The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Marshall Field's Fiasco: How the Newspapers Are Beholden to Federated
Gail Heriot

(You won't believe how much mail I've been getting on account of Marshall Field's.  None of it seems to be coming through the RIght Coast though.  That's okay guys.  I forgive you ... so long as you forgive me for writing more on Marshall Field's.)

To understand why Federated might be sticking to its unpopular decision to make Marshall FIeld's part of the Macy's chain, there's one fact you need to know:  Department stores are the #1 advertiser for most newspapers, and they are extremely important advertisers on radio and tv too.  It's not smart to push your advertisers too far.

When Federated announced its decision to ax Marshall FIeld's, I thought that it would soon recognize its mistake and reverse itself.  (And yes, I'm still willing to bet six pints of my own blood that this is a mistake.)  So far, it hasn't happened.  And I think part of the reason is the media.  Usually when an issue like this comes along, someone in the media decides to adopt the issue as his or her own and pushes it until the message gets across.  Nobody has done so in this case.  (If Marshall Field's top management lived in Chicago, that might have been just as useful as media intervention, but Federated is in Cincinnati, and Marshall Field's itself has had its offices in Minneapolis for many years now.)

To be fair, the Chicago media has not been AWOL on the issue.  (If they had been, the pubic would have had Chicago's media moguls drawn and quartered.)  But relative to public sentiment, both Chicago newspapers (with the notable exception of Roger Ebert's column on September 22, 2005) have been low key.  And employees of both papers have complained to me of an atmosphere of pressure not to annoy Federated any further.

Recently, the problem has been brought home to me personally.  In the last several weeks, I've gotten involved in the efforts to save Marshall Field's.  In connection with those efforts, last week I telephoned both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times to place an advertisement urging Federated to retain the Marshall FIeld's name.  On both occasions, I got the same kind of embarrassed and candid response.  "Federated is a client of ours," one of the account representatives told me; they would have to get authorization from the powers that be and it didn't look good.

The Tribune, to its credit, called me back the next day to say the advertisement had been approved.  The Sun-Times is still wringing its hands.  I assume it will come around.  No Chicago paper is going to want to have the reputation for being complicit in Marshall Field's axing.  Too many Chicagoans love Field's.  I'm waiting patiently.

While I'm waiting I've been thinking about what it must be like to be Federated and have newspapers, radio and tv quaking in their boots for you.  I suspect it's usually a pleasant feeling, but in this case, it may be operating against Federated's interest.  The unhappiness that exists in Chicago has not been accurately brought home to Federated through the media.  Instead, unless I miss my guess, it will be brought home in September when the cash register doesn't ring.  Then it will be too late.

(By the way, the consumer polls Federated uses to justify its decision are pathetic.  And the independent poll taken by the University of St. Thomas' Institute for Retailing  Excellence provides strong evidence that Federated is about to take a beating.  Although the St. Paul has reported the IRE polls, to my knowledge, the Chicago papers have not.)

What will happen if the Sun-TImes refuses to run the ad?  Well, I guess I'll deal with that when and if it happens.  I'm certain that my solution will not be to remain silent.  On the one hand, I feel rather sorry for the Sun-Times.  Nobody like to be put in this position.  On the other hand, it is a newspaper and people expect a lot from newspapers.  I suppose that it could argue that even though it refuses to run ads that might offend its big clients like Federated, it wouldn't hesitate to offend Federated if its responsibility to report and analyze the news called for it.  But who would believe that?  It's a lot easier to tell Federated, "Sorry, but it's our policy to run all dignified advertisements that we receive from paying customers regardless of whether we agree with them," than it is to tell them, "Sorry, but our editors believe that you are in the wrong, and we felt obliged to say so in print." 

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