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Panpa Bulletin : November December 2006
PUBLISHING MATTERS PETER ISAACSON Newsagents mobilising in the struggle to survive could do with some help from publishers, writes Peter Isaacson. Newsagents seek new paths to prosperity From my early working days as a 17 year-old messenger boy and telephone ad-taker on Melbourne broad-sheet The Age, I remember the names and locations of a few of the newsagents who would ring through advertisements for the next day's newspaper -- often a last minute 'rooms to let' or 'employment wanted' ad. Among them were Lewis and Jaegar of Middle Brighton, Ward of Footscray, Hazeldine of East Bright- on, Horton of Hampton, Winstanley of Bruns- wick. In the city there was the Mercantile Exchange, Armstrongs, McGills and Mitty's. This was in mid to late 1930s during the heart of the pre-war depression. Then chil- dren were made to double-up so that a room could be let for much needed rent to supple- ment the sparse family income. Then a third of people over 14 years of age (the minimum school leaving age) were out of work, vainly looking for a job. Answers to "rooms to let" were few, but numerous to "rooms wanted". In the job market, the reverse was true -- "jobs wanted" got few replies, "situations vacant", many. Most newsagents traded under the name of the proprietor (Ward's Newsagency) but this homely touch has gone out of fashion. Like so many of the shopkeeper niceties that were part of the friendly suburban and rural shopkeeper/customer interaction, personal names have been replaced by the clinical coldness of identification by suburb (Footscray Newsagency), as evidenced by the listings in the Yellow Pages. Maybe that is what is wrong with newsa- gents today. They have changed from being a friendly, hands-on, front-of-the-house opera- tor and their shop a convivial meeting place cum gossip exchange for buyers of newspa- pers, magazines, greeting cards and a variety of minor stationary items to a more soulless, impersonal shop indistinguishable from a branch of the local chain-store supermarket. The warmth has gone out of their business, and those who used to buy from them now get their product from competitive stores that stock similar goods -- often at lower prices. Most supermarkets stock daily newspapers and magazines, so it is unnecessary to visit a newsagency. Which is possibly one of the reasons why newsagencies have gone from being high profit operations to ones which may be trundling toward extinction. As a group, Victorian newsagents rec- ognise the danger and have taken action. In association with the Small Business Consulting Service (SBCS) of the Victorian Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development, (DIIRD), the Victorian Authorised Newsagents Association (VANA) has established the Newsagents: Professional Development Program. Enrolments to date are 120 newsa- gents who are determined to compete in the ever-changing commercial environment of the media. The program includes four sessions with a mentor from SBCS (of whom I am one), a number of workshops, a DVD and handbook titled Magazine Management Manual. For all this, the newsagent pays the SBCS only $275. The two newsagents I mentor are in very different locations and environments. One has a solo position in a vast shopping mall on the outskirts of Melbourne, the other is located on a shopping strip. Their major con- cerns -- which are very similar despite their other differences -- include... • how to increase store traffic by stocking new and different product -- a 'one-stop- shop', or, as one newsagency styles itself, 'your store with more'; • increasing $ sales from each customer (multiple purchases); • stronger and more continuous promo- tion (hopefully, with assistance from publishers); • getting closer and better co-operation from publishers and distributors on a range of issues; • reducing costs; and • training staff. It is apparent from my observations that both treat their customers as passive entities allowing them to roam the shop, inspect and browse through papers, magazines and prod- uct with no employee making an attempt to interest them in other items, even specials. Seldom do the staff come from behind the counter to meet, greet and sell. When ques- tioned why counter staff are not sales staff too, I was told "the girls (and/or men) don't like selling"! Publishers are criticised for their arrogant attitude. Disputes over the quantum of returns, delay in giving credits and arbitrary increases in supplies without good reason or backing promotion are major causes of dis- content. Agents rankle at the lack of response to their queries and requests. The publisher/newsagent relationship is not all bad. Staff have attended publisher sponsored 5-day training sessions in newsa- gency practice with discernible benefit to the business. On-site meetings with sales reps and circulation inspectors are appreciated. VANA has been censured to me for not helping solve agency/publisher disputes and failing to return phone calls. Despite these and other minor but annoying deficiencies of administration, VANA committees and executives are serving its members well and deserve the support of agency proprietors. To its credit, the organisation has perceived the dangers to the ongoing prosperity of the industry and initiated the development program. The future of print as the prime means of information and pleasurable reading is in the hands of those who distribute hard copy to the worldwide community. Publishers and newsagents will only survive if the supply chain is strong. Publishers must therefore play a major role in helping newsagents over- come the problems which beset them. Both cash and physical assistance will be required. So publishers -- help newsagents, help yourselves. Peter Isaacson is a former publisher and life member of PANPA 24 | PANPA BULLETIN November--December 2006 "Print publishers and newsagents will only survive if the supply chain is strong."