MEDIA ROUNDUP: Deal-obsessed readers seek more than low prices

Hunting for bargains has been a big media topic since the '70s, and is seeing a surge in the current economy. But pitching the cheap angle isn't always the best - or only - way to get coverage.

Hunting for bargains has been a big media topic since the '70s, and is seeing a surge in the current economy. But pitching the cheap angle isn't always the best - or only - way to get coverage.

Shopping for bargains and advocating saving rather than spending have never been the sexiest journalistic topics, but they are subjects near and dear to the hearts of most readers and viewers, especially in a down economy. Recognizing this, the mainstream press is now devoting a growing percentage of editorial space to methods for finding those products for less, and is taking a serious look at whether consumers really need certain products at all. From Newsweek's consumer-oriented section The Tip Sheet, to New York magazine's Best Bets, to publications like Frommer's Budget Travel, the media is responding to an audience obsessed with deals. "There's a mindset in our culture as to why would you ever pay retail," explains Virginia Sheridan, president of M. Silver & Associates. "There's almost a gleeful pursuit of where to get the best bargains." While it incorporates aspects of personal finance, consumer advocacy, and product reviews, budget or bargain-hunting journalism still hasn't quite emerged as a beat unto itself, although it's certainly a sub-beat in a lot of consumer-products reporting. "We seem to be seeing more of it, although the current economy may be what's driving that," says Adam Sohmer of Magnet Communications. Wise spending versus frugality There are really two kinds of budget beat reporters. On the one side are the more mainstream consumer-advocacy reporters who encourage their audience to spend, but spend wisely. On the other side is the growing cadre of writers, primarily on the internet, who have turned frugality into an art form. That movement has been around since the 1970s, but really picked up momentum about 10 years ago, when major news outlets discovered Amy Dacyczyn, author and publisher of The Tightwad Gazette. Dacyczyn's philosophy was extreme frugality. She offered her devoted readers such tips as how to make their own dog biscuits or the best way to dole out toothpaste so each tube would last as long as possible. "She paved the way and opened up the floodgates by triggering a flood of newsletters, first, and then web-based publications on the subject of frugality," says Nancy Twigg, editor of the Counting the Cost website. Though still somewhat of a niche subject, Twigg argues that the whole topic of how to live a simpler, less consumptive life does resonate with Americans - especially women. She was recently brought on as the money-saving expert for a Knoxville, TN-based women's lifestyle show after focus-group testing found that saving was one of the biggest issues among viewers. "The media is becoming aware of the growing consumer interest in saving money," Twigg says. "As far as hard-line frugality, it may not be going quite that far." Part of the reason for that may be that encouraging consumers to buy less simply may not work that well in advertising-based publications. Indeed, relatively new magazines such as Lucky or Real Simple do cover the search for bargains, but are more about a fairly affluent lifestyle - people who already have a lot, but want a little more for a little less. Real Simple seems to have more in common with the Martha Stewart publications than it does with frugality, though the magazine does cover issues such as how a couple can cope when one or both of them lose their jobs. Penny-pinching pitches If the media has the tendency to tread lightly around bargain hunting and is hesitant to place an emphasis on less rather than more, so are PR professionals. "You don't ever want your client known primarily for rock-bottom pricing, because once you go down that road, it's very hard to retract it," M. Silver's Sheridan says. "So we try to stay away from just talking about cheap, cheap, cheap." Sheridan, whose agency represents numerous travel and consumer-product clients, adds that when pitching budget-themed stories, which outlet you focus on takes on a heightened importance. "If it's The New York Times or USA Today or The Washington Post, that's fine," she says. "But if it's a publication they don't even want to be in ever, then that's a problem." Sohmer notes that though dedicated bargain reporters are few and far between, "The editors and reporters who write about budget products tend to have a much greater reach and are better at translating the benefits and value of our clients' products than some of the more expert writers." Sohmer represents consumer-electronics and technology clients, and says that pitching a value-themed story can involve a slightly different PR strategy. "When you're dealing with common products like televisions and camcorders, it's not much of an issue," he says. "But when dealing with more complex categories, such as many of the new wireless products, a little more education is required. And most of that is aimed at helping the reporter translate the features and capabilities into value." Gary Foreman, whose Stretcher.com website and newsletters have a combined circulation of more than 300,000, suggests that outside of obvious categories like travel, many budget journalists are equally cautious about the PR pitches they receive. "Everybody wants their products to be perceived as good value for money, but that doesn't make them a good source for us," he says. "We'll run some product reviews and maybe, for example, something from a bank on how to save on banking fees. But we wouldn't run a piece on why a particular bank is best." Foreman, however, is seeing a change in public attitude that will likely drive increased coverage of the ways to spend less and save more. "In the 1990s, it was almost something to be ashamed of if you were watching how you were spending money," he says. "So when publications did write about frugality, it was often as a sidebar to features on conspicuous consumption. But that stigma is gone now." Shel Horowitz, editor of the Frugalfun.com website and author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook and Marketing Without Megabucks, also notes that there's a certain novelty to spending less than $300 on a wedding or $400 on a European vacation that's always going to be of interest to the press. "There are a lot of radio talk shows looking to fill airtime with something unusual," he says. "I also get a lot of calls from reporters on the women's beat as well as from senior magazines, since many of their readers are on fixed incomes and thus very focused on how to save a buck." Seasonality can sell the story As far as the basic tools of the trade, Sheridan advises PR people to understand the seasonality of many of these stories. "You have to know when these stories come up in the cycle," she says. "For example, there will always be summer cruise deals, and reporters will write about them in April and May." She also advises PR people to place price fairly high up in budget-related press releases, but also to focus on other value-adds as well, so the story isn't just about price. "You really want to talk to the customer who can afford you when you're not on sale, but will probably buy you a little more when you are on sale," she explains. ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Boston Globe; USA Today; Cleveland Plain-Dealer Magazines Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel; Lucky; Redbook; Ladies Home Journal; Better Homes & Gardens; Woman's Day; Newsweek; Travel & Leisure; Real Simple; Consumer Reports TV & Radio NBC's Today; CNBC's The Suze Orman Show; local morning lifestyle television programming; Lifetime; Oxygen; local drive-time radio outlets Internet Countingthecost.com; Frugalfun.com; Stretcher.com (The Dollar Stretcher); Daveramsey.com; Billsaver.com; Frugalbride.com; Frugalgazette.com; Frugalhomemaker.com

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