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Newspapers Find No Cheer In These Cheer Cards

Thursday, 28 Oct 2010 | 4:38 PM ET

It's 1:15 p.m. and two newspaper vendors are furiously wheeling their steel newspaper carts around the building crowds coming to nearby AT&T Park to see Game 1 of the World Series in San Francisco.

AP

You can feel their energy. They have something people want and they are ready to do business.

But if you listen and look closely, what they are selling is different what they are supposed to be selling.

Written on one cart in a computer typed message and taped to the back is "Cheer Cards, 25 cents."

Hundreds of cards, with the four different varieties grouped by rubber band, lie on the top of the cart — just as the newspaper provided to them. At the bottom, hundreds of copies of the San Jose Mercury News, lying motionless as if they weren't worth the dead trees they were printed with.

The cards, meant to be inserted into the papers and sold as a single item, never make it into the papers.

The thin cardboard with messages written on them such as "Fear The Beard" and "Go Giants" sit on the top. The newspapers stay down at the bottom.

You see, these vendors are only doing what good capitalists would do. They realize at some point that selling the paper's free giveaway as a single item and getting the same price that they get for the paper gives them a chance to boost their margins.

First, it allows them to sell the cards separately and market the cards to the crowds, instead of the papers, which the vendors have determined they crowd doesn't want.

Next, it allows them to occasionally sell a paper — still insisting the cards are a separate item — and get an additional 25 cents, even though one card and one paper are meant to be sold at that price.

And lastly, it allows them to sell all the cards they want "off the books." Why? Because most newspapers give credit to vendors who don't sell their day's papers. If the San Jose Mercury News counted cheer cards, these guys wouldn't be making free money. The problem is, I'm assuming the paper hasn't caught on to the trade and vendors are proving that they aren't selling a certain amount of papers (usually submitted by ripping off the paper's front page as evidence) even though they've technically sold a piece of each one.

Perhaps it was the location of where these vendors were selling — just a couple paces from AT&T Park- but this is what I'm seeing. Who wants to be burdened with carrying a big newspaper into the ballpark? (I was shocked by how many people wanted the cards to hold up. Is it as fun if you didn't make your own sign?)

But it also has to be an indictment on the state of the newspaper business. Papers aren't worth what they once were, so smart papers do things like The Mercury News did — do something creative that will get some attention. But even that couldn't sell papers.

I spoke to a couple people who thought, the way they were pitched, that the cheer cards and the papers were two separate items, even though the cheer cards had The Mercury News and its affiliate papers on the bottom. A vendor sold her "the complete set" of four for $1.00. She was never even offered a newspaper and the vendor just did something that almost never happens — he essentially sold four papers to one person.

Another man was surprised that the cheer cards were going for 25 cents. "I paid 75 cents for mine a couple days ago."

Little did they know that if they had been sold separately the paper likely wouldn't be making them. Including them as part of the paper is considered editorial. Selling them separately as collectibles would be subject to baseball's licensing agreements and would thus, cost more to produce.

I've only written for online sites, but I can only imagine if I were my college buddy Andy Baggarly, Giants beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News, who undoubtedly worked with his staff to put out an amazing product with the World Series spotlight on them. Only to get caught at the consumer level by dealers who marketed the signs, not the papers, as the valuable good.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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