All-Star Pickle

Part balk, part steal, Journal Sentinel pulls business section from “sponsored” All-Star editions  

Geoff Davidian

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says a sponsor it will not name paid the newspaper to give away incomplete copies of Sunday’s newspaper to everyone who bought an All-Star Game program, which the Journal Sentinel is authorized by Major League Baseball to sell.

But “it was just a coincidence” that the marketing blitz targeting baseball fans omitted the Sunday paper’s business section, which featured a column by Avrum D. Lank critical of the way the family of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig runs the Milwaukee Brewers.

Journal Sentinel officials tell MilwaukeePress.Net that everyone who paid for a paper got the full edition, including the controversial business section.

However, MilwaukeePress.Net found that contrary to the official explanation, employees in Journal Sentinel kiosks at FanFest and other locations were selling the stripped versions for $1.75, and the booths had signs telling customers the paper was for sale independently from program sales. If someone was sponsoring the distribution of the Sunday paper for free distribution, Journal employees were also selling them without notifying customers that a sponsor had paid to reconfigure the paper in a way the kept the business section out of their hands.

The Lank article called the Seligs “1970s mom-and-pop operators in a 21st-century corporate world.” Until the Seligs go, Lank writes, “the prospects of the Brewers becoming anything but a doormat are about the same as that of major league baseball being played in Montreal next year.” 

The Journal editorial brain trust thought enough of Lank’s column to promote it on the cover of Sundays papers with the line, “It’s time the Seligs left, ”along with a page 1 teaser for its special All-Star pull out section it says is “A complete look at the All Star Game.” Subscribers received both the business and special All-Star sections tucked inside the Sunday travel section.

Was the paper paid to pull the sections out of the paper that went to the very audience the story targeted? Did Journal officials pull the section themselves to spare Major League Baseball and Selig the embarrassment of criticism when the paper was thoroughly involved in the All Star events and had a business stake in the event? Did the Journal Sentinel cheat readers who bought the intentionally stripped down paper when the Lank teaser was prominent on the Sunday cover?

Perish the thought, the paper’s circulation vice president says. 

Not surprisingly, there was plenty of interest in Lank’s story, especially with Milwaukee at the center of Planet Baseball with the John Hancock All-Star FanFest midway through it’s five-day run at the Midwest Express Center, and with the 73rd All-Star game just two days hence.

But although local hotels were filled with team owners, players and officials of Major League Baseball, the business section was intentionally omitted from Sunday papers delivered to the media room at FanFest and downtown hotels and certain other locations around downtown and at Summerfest, says Bob Dinsmore, customer service manager for the Journal Sentinel. Many visiting baseball executives had to log onto the Journal Sentinel’s web site to read the story. One MLB staffer at FanFest resorted to printing out copies of the column from the Journal Sentinel’s web site while, in a variation of the Journal Sentinel’s TV ads, onlookers in the media room read over his shoulder. 

“I don’t know anything about it,” says columnist Lank. “You’re talking to the wrong guy, ” and transferred the call to Mark Thomas, vice president of circulation for the newspaper. Thomas and Tom Pierce, VP for marketing services, say the omissions were really meant to help readers.

In a call where the two veeps were on a speakerphone, they tell MilwaukeePress.Net that copies given in promotions at Summerfest and FanFest only included parts those people would want, and they probably didn’t want to carry around any of those extra sections.

Meanwhile, Pierce adds this secondary explanation: sales were so good Sunday they didn’t have enough business sections to go around, while he incorrectly adds that everyone who bought a paper got a complete one.

He says that the business section was a “pre-print,” or a section that is printed in a separate press run before the main and local news sections, which have the latest news.

  But they apparently had enough of other pre-prints, and they apparently decided that FanFest and Summerfest goers would want to carry them around all day – like Cue, which is rich with advertising for local theaters and two Real Estate sections, which are full of ads.

In fact, the extraction of the business section from the “sponsored” version was labor intensive because the business section, the special All-Star game insert and Crossroads sections were apparently printed inside the travel section. Someone had to extract the business section from the other sections to ensure it would not be distributed. Also, it is not clear why, if Crossroads, travel, business and the All-Star special edition were printed during one press run, why the business section would be in short supply when Crossroads and the special insert were included in the sponsored configuration.

Anyway, the veeps point out, “we still met all the ABC requirements for what constitutes a newspaper, and more than 400,000 had those sections.” The ABC, or Audit Bureau of Circulations, is the official measure of how many papers are sold and it is on the basis of the ABC audit that advertising rates are set.

Thomas says the papers missing the business section were “sponsored” by a person or organization that knew the paper would not be complete, but he says the person or organization that sponsored the incomplete papers did not want to be identified.

“The business section was not pulled because of the negative story about Selig,” Thomas insists.

“It’s a coincidence. Trust me, there was nothing done because of the negative story.”