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Bill writing – a dying art?

Newspaper bills used to be a staple of newspaper marketing and the hand writing of them was a rite of passage for young circulation execs. Roger Winfield says that, with the decline of home news delivery and with newspapers increasingly being purchased on impulse, the well crafted bill is as important today as when he first started in the business forty seven years ago.

By Roger Winfield

Publishers have tried to encourage the public to buy their newspapers for almost as long as papers have been published. Nowadays, it’s CDs and other costly gimmicks that seem to be in vogue for the nationals.

Maintaining, never mind increasing, sales is the challenge that faces the majority of publishers. But, what about selling papers based on content – where in the promotional mix does this idea play a part?

When I started my career in newspapers in the late 50s the first thing I had to do was learn how to write a contents bill. After the first few weeks, it became a challenge for me to perfect the spacing on bills so that they looked good and read easily. It was a sort of type justification process.

Tools of the trade

However, there was a long lasting impact from doing the job – you can always recognise an ex bill writer by the ‘callous’ on the middle finger and the permanently black patch on it from the spread of the black ‘radium shoe dye’ that was used as bill writing ink (it being waterproof). Special felt tipped pens – just sticks with a half inch wide piece of felt – were used as the writing tool. The trick was to wear down the tips to suit the slant of your own writing style so that you could achieve perfect reproduction. Having to use a new pen was hard work, so if a number of people did the job, you hid your pen at the end of each session!

In those days, though, sub editors knew how to write good contents bills! They were brief – four or five words maximum and they were written in a way that enticed purchase through the clever use of a cryptic message. Not giving the story away in the bill, yet ensuring that the wording was honest at the same time.

This, sadly, seems to be a craft in editorial that has vanished. So much so, that I developed a small training session for trainee subs going through the grounding to try and recapture that lost mystique that bills are meant to create. It’s not dishonesty, but simple advertising that is designed to stimulate curiosity in the mind of the bill reader, leading to purchase of the paper to satisfy that curiosity.

This does, of course, require a skill that doesn’t mislead people. What mustn’t happen is that the buyer feels cheated because the bill didn’t portray the real content of the story!

False impressions

I can remember two bills that were written in all sincerity, but when read by a second person other than the originating sub, gave a totally different picture than the one intended. The first involved a player in a local football club who was injured half way through the season and was ruled unfit for some time to come. The bill that promoted this story read: ‘Nobbs out for Christmas’. The other example involved a campaign by a police force to step up activity to protect females in an area plagued by sexual attacks on women, it read ‘Police pledge to rape victims’.

Both cases were quite genuine, but what if they had got out on display. At least one member of the public would have seen the funny side – but would it have been funny to everyone?

This is why my philosophy on the choice of bills is that it is editorial’s responsibility to provide the copy (libel and all that), but it is circulation’s job to decide what goes out and what doesn’t. Circulation should know what stories drive sale and what don’t.

Sheffield research

On the subject of driving sales, during my time at Sheffield Newspapers I was asked to find a way of measuring the importance of billing to daily demand. After many discussions, we asked the psychology department at Sheffield University to help us formulate a way of measuring the impact. They eventually designed a controlled test involving the street vendors who were placed in strategic locations around the city centre.

The test involved dividing the vendors into three groups, each group being geographically well isolated from each other. Group one had normal hand written bills displayed on their boards. Group two had a feature bill, such as ‘Fred Smith writes every Tuesday on golf’. Group three had brand enforcement type bills like ‘All your local news every night’. These groups ran for six months with one bill type, before rotating to another type. In other words, six months of content followed by six months of feature, followed by six months of branding.

Daily sales were measured for each vendor over the eighteen months and then analysed. Results showed conclusively that live news bills delivered at least a 1% improvement in sales over the feature bill and 4% better than the brand enhancement bill. In hindsight, it might have been interesting to run a group with no bills at all. Does this still apply today?

Certainly with the trend in newspaper purchase becoming more a daily decision as the levels of home delivery diminish, the same results would be a compelling argument for continuing with the process where it exists and starting to apply it where it doesn’t! Which publisher would say no to a 1% lift these days!

STS, the Leeds based supplier of A2 copiers for bill production, has just commissioned a research programme to test the value of bill production in the north east. I certainly look forward to seeing the results!

One thing that hasn’t changed over time is the reaction of editors and their staff to not seeing bills displayed outside shops and at vending sites. They still find it irksome and react emotionally to lack of display. It all suggests that they think the ongoing production of these things is important!

The issue of importance is, of course, in question for some publishers when they see the cost of the operation. Typically, bills have to be pre-printed onto A2 coated paper. The writing skill has largely vanished, so most publishers use A2 copiers to produce bills from an A4 master. These, in turn, are used on the copiers by enlarging to 150% or so. No doubt some small publishers still have their bills hand written, but the only large one that I know about is the London Evening Standard.

Does someone at the Standard know their value as sales drivers and make a deliberate policy to have their bills appear to be hand written? The ‘master copy’ is probably hand written and then used as the original on A2 copiers. Whatever, they have, in my view, retained the one thing that most publishers have sacrificed in the quest for clear presentation – the urgency that hand writing portrays. Does this make a difference in the minds of the buying public? Did it contribute to the 1% benefit all those years ago in Sheffield? I don’t know, but my old gut tells me it will have played some part!

The future

So, what of the future? Well, I see many advertising campaigns from well known organisations using bill boards in their ads – British Gas – for instance.

They obviously think that this approach generates interest. GMTV offer a text service to your mobile phone with their headlines from the news. This service is also used by some newspapers. Not hand written bills, but a variation with the same intent – entice people to use the full service of the medium.

Most news retailers, particularly the traditional CTN, like contents bills displayed outside their shops because they drive people into the shops. Without bills, they have to rely on the people who go in anyway seeing a headline that attracts them. This, of course, can only be the front or back page headline, missing all the inside content where numerous items of interest will be found.

Will the nationals, who abandoned billing many years ago, re-introduce it when the CD craze has run its course? I doubt it because they negotiated them out of their contracts with wholesalers in order to get the discount levels down in the name of improved revenue. Most regional publishers are very good at contents billing and I suspect the majority of them do use bills as a daily part of their operation. In my view, it is essential that they continue to do so, if only to demonstrate to their other vital customers – advertisers – that they also believe in advertising!

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!