Starting in October, USA Today will carry small ads at the bottom of page one. Will other papers follow its lead?
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
USA TODAY, THE NEWSPAPER with a reputation for setting trends and ignoring conventional wisdom, is at it again.
On October 1, the paper that popularized extravagant page-one color, informational graphics and stories that don't jump will begin running advertising along the bottom of its front page.
And while the practice largely vanished years ago in the United States as front pages became symbols of respect for readers, don't be surprised if the erstwhile McPaper soon has plenty of company.
The nation's largest daily circulation newspaper insists it is advertising, and not its soul, it is selling. It plans to employ its color bar, the 7/8-by-13-inch strip along the bottom of the front page, to carry advertising for Marriott International, AT&T, Northwest Airlines and two other companies that have asked to remain unnamed until their ads start running. The companies are paying between $1 million and $1.2 million each for a year's worth of once-a-week spots. Other companies are on a waiting list, to be considered when the initial run is over.
Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, predicts a dozen significant newspapers will jump on the bandwagon within 18 months of the ads' debut. He won't rule out the notion that the American-Statesman will be among them.
"Some of those who are sneering about it now will end up adopting this," Oppel says. "Any editor in this country has got to be thinking about how we can ethically expand our own resources. Obviously, we are not going to whore our good names, but we have to keep an open mind."
Detroit Free Press Executive Editor Robert McGruder agrees that other newspapers are almost certain to follow USA Today's lead. "The $5.2 million they expect to earn in the first year frames the discussion in a stark way," he says. "It writes it in big letters."
Not that he intends to go in that direction. "Most newspaper editors have things they will not surrender, and I'd like to think that the front page is one of those things," McGruder says. "I don't want it to happen. I don't think it's a good idea for my newspaper. But editors also know advertising runs the show. They may not like it, but they know it."
John Morton, a prominent newspaper analyst, isn't so sure the bandwagon will be all that crowded. He says USA Today's approach to advertising is more like that of a national magazine than a regional newspaper. Not only will most newspapers never see the kind of ad rates 2 million-plus circulation USA Today commands for the color bar ads, but most papers are simply too conservative to risk offense, in his view. "I just don't see too many other newspapers following this trend," says Morton, an AJR columnist.
While A1 has long been the exclusive province of news, the USA Today announcement in May elicited a muted response. One reason is that the paid ads will drop into a space occupied for years by promo ads for the newspaper.
Front pages free of advertising are distinctively American. Newspaper readers in Europe, South America and Canada, for example, expect to see advertising on their front pages, says David Gray, executive director of the Society for News Design.
In the Free Press newsroom, the USA Today announcement received a hostile reception "among reporters, who might have thought the end was near," McGruder says. Among editors in Detroit, as with many editors across the country, there was a collective shrug, he says.
In a May 13 piece for the online magazine Salon, media columnist James Poniewozik wrote that critics should be far more concerned about more insidious trends, like the collective hysteria that drove American newspapers to run a week of promotional "news" prior to the release of the latest "Star Wars" movie.
"USA Today's decision is actually conservative and admirable, and not because running ads on a newspaper's front page was common in the 19th century," Poniewozik wrote. "The reason is that it is a blatant and obvious way of grubbing for money.... And media outlets need more cheesy, crass--that is, easily recognizable--means of supporting themselves, not fewer."
Editors will have to decide whether their readers can discern the difference between editorial and advertising messages, says Oppel, ASNE's vice president. As a very young boy growing up in St. Petersburg, he remembers the AAMCO Transmissions ad in the ear of the front page of the Times. He recognized it for what it was.
"This is a reader issue and a credibility issue," he says. "I don't think this is a religious issue."
THROUGHOUT THE 19TH CENTURY, advertising shared and often dominated America's front pages, according to James L. Baughman, an authority on journalism history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Often, he says, front pages were advertising sheets, with the news tucked inside.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circulation wars as waged by the likes of William Randolph Hearst tarnished the image of the entire industry, Baughman says. To help control the damage, progressive editors crusaded to have their publishers banish ads to the inside pages.
The mythical significance of the all-news page one grew as journalism rose from an unseemly trade to a profession, Gray says. "I suppose getting rid of the ads was a reaction to the penny press and yellow journalism. At the turn of the century, it was worse for a woman to go into the newspaper business than it was to go into prostitution."
The economics of the Depression hastened the disappearance of front-page ads, although they hung on quite a bit longer in some markets.
