It’s always nice to run counter to the trend. That’s the adage in the stock market, anyway. If everyone else is buying, then sell. And vice versa.
From a sports special section perspective, that’s the position the Indianapolis Star finds itself in these days.
While most sports departments seem to be doing fewer special sections than ever before, The Star just completed a 12-month stretch where it produced 49 special sections. That’s nearly one a week.
Due to a combination of hot local teams (Colts to the Super Bowl, Butler to the Final Four), big local events (Final Four, U.S. Senior Open golf tournament, Indianapolis 500), and an advertising department charged with maximizing revenue from any and all potential sources, the number is unprecedented for the newspaper.
The Colts led the way, with 14 pre- and post-season special sections, in addition to 16 regular-season Colts Weekend/Friday publications.
Throw in 8 racing sections (4-Indy 500, 4-Brickyard 400), 5 from the golf tournament, 4 from the Final Four, 1 on the Indiana Pacers and a March Madness Selection show section and it all adds up to a whole lot of work beyond the daily section.
While the past 12 months were unique in one regard, the norm in Indianapolis in a year when the Colts do not reach the Super Bowl and the Final Four and U.S. Senior Open unfold elsewhere, is still approximately 30. And that’s with sections on high school football, college football and college basketball disappearing in recent years.
The general rule on the vast majority of special sections is 50-50 with advertising. And many of these sections are substantial. For the 500, the 4 sections were a combined 72 pages, almost equally split between advertising and editorial.
A survey of other newspapers revealed most are trending the other way.
Dallas Morning News: Gary Leavell
"We certainly do fewer than we did five years ago. We try to do only do them now if they’re going to be profitable. In the past year, the only one we’ve done as a preprint, standalone was a Cowboys/NFL preview section. We’ve done golf sections — an annual Texas Golf staple and a Byron Nelson tournament preview — but those are printed live and run behind the regular sports section."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Reid Laymance
"We have dropped to just a Cardinals/MLB preview section and a Rams/NFL section because those are our two biggest teams (apologies to the Blues/NHL) and the only ones that have a chance to generate revenue. Last fall (2009), we eliminated a Missouri/Illinois/college football section and our zoned high school football section. No ad support. We kept most of that content but spread it out in the daily paper.
"If a Cardinals, Rams (hah!) or Blues were to make a run in playoffs, we would do special section previews for them.
"With the All-Star game in St. Louis last year, it was three special sections, but only the Sunday preview sold many ads (about 40 percent of a 20-pager).
"So, in general, if we think we can sell ads it will still be a separate section. If not, we keep most of the same content but spread it through our daily papers."
Des Moines Register: Bryce Miller
"We do significantly less special sections. We used to produced roughly a dozen or so in a given year, but all but two — college football previews for Iowa and Iowa State — were eliminated in 2009 because of space cutbacks.
"We are able to pitch/produce spot sections if there is unique timing and advertising support, though. The example in 2009: A special section for the 100th anniversary of the Drake Relays track meet. That section, along with the college football sections, are profitable. In fact, that’s the proving ground for moving forward on almost all of them these days. Our in-house era of producing a section "because it’s the right thing to do for a certain event" is mostly gone.
"And to be honest, it’s probably a good thing we cut back sections in 2009 — because that matched up with reductions on the reporting/desk sides. We would have struggled to produce that level of sections in 2009 with the current staffing."
Atlanta Journal Constitution: Kevin Whaley
"We’re doing very few these days, far fewer than when I arrived here in 2006. At that point we did a baseball preview, a NASCAR season preview, college football, NFL, etc. We dumped baseball 2 years ago, NASCAR the year after I arrived. We’ve still done college football every year, but NFL died 2 years ago. We did a special section last year on the SEC/ACC football championship weekend because it was profitable. That’s pretty much it now. We’re doing one this year on Bobby Cox’s retirement, but that’s a one-time deal."
Kansas City Star: Holly Lawton
"We still do them for football and baseball although definitely less space than 3-5 years ago. Football has gone down from six sections in salad days to four last year. Baseball down in pages also. We also do an NCAA Tournament preview section that’s smaller and less demanding of enterprise. They make ‘some’ money."
Orlando Sentinel: Tim Stephens
"For many years, it was not uncommon for Sentinel Sports to produce between 10 and 20 special sections per year. We are down to two: our annual football preview section and our annual Orlando Magic preview sections. Our football section has decreased in size. We were at 96 pages a few years ago; now we’re at 48 pages."
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Glen Crevier
"We still do special sections, but they are more situational now than in the past. By that, I mean we don’t do them just for the sake of doing them. They really need to have value for the readers. Here, we don’t have much success selling ads into the special sections we do, but we budget for space ahead of time so we are able to still have strong content.
"Our Winter Olympics section had very few ads, but because we had 30 or so Minnesotans competing, we were able still produce a section with the 48 columns we had budgeted. Same with our Target Field special section. We budgeted 96 columns and bumped it up when we kept coming up with new ideas, despite mediocre ad sales.
"On the other hand, despite being in a Big Ten market, this is not a college football town, so we have quit doing college football special sections. Same thing with the NBA and NHL. We used to routinely do special sections at the start of the Wild and Wolves seasons, but now we just devote several pages in the regular section."
Cleveland Plain Dealer: Roy Hewitt
"We are certainly doing fewer special sections than we used to. A couple of years ago we had to cut space and the choice was between the daily allotment and special sections. We eliminated special sections, unless advertising could support the expense.
"We have had them for the Cavaliers and Indians season previews, as well as the Cavaliers playoffs and LeBron James’ MVP awards. We probably did six or seven special sections in the past year.
We have moved to four-page pullouts when we thought we should have something special but couldn’t afford a special section with eight or more pages."
Arizona Republic: Mark Faller
"The routine special sections — for season previews or annual big events — have pretty much died due to lack of advertising support. We are down to one now, for the Phoenix Open, and even it’s much smaller than in the not-so-distant past. We can get traction for something unusual or newsy, such as when the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl. We were able to do multiple special sections during their run."