, carrying the 5-year-old ad for window shades at $1.19. The store sold her the shades. Then they called my publisher. He's lucky he escaped a lawsuit.
It was a real education in the power of the press -- the local press. From my closet-like office, I could hear the publisher on the phone in HIS office. And I heard him wheeling and dealing, trying to impress people with his own power and importance. Once I heard him trade a newspaper story for food.
"Hey, Sal? It's Fred, at the newspaper! Look, I hear you're opening a new sub shop in town! Tell you what. I'll do a front page story on your Grand Opening -- when is it, next week? -- complete with a photo of you holding a six-foot sub or somethin'. How's that? A front-page story with a picture! A BIG one! What do I want in return? Well, see, I've got this party comin' up a week from Saturday over at the house. Local politicians, you know? Why don't you send over about $300 worth of cold cuts, huh? Sure! Sure. That will be fine. Just send 'em over to the house. Right. Look, I'll send the photographer over to your Grand Opening next week to get the story and the picture. Right. Talk to you later."
Trading newspaper coverage for food! I was shocked. The power of the press that I'd learned about in school never mentioned that a news story could be traded for cold cuts. I was disillusioned.
I hasten to point out that the newspaper was NOT The Billerica Minute Man (which carries this column). And that this happened 27 years ago. And it does not represent any newspaper today (at least none that I know of).
Really. I think I was working for what was (and certainly is now) an exception to the rule that local newspapers are honest, concerned about genuine news, and ethical.
It's just that -- now that school's out and summer jobs are on everybody's mind -- I was reminded of my own disillusioning yet certainly interesting introduction to local media, and it was a story I thought you might enjoy hearing.
Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.