In Boston, for example, advertising was still prominent on page one during the newspaper wars of the 1950s, according to William Taylor, chairman emeritus of the Boston Globe. The Boston Post, the working-class newspaper whose circulation of 450,000 made it the biggest paper in the city in the 1920s, went down in 1956, still running ads along the bottom third of its front page, Taylor recalls. The tabloid Boston Herald-American found space for ads around its lurid headlines.
As for Taylor's paper, the Globe regularly ran a big, blue ad for Haffenreffer beer across the bottom of the front page of the evening edition. "It didn't make for a classic look for the paper," Taylor notes.
Editor Thomas Winship helped persuade the Taylor family to forgo front-page ads in the 1960s as part of his effort to create a world-class newspaper, not because of any public clamor, Taylor says.
A more symbolic turning point than USA Today's page-one ads came years ago, when major newspapers, including the New York Times, began selling space on their op-ed pages, contends Leo Bogart, a Presstime columnist and former director of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. "The op-ed page is a newspaper's conscience, its soul, its sense of public mission," Bogart says. "When you are selling an eighth of your total spread to a private company, it seems much more an invasion of the sacrosanct than selling an ad in a strip at the bottom of a front page."
Readers of the New York Times are also treated to what Times advertising people call "reader notices," a curious survivor of an era when front-page ads were common. No one at the paper is quite sure why they continue to run, Assistant Managing Editor Allan M. Siegal says. On the rare occasion when an editor raises the question, the advertising department simply chooses not to volunteer an explanation, he adds. "They've been around as long as I can remember, and I can remember a long time," Siegal says. "I doubt that they were ever not there."
For $440 a line on weekdays and $570 on Sundays, anyone can buy a reader notice of no less than two and no more than six lines. The ads, at the bottom of the page and always in agate type, must pass the muster of the independent department of advertising acceptability, Siegal says. Even then, Siegal can veto an ad and reserves the right to limit to five the number of ads that can appear on any given day. Cemetery notices will not run under a column of text describing murders. Cremation services will not find placement beneath accounts of fires, he says.
"Honestly, every editor would like to see no ads on their front pages," Siegal says. "But when you look at all of those many, many agreements we make every day to put out a newspaper, there are so many other priorities. The reader notices are a very, very low priority."
THE LOW-KEY RESPONSE TO USA Today's ad initiative concerns Aly Colón, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Isolated, the move can be seen as another freewheeling act by a daring paper, or the harbinger of a major trend, Colón says.
"In an environment where the predominant view is that of making money, with the mixing and matching of news and ads, of advertorials and infomercials, this small change could portend an even greater emphasis on the business element of newspapers," Colón says.
Journalism ethicist Ralph D. Barney, founder of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, says USA Today is blurring the once crisp color bar that separates the editorial and business sides. Only with great effort were editors able to convince their publishers the front page should symbolize selfless service to readers, says Barney, a professor emeritus at Brigham Young University. "I don't think it's too far off to say that with these ads, USA Today is contending that information is information, and it doesn't make much difference whether it's news or ads."
That sort of distinction can only be drawn by a newspaper confident that its readers can tell the two apart and are not offended by being asked to try, Barney says. The thinking, he adds, is not unlike that of the designers of Web pages, where banner ads appear on home pages.
It is not at all clear how some audiences will react to the intrusion on a space that U.S. newspapers, in a collective act of altruism uncommon in business and in international newsgathering, have preserved exclusively for news, Barney says.
"In that sense, you could say what they are doing is morally deplorable," Barney says. "Newspapers in general have not covered themselves in glory scraping and groveling for every dollar. I think a lot of editors will give pause if they were able to name their own price for an ad on the front page."
Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman program for journalists at Harvard University, has similar concerns. Kovach told the Washington Post he would lament any movement to auction news space to the highest advertising bidder. "You have to reserve some space, it seems to me, simply for the people who are buying the news because they paid 50 cents for the newspaper," he said after USA Today's announcement.
N. Christian Anderson III, publisher and CEO of the Orange County Register, says his paper intends to keep its front page reserved for news in spite of the attraction of added revenue. The decision will be weighed carefully by publishers market by market to see if the promise is worth the risk of alienating readers, he says.
"For a USA Today reader, these ads won't be a big deal," says Anderson, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "They might even expect to see them. They also see big dollar signs." But, he adds, "We think we know what our readers want. I don't think they want ads on the front page."
FOR ADVERTISERS, THE IDEA of sending a message to consumers via the front page of America's most colorful national daily has powerful allure. In recent years, some of the paper's biggest advertisers signed letters of intent asking to be approached if and when USA Today offered front-page space, says Carolyn Vesper, the paper's associate publisher and senior vice president for advertising. Few rejected the opportunity when it arose, in spite of the unusual size of the space, the length of the commitment and the cost.
