For years, Turkish newspapers have fought for readers with lotteries offering flats, shops or trinkets. Turks in the street became jaded, even by the announcement of 100 cars given away in one go. Then came the encylopaedias, a full set offered to any reader who collects the relevant coupons for up to a year.
First off the mark was Sabah, announcing that its version of the French Larousse was 'the real thing'. Rival Milliyet retorted with an edition it said was 'the original real thing'. Then Hurriyet, offering the children's Britannica in Turkish, cleared its front page to declare: 'If it's not Britannica, it's not even an encyclopaedia.'
Slugging it out in the name of public access to knowledge, the newspapers seem blissfully unaware that their battle will cripple yet further the tattered remains of a quality press in Turkey. Huge sums are pouring into campaigns glorifying encyclopaedias. Strings of plastic banners lauding the Britannica decorate the crowded streets of Istanbul as if it were election time. The Prime Minister has appeared on television on behalf of at least two rival papers.
Circulation gains have been extraordinary. Sabah claimed to have doubled sales to 1.5 million copies on the day of its first cut- out coupon. Hurriyet and Milliyet are expected to do the same.
The sober Cumhuriyet - while carefully pointing out that it produced Turkey's first encyclopaedia in the 1930s - published a doom-laden editorial on its front page, a step usually only taken in times of national crisis. 'How is the public to trust the press now?' it said. '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?'
Staff at Pars McCann Erickson advertising agency in Istanbul agreed. They remembered a newspaper that tripled its readership with offers of free Korans, but lost them all when it failed to deliver and was invaded by an angry mob.