Even though media attention to the collectibles industry has waned in recent years, a celebrity item or rare find can still trigger coverage from major outlets
In terms of media interest, collectibles and memorabilia have something in common with the dot-com industry: Coverage rose when hype and speculators ran rampant, but dropped off dramatically once the bubble burst.
Doug Drotman, a former PR representative for SkyBox and Fleer trading cards and president of Drotman Communications, notes that the early 1990s saw hundreds of reporters from specialty titles and mainstream newspapers who were covering the trading-card market.
"Now there are about five outlets left, and that's because the trading-card industry is back to the size it should always have been," he adds. "It's no longer the people buying sports cards by the case and putting them in their basement as kind of a college fund."
Attaining press interest
While the media's interest in trading cards and Ty Beanie Babies as speculative get-rich-quick schemes has ended, many editors and producers still pay attention to collectibles and memorabilia as an extension of celebrity, sports, and pop-culture reporting.
"The way into daily papers now is with the odd and the absurd," says Drotman, citing as an example a recent auction held by client Lelands.com.
The online auction house sold the picket fence from Dealey Plaza, the site of the Kennedy assassination, and earned coverage in The Dallas Morning News. "Anything Kennedy, the Beatles, or Elvis is very good."
Donn Pearlman, president of Minkus & Pearlman Public Relations, notes that the decline in general media interest in collectibles isn't just limited to trading cards; publications such as The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times have all dropped their regular columns on stamps and coins.
Instead, steady coverage has been replaced by the occasional piece on rare or special finds, such as the first gold coin made in the US or Johnny Carson's Tonight Show microphone.
"If an item has some celebrity status, is of historical significance, has a high price tag, or has a 'gee whiz' factor, reporters will want to know about," Pearlman says. "It also helps if you can sum it up in three to five words, like 'Million Dollar Dime.'"
Arguably the biggest change in the collectibles and memorabilia market - as well as the media coverage of it - has been the arrival of eBay.
Collectibles expert Harry Rinker, a spokesman for the company, as well as for the new Discovery Channel TV show Pop Nation: America's Coolest Stuff, says the online auction site has helped expand the number of serious collectible categories from about 1,500 to more than 15,000.
Because of the sheer volume of memorabilia and collectibles sold on the site, eBay can often provide reporters with a quick snapshot of entertainment and pop-culture trends. "Ebay serves as a kind of social barometer noting what's hot in both the collector community and the public," says eBay senior PR manager Dean Jutilla, who adds that the collector story is now a regular sidebar to coverage of major events ranging from the latest Star Wars movie to the death of a celebrity icon.
Jutilla suggests that eBay has to walk a fine line, noting that while it can do some media relations work for stories linked to entertainment events, it has to step back when the death of major figures, such as Carson or Ronald Reagan, trigger a flood of related memorabilia sales.
"We tend not to be proactive in our outreach in those cases," he says.
Selling the rest of the story
If there's a criticism of media coverage of the collectibles and memorabilia market, it's that their reporters only present one side of the story, leaving the impression that collectibles always go up in value. "The big problem is that the media love the story about the rise, but they don't love the stories about the fall," says Rinker.
On the other hand, it can be difficult for journalists to move beyond the price-point story because, as Pearlman notes, "Often, you end up with an anonymous buyer and an anonymous seller."
Marty Appel, whose eponymous agency represents Geppi's Memorabilia Road Show, says that, in general, memorabilia stories have become much tougher to sell.
"In many cases, the best strategy may be to localize the story," he says. "That way, you are able to pitch the metro editor or sports columnist from the hometown paper of either the item owner or where the sport legend was from."