the audit

"The Word Was Polo; The Man, Ralph Lauren"

Place those special sections, gleefully, in the recycle pile unread
July 26, 2010

One of the dirty little secrets of the newspaper business is that you should almost never bother to read a special section.

When I was at The Wall Street Journal, “tab stories” were a sort of joke. The only reason anybody did one of them was because you got paid extra for tossing one off (sadly, in 2002 you got $700 for one, and in 2007 you were still getting the same $700). Where in the rest of the paper we labored to cram as many facts as we could into each sentence, tab stories were flabby and bloated—you had 2,000 words to knock out at 35 cents a pop in your “spare time,” and you knew most folks internally wouldn’t bother to read it.

Tab stories exist to create comfortable environments for advertisers, especially those who don’t hawk much in the regular paper, and they’re filled with copy whose quality is, while not quite that of Demand Media, invariably below that of the rest of a paper.

The Financial Times has more special sections than any other paper I’ve seen, usually on some super niche like Abu Dhabi or “Vienna as a Financial Centre.” I typically toss them aside unread, but I had to read Saturday’s. It was on polo.

Seriously! A whole newspaper section on polo—aimed at the pink paper’s Davos Men readers, who love a sport where, as the FT‘s headline says: “To enter polo’s top ranks, just pay the fee.”

This one’s almost like a special section self-parody. They actually have a story headlined “Polo gives life to global fashion empire,” which exemplifies the kind of “no kidding” piece you’re going to read in a tab section (no journalist wants to blow a real story on such backwater real estate).

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Here’s the lede:

“He took a word that was simple, very easy to remember, worked in every language, and also happened to represent his fantasy. Then he made that meaningful to millions of people.” The word was polo; the man, Ralph Lauren.

Ralphie’s ad man might blush at that one, but this is a newspaper article, for Prince Charles’s sake.

Speaking of ad copy:

Luxury brands such as fine jewellers Cartier are swift to align themselves with the sport, enhancing its aspirational status.

“Ultimately, for luxury brands, it is polo’s clientele that is appealing,” says Arnaud Bamberger, managing director of Cartier, who has hosted the annual Cartier International Polo day for the past 18 years.

Cartier is the anchor advertiser for the section, natch.

While the section’s lead story talks about how the sport is pushing to go mass market (good luck with that!), one of the sidebars is about one of the hotspots of global polo, Barbados, which we’re told has “about 50 local players and the same number of visitors and resident professionals.”

But, fortunately for the Barbadians:

Lucy Taylor, a UK professional who spends four months a year on the island, says: “Barbados is becoming popular with pros and patrons. There is golf and nice beaches, and everyone speaks English.”

There’s a silver lining here: In an age of information overload, it’s a real pleasure to discard a whole section of a newspaper in the secure knowledge that there’s absolutely nothing in it that you need to know.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.