USA Today of Two Minds on Back-to-School Shopping

By Mark Walsh — July 21, 2014 2 min read
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It’s back-to-school season already for retailers, with stores crammed with aisle after aisle of pencils, pens, notebooks, glue, and other school supplies.

A USA Today Money section story last week, though, raised some doubts about conventional wisdom. “Back-to-school shopping sprees are a thing of the past,” the headline reads.

While families are expected to spend an average of $670 on back-to-school shopping, up 5 percent (based on data from the National Retail Federation), the story says “analysts and parents say the slow economic recovery, plus access to near-constant online deals, means back-to-school shopping is no longer a big event.”

The story by Kaitlyn Krasselt is an understandable effort to give a perennial story a fresh angle. But USA Today‘s Money section isn’t quite on the same page with the its Gannett Co. cousin, the USA Today Premium Publications division.

That is a magazine unit that publishes many one-time or semi-regular titles such as Guide to Kids’ Health, Super Bowl Preview, and One Direction. (For that last one, $5.99 will get you “the scoop” on the British boy band’s invasion of “the USA.” I’m surprised no other magazine publisher has thought of putting out such a product.)

One of the latest magazines from USA Today Premium Publications is Back to School, a 96-page “special K-12 issue.”

The overall tone of the $5.99 magazine is not one that celebrates the idea that back-to-school shopping sprees are a thing of the past, as the newspaper’s Money story reported.

“Gear Guide: 53 Top Picks for clothes, shoes, school essentials,” the cover reads about a five-page spread that promotes, er, back-to-school shopping. Among the advertisers in the magazine are Wal-Mart, Target, Elmer’s Glue, Thermos, Arctic Zone lunch containers, and—somewhat jarringly—Maximum Strength Zantac.

The magazine’s editorial material is light but fun, including a cover story on Mario Lopez, one of the stars of 1980s school sitcom “Saved by the Bell” and current host of the syndicated celebrity news show “Extra.” Lopez is now 40 years old and has two young children with his wife, Courtney.

The other main features are about “Artistic Play,” about youth creativity on digital devices, and “Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Talents,” about three wunderkinds in art, writing, and entrepreneurship. The rest is made up of shorter pieces on topics such as backpack safety, how to help children deal with “rotten classmates,” and how moms can text with their teens without being overbearing.

“Keep in mind that teens don’t like to be told what to do, whether through conversation or text, so consider omitting phrases like ‘you should,’ ‘always’ and ‘never,’” says the piece by veteran journalist—and mom—Lori Santos.

The USA Today Back to School magazine is meant to be displayed on newsstands until Sept. 6. By then, retailers should be setting up their Halloween aisles.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.