Newsroom resistance was lessened considerably by the fact that no editorial space was being usurped. When the paper introduced its four-color process, it began running a color bar along the bottom of the front page as a sort of litmus test for color reproduction, Vesper says. In time, the paper began using the thin strip for promos. Most recently, it has been the ad strip for the newspaper's Web site.
Northwest Airlines secured Mondays, AT&T Tuesdays, Marriott Wednesdays and a mystery company Thursdays at $1 million each for one year, Vesper says. A fifth company landed Fridays, when the paper has its largest circulation of the week, for $1.2 million for a year.
"I can't see how it wouldn't be good for everyone involved," Vesper says. "We aren't taking away one inch of content. There won't be a ripple among USA Today readers. When everyone [in the newsroom] was concerned about section ads above the fold, we got one phone call. This is more a concern for journalism professors than readers."
For a hotelier, nothing could be better than to have its ad among the first things seen on the newspaper delivered to more hotel room doors than any other publication in the country--and on one of the two busiest days of the week for the lodging business, says Ralph Giannola, vice president of advertising for Marriott International.
Its ads are likely to be simple logos for the Marriott family of hotels, reinforcing your good taste for having stayed at a Marriott or suggesting your error if you did not, he says. The space will also be an invaluable teaser for larger advertisements inside the paper, he adds.
"The biggest challenge for any advertiser is being seen, and there are very few places left in a newspaper with stopping power," Giannola says. "The front page gives you stopping power. It's a clever idea I'm sure some other people wish they had thought of first. A lot of newspapers will be jumping on the bandwagon."
USA Today Editor Karen Jurgensen plays down the watershed aspects of the new initiative. "I don't see this as particularly symbolic of anything," she says. "USA Today has always followed its own lead, anyway. We believe in investing in content, and if this makes newspapers healthier at a time when everyone is struggling to get and keep readers, then it is something that cannot be ignored. I wouldn't be at all surprised if others adopted it."
In 1993, the paper witnessed a tumultuous internal battle when it added advertising to its section front ears. This time, when the management committee developed the plan for front-page advertising, there was little debate at the paper--not that it would have changed the decision, Jurgensen says.
UNLIKE USA TODAY, THE Oakland Press, an 85,000-circulation daily in the suburban Detroit community of Pontiac, issued no press release when it began running ads on its front page more than a year ago. The Macomb Daily, its 59,000-circulation sister paper in Mount Clemens, Michigan, also runs such ads. The idea came from Bob Hively, the paper's president and publisher. Hively had previously worked at the Connecticut Post, which also runs ads out front. ###
Press Executive Editor Garry Gilbert admits he had some reservations. He discussed the issue at regular meetings with editors and reporters, using the advertising on the ears of USA Today section fronts to show how front-page ads could work.
"There were some who felt it would cheapen and dilute the product," Gilbert says. "There are the purists and the traditionalists. They are a minor part, but a loud part, of the staff. We discussed it intensively."
The result was a 2-by-6-inch box at the center of the bottom of the front page. Gilbert secured editorial veto power over the ads, and some have been rejected. The ads must sell image rather than merchandise--no carrots at three bags for a dollar. Still, the snoring couple pictured in the ad for the Sleep Disorders Institute gives Gilbert pause.
"I'm not sure how I feel about having someone sleeping on my front page," the editor says. "This doesn't convey the image of a front page you want to read. We'd like to think we have a front page you want to read."
The paper charges 30 percent more than its usual rate for page-one ads, which are netting about $330,000 a year.
In spite of internal misgivings, not a single reader called to comment on the advertising, Gilbert says. The space commands not only the highest ad rates in the paper, but customers are waiting to take their turn to run ads once a week for 13 weeks at a time.
Gilbert saw the ads as a way of raising revenue for added editorial resources. "Part of my thought process in doing this was that if these ads allowed me to add a couple of reporters, I want to have that opportunity," he says. "We're in a very competitive market, with two Detroit dailies, five television stations and some very good weeklies. We need to consider ways of generating revenue." He hasn't hired any new reporters yet.
As it battles to flourish in that crowded market, the Detroit Free Press cannot afford to shrug off developments in the field like the emergence of A1 ads, Editor McGruder says. But in addition to selling ads in such prime real estate, he says, editors must also think about selling the entire newspaper.
"I happen to believe that news content is the very beginning of selling our newspaper. I can't afford to give any of that up," McGruder says. "I don't have enough space on my front page now, and I think a lot of other editors would tell you the same thing.
"Readers may not like the news I put on the front page. They may not think what I put on the front page is news," he adds. "But at least it's not a Kroger ad."