GREAT IDEAS

Return of the society section

Free milestone announcements are back in vogue at The State

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Not so long ago, a formal announcement in the local newspaper was called for when a couple became engaged, got married or celebrated a milestone anniversary, especially in the South. Society's debutantes also took their turns in those columns.

Newspapers, the original social medium, were expected to provide the space. Charging for the service simply wasn't done.

As print pages and revenue shrank and social media exploded, of course, these announcements dwindled. Newspapers began charging for them while brides and grooms shouted the good news on Facebook and Twitter.

The State in Columbia, S.C., however, has just gone old school. At the beginning of July, The State began printing free announcements of engagements, weddings, anniversaries and debutantes.

Publisher and President Sara Johnson Borton said she's not even sure how many years ago the paper started charging for them, but she did know it wasn't making much money off the few that remained each week. She also discovered that, at one time, The State ran six to eight pages of social announcements on Sundays.

"We realized that we were losing that aspect of storytelling in the market," Borton said. "We were wrestling with what we could do to make our local franchise stronger and give our audience something that no one else could give them. And that seemed to be the obvious thing."

Borton wrote a column introducing the free service, and a "very clever copy editor" talked her into publishing her own 32-year-old wedding photo to illustrate. "I got a lot of feedback on that," she said.

After just a few weeks, Borton's industry peers are curious. "I'm getting a lot of calls from people who are saying, 'Are you crazy?'"

Apparently not. She expected to run a full page to start.

"It ended up being a couple of pages, because we're getting phenomenal response," Borton said. "Readers love it. Everyone wants to know 'What's the catch?' There is really no catch. It's just something we feel like we need to do to document the history of the community."

And this development will warm the heart of any publisher: "We've already had people who have come in buying 50 Sunday papers because their child was in it or their grandchild."

These days, all photos can be in color. The service is cross-promoted on social media and with The State's Carolina Brides magazine. Borton said that so far more young people are taking advantage of the free announcements than the anniversary crowd.

She's realized that some boundaries will have to be established because of its popularity, especially after she found a first anniversary celebration over the weekend. Borton also hopes to re-establish baby announcements in The State and to expand free social announcements to two other papers she oversees, The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in Hilton Head.

"If we can get a sponsor for that page, which we think we have nailed down, and we sell more papers, and we get more readership as a result, then I think we've succeeded in what we were trying to do."

For more information, contact Sara Johnson Borton at sborton@thestate.com.


Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association's eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at jbnicholes@att.net. Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

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