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Play Publicity

( Originally Published 1916 )



As so much theatrical publicity is contrived for news-paper publication, it is pertinent to inquire into organization of a newspaper; and this, although to many press agent and editorial minds, news of the theater belongs in the dramatic department. If a bomb placed before the Belasco Theater, sent it to ruins with a capacity audience inside, some staid daily would probably report it under the general heading of Drama.

But there are other departments on a newspaper beside the dramatic, calculated to interest certain, if not all, classes of readers; and while the duties of the editor of each are well defined, department boundaries are not generally so rigid as to give the publication a cut-and-dried appearance. It is as vital to the prosperity of the sheet legitimately to awaken the sporting reader's interest in drama, or the fashion reader's interest in politics, as it is for theatrical managers to seek audiences among others than newspaper readers. The real appeal is to the great general public; and departments are maintained so there will be something for everybody, and that something easily found.

Still, while many editors on the newspaper staff may not be disposed to consider theatrical matter, items and articles designed for them will generally remain acceptable to the dramatic editor, lending to his page a necessary variety.

The salaried staff of a metropolitan morning or afternoon paper commonly consists of the managing editor, who is the executive head; assistant editor, associate editor, night editor, political editor, telegraph editor, exchange editor, literary or book editor, humorous editor, music editor, dramatic editor, photoplay editor, agricultural editor, Sunday editor, art editor, financial editor, sporting editor, automobile editor, women's page editor, copy editor, or rewrite editor, make-up editor, state editor, city editor, assistant city editor, night city editor, society editor, court reporter, one or two police reporters, dramatic reporter, railroad reporter, real estate reporter, several general assignment reporters, staff correspondents, and special correspondents.

Routine general news assignments that are scheduled to occur at a certain time and place, such as fashionable receptions or weddings, are listed in a day book; and when the time arrives, reporters are sent to " cover " them. Only department or " star " reporters are left to their own initiative in scouting for news, and most of these work on " space," or usually from two to eight dollars per column, depending upon the importance of the " sheet."

Most of the titles given are self-explanatory. The telegraph editor receives and determines the value of news sent over the wire; the exchange editor reads and clips copies of newspapers sent in exchange and distributes the clippings to the various departments likely to be interested; the agricultural editor specializes in news likely to appeal to farmers; the copy editor prepares news brought for publication, and rewrites news matter clipped from exchanges, and the make-up editor arranges the matter on the page.

Not much may be done by the press agent with the city and general news departments, because the theater is not of vital interest after all. Yet press agents do break into news columns from time to time, but their matter then usually is theatrical only in an incidental way, the press agent appeal riding through on the strength of something more universal. In fact, they begin with the universal note and " hook up " the sales point after.

"NEWs"

News is first-hand information that will excite interest. The more interest it will excite, the greater its value as news. Accuracy, unfortunately, is a secondary consideration to the reader; the more sensational it is, the greater the interest. News values are estimated less by facts than by relation of facts to something already known to the readers. However, to prevent " come-backs," the editor generally investigates his news as far as possible before permitting it to be set up in type. If a rumor sounds likely, even though denied, he will print it together with the denial, so no other paper may " scoop " him with the news if it really does " break."

Even news may not be acceptable at times, if popular interest is concentrated upon some greater issue that occupies all available newspaper space. So the press agent must calculate his time carefully, although he may " ride in " by employing an untouched or still interesting phase of the big news. Thus, the crowding out of theatrical matter in first rush of news about the great European war, brought in war stories by or involving theatrical personages. Angles of big news are about all the " P. A." may touch, for great national news services, like the Associated Press, cover the actual news in detail.

Monday papers usually have more available space be-cause Monday follows a day when most vital activities are suspended; and Monday papers in summer have less space than Monday papers in winter, because in summer people travel to beaches and parks, and news of accidents and " traffic stories " come in by dozens.

Editorial comment, opinions, and all matter not relevant to telling a story, are "blue-penciled " out of news. It must be written in simple language, without frills. If it is real news, the bare facts are all that are necessary; the editor will arrange it to suit the policy of his paper.

" PLANTING " STORIES

The time to send news, to quote instructions of a great New York daily to its correspondents, is " one day ahead of everybody else if possible." With press agent news, it rarely is ahead of everybody else, because the agent wants as many papers as possible to print it; therefore he releases his news to all papers simultaneously. Nine-fifteen P. M. is practically the last opportunity for minor news in a morning paper, although anything pressing may generally get in up to one A. M. For out-of-town papers at great distance, differences in longitude and time must be borne in mind and calculated carefully. Telegraph matter sent to editors in official capacities, is charged for at a low special press rate.

