I’ve read the New York Times Dining Section for years. I’ve been attracted by the photography, design, and writing, and it’s still one of my favorite sections to read each week. I was thrilled when they renamed the section “Dining In/Dining Out,” and enjoyed the revitalized design and writing. I still talk with friends about some of the famous writers of that section, like R.W. Apple. I’ve stashed the Dining Sections for years, and occasionally I like to pull them out and check out the yellowing photos and stories.
I remember when the section was a minimum of 12 pages and chock full of both full page display advertisements and classifieds. But I’ve started to notice a shift. Late October in 2008, the New York Times quietly renamed the section back to the simpler “Dining” name. And gradually the section has become slimmer and slimmer–in the past few months the section has not exceeded eight pages.
One metric of a newspaper’s health is the ratio of advertisements to editorial content. An important aspect to consider is that the time of the year does matter–newspapers typically have fewer advertisements in the mid-summer. However, a healthy section will typically have almost a 50% split between advertising and editorial content. It is not uncommon for the size of any periodical to be controlled by the number of advertisements.
This week’s Dining section appeared to be an all time low for the number of advertisements. The back page of the section has two advertisements from New York Times properties: one from about.com and one from The New York Times Store. These advertisements are probably not revenue-producing. Inside, there was a single classified column-inch from Le Perigord, a classic French restaurant in New York City. I’ve seen this advertisement for at least five years; I’m a bit curious if it has run in the Times for the entire 45-years that Le Perigord has been open.
Inside the rest of the section was single column-inch display advertisement for California olive oil, and a two column by three inch advertisement for sommelier training in Umbria, Italy. And a couple of more house advertisements for the New York Times related ventures.
And that’s it.
To sum up, this week’s New York Times Dining section has eight pages, eight column inches of advertising, and a bit over a page of house ads.
I don’t know how long the Times will choose to continue this section with that amount of advertising. And this is not a one-time occurrence. I cannot remember the last time there was a paid advertisement on the back page of the Dining section. And the only time in the past few months that the Dining section has exceeded three full pages of advertisments was a few weeks ago. The “official marketing, tourism and partnership organization” of New York City, NYC & Co., ran a double-truck advertisement for New York Restaurant Week. (A double-truck advertisement is two full facing pages, typically on a single sheet of paper.) I don’t consider their advertising efforts a good barometer of a newspaper’s health.
I think a publisher should think long and hard about the financial viability of a section when the majority of advertising is from other branches of their company and government-sponsored entities. I enjoy the Dining section of the New York Times, but I can’t understand how it is working as a business venture. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Times uses the departure of Frank Bruni as the main critic as an impetus for reworking the section.
[I know I’ve written on this topic before, but I think it’s an interesting barometer of the health of a newspaper.]