FutureTool: Not on a Tear: Electronic Tear Sheets

For as long as there have been newspapers, tear sheets have been used to confirm to advertisers that their ads have run. It’s a laborious and costly process that involves everything from the manpower needed to physically send the tear sheets to increasing the press run just to supply them.

But now there are electronic tear sheets, which send the sheets online electronically so they can be verified digitally. Based on the market penetration of electronic tear sheets, you’d think they were brand-new, but in fact the concept is a few years old. John Kimball, a senior vice president at the Newspaper Association of America, estimates that only 15 to 20 papers are using them, which suggests problems with the technology and with replacing a tried-but-true system.

One problem is that the two basic electronic tear sheet technologies are completely different. Ad Looks, based in Rocklin, Calif., scans newspapers on its website and lets clients access them with a password. Los Angeles–based Shoom captures files from the newspaper pagination process and stores them online in a portable document format, or PDF.

While the technologies, methods of search, and amounts of accessible content differ, both companies provide advertisers with confirmation within a day after their ads have run rather than having them wait for snail-mail tear sheets to show up. Advertisers can look up their ads, see them in full color, and confirm a variety of data, such as account name, run date, section, page, and ad size.

The service is free to advertisers. Newspapers are charged by the amount that they scan.

It’s not that there is no interest from newspapers, but neither technology has caught on, and some newspapers are developing their own systems. According to Bob Dagostino, digital advertising manager at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, both The Newark Star-Ledger and The Dallas Morning News are building out their own electronic tear sheet technologies. And the Associated Press is in the process of developing a super search system that could potentially be used universally. But the fact remains that only a handful of newspapers are using electronic tear sheets, despite compelling evidence that using them would be a major cost-saver for a cash-strapped industry. And there are other advantages: because clients don’t have to wait days or weeks to get the tear sheets, the billing process is expedited. "We did an ROI and the cost savings is amazing," says Dagostino, who started using the Shoom system last fall.

It’s the advertisers who may be the reason newspapers are wary, thus forcing the industry to stick with an outdated process. Dagostino has had some success changing people’s minds, with 94 advertisers converted and another 130 in the process of switching, but other papers have reported difficulty in weaning advertisers away from the old system because they are used to physical tear sheets and are wary of the electronic version.

Those who are sold on it, however, like Dagostino, are even looking to the next step, which involves combining electronic tear sheets with bills in a digital billing system that would be used uniformly across the newspaper industry. But based on recent history, it looks as though that’s quite a ways off.

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