“Retail frenzy: Tasmanians set for $52m Boxing Day blast,” screamed the front-page of the Boxing Day edition of the Mercury, a headline which would have delighted the major retailers whose advertisements accounted for over one-third of the newspaper’s pages that day.

The Mercury’s front-page article centred on a sales estimate from the Australian Retailers Association, the peak lobby group for major retailers, and included a passing comment from the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry on how the sales would be good for small retailers too.

To round the report out there were enthusiastic quotes from Peter Monachetti, Myer’s Hobart store manager and Gerry Harvey, the CEO of the retail giant Harvey Norman. “We have a lot of specials in big-ticket items including TVs, washing machines and refrigerators at prices we haven’t been able to get to before,” Harvey Norman CEO Gerry Harvey stated. “The retail giant is rolling out fridges that normally retail for more than $1000 for less than $800 and a variety of washing machines for less than $500,” the Mercury reported.

For the Mercury there was strong commercial logic in splashing big on the Boxing Day sales.

With Christmas falling on a Sunday there was no edition of the Sunday Tasmanian. With Sundays being one of the two biggest circulation and advertising sales days of the week, the Mercury had lost financial ground to make up.

The ailing financial position of regional newspapers such as the Mercury has in large part been driven by the collapse in both classified and display advertising and more recently the migration of online advertising to digital rivals such as Google and Facebook.

While a normal Monday edition of the Mercury would languish at just 40 pages, the Boxing Day edition was bumped up to 56 pages.

Beyond the front page news splash was a blizzard of ads from retail giants promoting their end-of-year sales. All up over 20 pages of the edition were filled with Boxing Day sale ads from the likes of Woolworths, the Chemist Warehouse, Spotlight, Harvey Norman, the Good Guys and a smattering of other major retailers.

If all the ads in the Mercury’s Boxing Day edition were sold at full rate the News Corporation Australia masthead would have pulled in over $155,000 from ads alone. However, the Mercury would have received far less as major advertisers get discounted rates.

In its guide for advertisers the Mercury boasts “a large portion of Australian households don’t want unsolicited mail and have a ‘no junk mail’ sticker on their mailbox. By inserting your brochure or catalogue in the Mercury/Sunday Tasmanian, you get around the no-junk-mail sticker …”

In addition to the ads for the Boxing Day sales the paper reaped more income from advertising inserts from major retailers including Rivers, Myer, K & D Warehouse, BigW, Harvey Norman and home furnishings retailer Bed, Bath ‘N Table and others.

The $52 million retail splash hyped by the retail lobby groups and embraced by the Mercury didn’t eventuate. The following day the masthead reported estimated sales on the day of $40 million, almost one-quarter lower than touted the day before.

If the retailers were disappointed they didn’t say, with Myer’s store manager, Peter Monachetti, telling the Mercury they had a “great day.”

The blurry line between news and advertising

While the retailers expressed satisfaction with the yield from the Boxing Day sales, the prominent coverage raises questions about the increasingly blurry boundary line between the interests of advertisers and readers.

In its marketing pitch to potential advertisers the Mercury states “regional newspapers provide a level of trust that no other media can match, which carries over to trust in the advertising.”

However, the corollary is that ‘before-the-event’ news which appears to be little more than a repackaged pitch for advertisers is likely to diminish trust in the newspaper at the very time it needs it most for its financial survival.

Even without a front-page news splash readers of the Boxing Day edition of the Mercury couldn’t have failed to notice the annual sales were on – given over one-third of the newspaper’s pages were devoted to ads promoting them, not to mention the torrent of inserts.

Even if the Boxing Day sales warranted news coverage in advance of the actual event, the selection of it as single most important news story of the day stretches credibility even further. The $52 million figure was speculative at best with the rest of the article reading as little more than a sales pitch for the big retailers.

Assuming the front-page splash was not influenced by the impending torrent of Boxing Day sales advertising, it is still hardly a good look for a publication seeking to entice readers to take out a digital subscription in order to access to original Tasmanian news. (After the initial half-cost discount expires, the price of the digital-only subscription to the Mercury is over $360 a year with a digital plus home delivery package costing as much as $672 a year.)

The prominent coverage of a retail event also comes at a time of staffing cuts at the Mercury, including of some of its most experienced journalists.

The Mercury wasn’t alone giving advance coverage to the Boxing Day sales, with News Corporation Australia’s national masthead the Australian and even the ABC in Tasmania in Tasmania and elsewhere joining the fray too.

Out of all of the reporting effort what did we learn? Shops opened, customers went in, spent money and came out with items, just like most other days of the year. The only difference was that many items were cheaper and there were more people than normal.

In the world of corporate public relations and marketing a perennial challenge is in repackaging commercial events up to be sufficiently newsworthy in order to garner sales-boosting free media coverage.

If the coverage of the Boxing Day sales is anything to go by, PR is winning over journalism big time as narrow corporate financial self-interest is conflated with the public interest.

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Comment: Is Bigger Media really a good option for Tasmania’s democracy?

*Bob Burton is a Hobart-based Contributing Editor of Tasmanian Times. His earlier articles on Tasmanian Times are here.

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• Grant in Comments: How can anyone not love the retail and real estate puff pieces that appear regularly in the Mercury? I think they are fantastic and hope everyone went to the Boxing Day sales to keep the cash registers ringing. It’s all that matters surely?

• Paul Carter in Comments: This analysis is worthy but outdated. These erudite energies are best focussed elsewhere. Journalism long ago left the building. The Mercury before it disappears is on track to become a surburban freebie, a Hobart shopper, with 70% ad to 30% editorial content. Its editor rose to that level of journalism and its news editor isn’t a journalist. So I don’t think they share your concern about “journalism”. They are salarymen and women, content with their journalistic standard. They are not crusaders for your journalism. The business’s only lifeline, the digital paywall, is doomed to fail when so much better is available for free and core advertisers develop their own digital projection platforms for a completely digital savvy audience. For the Mercury, the band is still playing but there’s no more lifeboats. They are presently managing decline. So you are fighting a good fight. It’s just that the fight at this location finished long ago. The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.