Publishers Use Special Sections to Drive More Revenue

Special sections can add significant revenue for publishers. When done well, they improve readership and appeal to new advertisers. They can also have a major impact on year-end profits. But building great special sections requires more than just a few articles and some ads. It takes strong material, preparation, sales planning and consistent effort to produce them.

Be Healthy Special Section

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Healthcare in Iowa

Ted Borelli, senior advertising manager of sales for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said, “Typically, when we create new sections, we create them based off of conversations we’ve had with advertisers. . . . We create sections based on information we get out in the real world.” Empower is a special section that spreads knowledge about health issues women could face at all stages of life and connects healthcare providers to women.

Editorial content-gathering starts about ten weeks before publishing. Written by a pool of about 35 freelance writers, the stories include local women and medical professionals as sources. To shape the editorial content, Special Sections Editor Maggy Dumas said the editors use medical websites to research potential stories, email freelancers describing the parameters of the publications and give them a choice of several topics.

The freelance writers are also responsible for providing photos, which Dumas said typically are obtained from the sources or are taken by the writers. Stock art is usually used on the cover of the tabloid. Dumas writes an introduction and edits the stories. Layout is completed by two of The Gazette’s graphic designers. The tabloid is printed in-house and distributed within the Sunday newspaper, which has a circulation of 70,273.

“The special sections I work on are considered ‘content with an agenda,’ content to sell advertising into,” she said. Advertising appeals to a variety of health care providers, including hospitals, dentists, OB-GYN specialists, chiropractors, spas and retirement communities, as well as some non-healthcare businesses. Selling ads in Empower is open to all The Gazette’s 15 sales reps and the publication brought in about $10,000 of advertising revenue in 2010.

Las CrucesFootball in Illinois

Gridiron debuted in Rockford, Illinois, in August 2008 and has been published every football season since. The project brings in about $60,000 in advertising revenue each season for The Rockford Register Star, running every Friday for 13 weeks during the high school football season. The register covers about 55 high school teams with an emphasis on schools in proximity to Rockford.

According to Sports Editor Randy Ruef, “It’s a big project, but it’s not a heavy workload. . . . it’s just repackaging and reusing stuff.” For newspapers that don’t have large sports staffs, Ruef said putting together a publication like Gridirron can still work. “There are ways to get around having a small staff. Use the phone, use photos, use the help of part-timers and take advantage of schools, coaches and stringers to give you something.”

Ruef chalks up Gridiron’s success to focusing specifically on football instead of all high school sports, which sets it apart for advertisers and appeals to a specific audience. Auto dealers, sports, medicine and family entertainment businesses have all advertised. Ads on are sold as bundled buy to advertisers. Each of the print ad positions of a quarter page or larger include online. The front-strip and back-page advertisers get the pre-roll and the mid-roll on the predictions video on the site. Ruef explained, “Advertisers love it. We don’t have a lot of positive news that advertisers can be associated with. This is positive.”

Lake CasterMotorcycles in Wisconsin

The Washington County Daily News created a Riders’ Guide for Harley-Davidson riders visiting southeastern Wisconsin for an anniversary celebration. “It was the most successful revenue-generating, free standing special section to date,” said Lois Evans, advertising director for the 9,200 circulation newspaper in West Bend.

Because of the expanded area of the publication’s audience, the Daily News was able to produce a more regional special section and gain advertisers in three counties outside its normal coverage area. “We had a huge selection of first-time advertisers that was above and beyond our readership,” Evans said.

The content was written in-house by four of the Daily News’ staff writers. Layout was completed in-house, but the Daily News did use an outside service to create the section’s various maps. Artwork came from Harley-Davidson’s 100th and the Harley Owners Group’s 20th anniversary celebration.

Advertisers were mostly restaurants and bars, but there were some tourist-type ads, such as boat tours and other attractions of interest to visitors. Local Harley0Davidson dealers also placed ads in the guide.

Parent company Conley Media encouraged sister newspapers the Waukesha Freeman and Ozaukee County News Graphic to sell ads for the special section. There were 12 or 13 reps selling ads for the section and the number of pages in the Riders’ Guide was determined by the amount of advertising sold. Evans noted, “It was a welcome new advertising venue for advertisers.”

Neighborhoods Special SectionSix Verticals for The Wall Street Journal

As these newspapers illustrate, when publishers print special sections about specific fields of business, the features can be very attractive for advertisers who jump at the chance to reach a narrow audience segments interested in these topics. The challenge for publishers is how to replicate that high value online. In February of 2013, The Wall Street Journal launched six new digital verticals to match the special sections that appear in the Journal’s print edition about 60 times a year: wealth management, retirement, energy, leadership, healthcare and small business.

According to Senior Editor Larry Rout, the idea is to ensure this content doesn’t sink as quickly when it goes online. To keep up the chatter around the special topics, the Journal asked a stable of thought leaders and public personalities to blog and offer opinions in a live stream. The site also hosting periodic “Google Hangouts” where business experts chatted and took questions from viewers.

The question is whether anyone will show up in the online verticals since there is already so much financial and business chatter and the Journal Reports may have a hard time differentiating. Rout says the Reports’ contents have done very well when published as individual stories on the WSJ website. Placing that content in dedicated verticals and combining it with marquee personalities and the WSJ brand may provide the necessary traction online.

Advice from the Experts

What can you do to ensure success with your special sections in print and online? Here are some tips from Publishers-Edge to help you plan special sections.

  • Review the special sections from last year. If the same sections are dropping in the amount of space sold over time, it is a good idea to adjust the content or try some new ones.
  • Take a look at the marketplace. What businesses have opened in the past couple of years in your area and are they advertising with your newspaper?
  • Be informative. Don’t waste readers’ time. Provide content that they find useful.
  • Feature local articles. Even if you use syndicated content, you should add paragraphs to some of the prewritten articles to localize them.
  • Don’t use advertorials. While it is possible to build a special section using advertorial and news releases, you have to consider the readers if you want special sections that will achieve targets year after year. Readers depend on local newspapers to provide credible material that is not biased so, if you use advertorials, it should be clearly identified or labeled near the beginning of the articles.
  • Determine who will buy advertising. Make a list of the categories and businesses and forecast revenue. When you consider this, you may discover that your special section should be an ROP page or two in the paper for a few consecutive weeks instead of a separate section because the list is short and the advertisers are small (and this alternative still generates revenue).
  • Develop new business. Special sections are one of the primary tools to secure new advertisers.
  • Pre-design the special section. Show advertisers the publication with actual articles and photos and blanks for advertising. This helps them select the ad space they want.
  • Create packages in print. Add extra weeks to the package and you can significantly increase revenues. Instead of asking for a one-time run, you can design a package price for multiple weeks.
  • Put special sections online. The internet is a resource for information on every topic and newspapers are beginning to use it as a means to publish topical information using their special sections.

What new special sections have driven revenue for your publication? How have you handled the workload of producing sections? Do you wish you could produce more each year to attract advertisers?

Read more about special sections production.

About Kelly Glass
Kelly has been vice president of Marketing at Affinity Express for nine years now. She drives company strategy and all marketing activities.

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