With important news stories, it is customary to inquire of the city " desks " whether or not they will prove avail-able if they are sent in. Good news should be sent immediately; so the agent usually waits with his until the last moment, to make it appear more pressing. For local papers, a 'phone message to the city editor tells him nature of news and about how many words the story will be. He rarely promises to use it, but requests that the story be sent for him to look over. It is sent usually by a district messenger. The scanning it receives depends upon dependability of the agent as a source of information; and if important, and time permits, a reporter is sent to investigate. In all events, if the story is used, those passages directly concerning the theater, will be printed as authorized by the management through its representative. For out-of-town papers a " bulletin " is sent, making the same inquiry as the 'phone call. In this case, if the editor replies to send the story, he is expected to pay toll charges for the resultant telegram; but the press agent is glad to pay at his end. .

There are times when journalists gain information that is apt to prove derogatory to an attraction if printed, such as a change in the cast, investigation of which uncovers managerial disagreements or merely a case of illness. It is not generally wise to make known changes in a cast, because theatergoers who have seen the original company and those who have seen the succeeding players, both are then inclined to feel that they have missed something worth while.

SUPPRESSING FACTS

Which brings up the matter of suppressing facts as well as exploiting them. If a star suddenly quits his management during the run of a play, the natural assumption is that there has been trouble between them, and, although this may be denied, undesirable publicity is almost certain to follow. The press agent suppresses news in much the same manner that the editor " breaks " a story by printing a rumor together with an official denial. He anticipates the reporters, and throws them off the scent. When Julius Steger left the employ of Charles Frohman as star of " The Laughing Husband," the news had barely sifted to Broadway when a brief, courteous account of the affair, with Steger vindicated of all blame and a simple reason for the move assigned, came from the diplomatic hand of John D. Williams, then the Frohman general manager.

SPECIAL STORIES

The energetic agent usually prepares at least five or six special stories per week, ranging from 300 to 1,500 words each. These are designed for magazine or feature sections of the paper, and are " placed " with the editor, wh0 promptly states whether or not the matter is available. They are provided not later than Thursday for the following Saturday and Sunday, and are not duplicated. These stories, of course, aim for a certain timeliness, but in them news value is not accentuated. They " get over " mainly through wealth of incident and more or less picturesque expression, and occasionally through unusual point of view.

In the special story, more than in any other direction, the " P. A." learns that there are more departments on a paper than the dramatic. Of every story sent out a copy is kept in well-regulated publicity departments; and it is rewritten or frankly duplicated later for the weekly letter service to out-of-town papers, for road use, and for that more or less distant time when the play goes into stock.

Many press agents supply newspapers with " cuts," which is to say, engravings, or perhaps with matrices—heavy paper impressions from which metal castings may be made after they have arrived at their destinations.

CO-OPERATIVE PUBLICITY

Any publicity in which the editor shapes and uses material provided by the agent is, of course, cooperative; but there are other phases, more frankly accomplished on a quid pro quo. basis. I mean serial novelizations of plays, made generally by some writer on the newspaper staff, publication rights ceded the paper in time for accruing publicity—text, pictures, and extensive advertising on news-stands, or news-delivery wagons.

Edward L. Bernays struck a newer field of co-operative press work in persuading large metropolitan department stores to incorporate pictures and items concerning the Serge de Diaghileff Ballet Russe, in their daily advertising.

ORGANIZING AUDIENCES

Direct organization of audiences instead of by suggestive publicity, results of which are almost impossible to check up, generally is accomplished by offering special rates to clubs, members of which are likely to have peculiar interest in the production, lawyers for a play like Galsworthy's " Justice; " physicians for " Maternity " and " Damaged Goods." Leander Richardson, who long was press representative to William A. Brady, has positive genius for such organization, and by virtue of his happy faculty, has liter-ally turned the tide of success in favor of many plays. His organization of clergymen for Lawrence Eyre's play, " The Things That Count," through its wholesomeness during a trend of sex plays, and for " Sinners," by Owen Davis, through another kind of moral quality, are matters of theatrical history. His successor, David H. Wallace, a man of splendid newspaper and theatrical training, makes his campaign chiefly one of printed publicity; and it would be difficult to deny its equal effectiveness.

Ben Atwell, one of the best-known and most capable press agents in America, when at the New York Hippodrome, realizing that the bulk of patronage comes from out of town, used to charter steamboats and bring patrons down from towns along the Hudson River on holiday excursions. The towns were well billed in advance, and he always had a crowd.

Self-organized audiences are discussed in coming pages.



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