Media : Turkish Newspaper War Goes by the Book--Millions of Them : Frantic media titans offer everything from encyclopedias to chocolate pudding to woo readers.


What’s in a newspaper? Should it be news and views--or packets of dried soup, toothpaste and boxes of detergent? Or even better, perhaps, a 24-volume encyclopedia?

All those promotional gifts are being offered as part of a circulation war that has gotten so far out of hand that one reader-hungry newspaper was simultaneously giving away not one but two full encyclopedias as well as gifts of beef cubes and chocolate pudding.

The Turks seem to love it, often buying all three major Istanbul newspapers every day in order to clip the coupons needed to get the four sets of encyclopedias now on offer. Circulation, doggedly low for years, shot up in a single month from a total of 3 million to 5 million.

But Turkey’s traditional newspaper mix of news, opinion, ads, blood, violence and scantily clad women is groaning under the strain of the war between the three titans of the Istanbul media. The cost is staggering as jumbo jets have to be chartered to fly in shipments of encyclopedias printed in Europe.


“I’m exhausted. I have to spend half my time now wondering what promotion to put on next,” said Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor of Hurriyet, at one low moment. His latest scheme: free accident insurance for every reader who can collect another set of coupons each month.

The pressure is beginning to tell. Hurriyet splashed an editorial across its pages accusing rival Sabah of lying and of giving away worthless jewelry and also cars repainted after being wrecked. Its rival’s encyclopedias were printed on low-grade newsprint, Hurriyet charged.

The newspaper asserted that only it “was in the business to inform the Turkish population with the best analysis and photographs . . . not just for commercial gain and circulation like Sabah newspaper.”

Sabah Editor Zafer Mutlu was equally blunt about his vision of the media in this brawny Muslim country of 57 million people. “Sabah is here to make money, not to enlighten the Turkish people,” he told a newsmagazine.

Sabah is a brash newcomer that since 1985 has shaken up the staid Turkish media scene, building a splendid new plant, hiring some of the country’s best journalists, planning a television channel and most recently launching the latest and financially riskiest campaign: the war of the encyclopedias.

Sabah said its version of the French Larousse encyclopedia was “the real thing.” Another competitor, Milliyet, cleared its whole front page, printed it red and trumpeted its offer of a newer and bigger Larousse with a single headline “The Cultural Event of the Century.” And Hurriyet, offering a translation of the Children’s Britannica, declared to all willing to listen: “If it’s not Britannica, it’s not even an encyclopedia.”

The battle is still not over, but editors say the war has made them lackeys of marketing men who have covered city streets with posters and strings of plastic banners reminiscent of a national election campaign.

Truces and cease-fires between the newspapers’ promotions have been made and broken. Even respected columnists have weighed in with kudos for their newspaper’s promotion and slurs against their rivals’. Ministers and even the president have been roped in to write letters of support.

“Sometimes I found Britannica, sometimes it found me. But we always met. We fed each other, we completed each other, we loved each other,” eulogized one senior and respected columnist, who would probably now prefer to remain anonymous. “Britannica is a work that brings information down from Mount Olympus to mankind.”

At the present midway point in the race, Milliyet has come up from last place to go into the lead, selling 1.2 million copies against a slightly lesser number for Sabah and 940,000 for Hurriyet.

Printers are enjoying an astonishing boom. To fill huge orders for millions of bound books, managers have been searching for spare capacity all over Europe. “We got one fax back from Spain asking if we hadn’t made a mistake with the number of noughts on the end” of their order, Ozkok said.

To cope with the sudden doubling in press runs, newspapers are having to close their news pages earlier. The financial cost--estimated by one newspaper alone at $36 million--could not come at a worse time.

Sabah and Hurriyet have just moved into state-of-the-art new buildings with all-color printing presses. Both are also investing heavily in television so that no other media empires can steal a march on them. At the same time, domestic interest rates are around 100%, and due to an economic recession, advertising by Turkey’s dominant state enterprises is curtailed.

Circulation gains due to the encyclopedia war have brought slightly higher revenue to Milliyet but little change for other papers, according to media specialists at the Istanbul office of Pars McCann Erickson advertising agency. That was even after Sabah hit a Turkish record one-day sale of 2.5 million copies when it offered a box of washing powder.

Some believe the whole adventure could end badly. “This is an expensive thing they are giving. It’s very costly, and people really like encyclopedias,” said Pars McCann’s Yavuz Ozcelik. “I am worried that it’s not a matter of increasing the total circulation of dailies but rather of killing the others off.”

Although the newspapers have great power over the Turkish elite, they also run the danger of losing their reputations as they begin to look more and more like lottery tickets. That was certainly the judgment of one Turkish shopkeeper watching the long queue of people picking up encyclopedias at a special booth set up outside Milliyet’s offices in downtown Istanbul.

“These newspapers are all card-cheating liars. They waste all their money on these promotions,” said the young carpet salesman. “But I suppose there is a chance that if everybody reads all these encyclopedias, we’ll become a more cultured country and the newspapers will have to improve.”

Some commentators have seen green shoots of a new competition among the press to anchor readers won during the encyclopedia war with that rare commodity in Turkey--accurate information. But others remain to be convinced.

Sober, left-wing Cumhuriyet, staying above the promotion fray, carefully pointed out that it had produced Turkey’s first encyclopedia in the 1930s. And it published the kind of doom-laden editorial on its front page usually seen only in times of national crisis.

“Attacking each other in this storm of encyclopedias could turn into a weapon against themselves,” it said of its competitors. “How is the public to trust the press now? Have news and thought really been pushed right to the back? Have writers no more value? Should a newspaper not be a newspaper first of all?”