AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2007

A Fading Taboo   

Paper by paper, advertising is making its way onto the nation’s front pages and section fronts.

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     

Sometimes they snake across the bottom of the page as relatively unobtrusive six-column strips. Sometimes they catch the eye more forcefully as right-corner boxes. And sometimes they scream for attention as in-your-face fluorescent stickers plastered across a newspaper's masthead.

Whatever the shape, size or hue, the long-unfashionable page-one advertisement is gaining grudging acceptance from many editors, page designers and even reporters. As the industry struggles to identify innovative sources of revenue, newspapers not only are launching audacious online ventures (see "Rolling the Dice", and "Really Local," April/May) but also are dangling fresh enticements for advertisers in their old-fashioned print editions.

Page-one ads may net premium prices, but they're distasteful to many journalists who believe they violate the purity of page one and the sacred wall between news and business. From a design standpoint, they can detract from the flow and order of a page. They also eat up space that otherwise could be devoted to stories, particularly in an era of dwindling newsholes.

Among newspapers that recently have published page-one ads are the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Hartford Courant. Others, such as USA Today and many other Gannett papers, have published them for years (see "Out Front," July/August 1999). Still others--the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Minneapolis' Star Tribune, for example--are experimenting with ads on section fronts but so far have kept page one off-limits.

"I don't think anyone in journalism is happy about them, but personally, and here at the paper, we felt we should do it," says Robert J. Rosenthal, managing editor and vice president of the San Francisco Chronicle, which debuted front-page ads on April 18. He sees them as part of the evolution toward the multimedia newsroom, adding, "If the business model supports good journalism, then I'm in favor of it."

As ads creep onto front pages and section fronts, designers are working to minimize how distracting--and sometimes garish--they may appear. "I think that most people in the newsroom realize the [financial] environment we're working in," says Chris Clonts, assistant design director for news at the Star Tribune, which began running section-front ads early this year (so far none on page one). He thinks the ad department also realizes that changing ad placement "will require some hand-holding" for journalists.

Gene Patterson, former chairman of the Poynter Institute and former editor of the St. Petersburg Times, sees the page-one ad as a sign of painful economic times for newspapers. "I find the section-front ads to be acceptable; I find the page-one ads repugnant," he says. "But if they are done tastefully and held down in size, I think perhaps we have to accept them... We have to police it and monitor it and be guided by taste, but I don't think the advertisers want to ruin us. We are their vehicle, after all, and I think we can work with them to achieve compromises."

Others want to hold the line. Gene Roberts, a former managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says front-page ads are just another in a series of industry mistakes triggered by short-term thinking. "It's one more in this kind of death by a thousand cuts that the newspaper business seems to be administering to itself," says Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, which houses AJR. "In the long run, the big necessity is to get and maintain readers, and I think without question that front-page ads work against readership."

Roberts says newspapers didn't move away from front-page ads years ago because page one was a holy shrine. They did it because "the front page is what you have to lure readers into the rest of the paper."

What editors hear from their publishers, he says, is, "If you don't do this and you don't do that to keep the profit level up, we're going to have to cut you again." The editors translate that as, "'Well, if I fight front-page ads I might in effect be inviting a buyout or a layoff of my staff.'"

Page-one placement can spark visceral reactions not only from journalists but also from readers. Take the case in March of the fluorescent advertising stickers (for a motor oil company and a carpet-and-flooring company) pasted atop the front page of the Hartford Courant. Reader Representative Karen Hunter received several indignant comments on her blog. "That is disgusting to have advertising on the front page of my newspaper," wrote one woman. Said another: "This has got to stop." One reader took it further, accusing the Tribune Co., the Courant's parent, of "absolutely whoring for advertising... It screams, 'We're desperate!' It screams, 'Ethics be damned!'"

Hunter says the newsroom isn't crazy about the trend. She's heard complaints, but says her colleagues believe there isn't anything they can do to halt it. "I think they understand it..we're struggling like lots of other papers."

Not that front-page ads are all that new. But at most papers, they've been out of vogue for a while. Among the reasons the ads began to disappear: the advent of professional standards among journalists and heightened competition among publishers.

Kevin G. Barnhurst, a professor and head of the department of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that in 18th century newspapers "there was not a sharp distinction between ads and editorial matter." What's more, the blurring of news and ads didn't really disturb readers of that era. "People didn't say, 'Oh, here's advertising, here's editorial matter,' because it was all the stuff of news," Barnhurst says.

Nor did early American newspapers offer much in the way of page design. As ads and stories trickled in, they simply were dropped onto the page, starting with the first column. The newspapers generally were four pages; front and back were filled first. So the newest material went inside. "You didn't want the latest stuff on the back page or the front page--you wanted it on the inside where it wouldn't smear on people's clothes," Barnhurst says.

Michael Schudson, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, says that during that era, "page one and page four were almost entirely ads, and a lot of page three was ads." News started to appear on page one in the first half of the 19th century, "but it was still common at that point for there to be a lot of advertising on the front page."

That approach began to change later in the 19th century as newspapers became more competitive, according to Schudson and Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor and news historian at New York University. When major cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston each had several newspapers, and publishers relied heavily on street sales, they began splashing more news out front as a way to lure readers.

Then, around 1914, a confluence of events portended the fading popularity of the front-page ad. "The American newspaper was at its absolute height in penetration," and journalists "were feeling their most muscular and able to define themselves as a profession," Stephens says.

It was 1914 when Walter Williams--who six years earlier had founded the world's first journalism school at the University of Missouri--wrote "The Journalist's Creed." The American Society of Newspaper Editors was founded in 1922 and adopted a canon of ethics a year later; the Society of Professional Journalists approved its first ethics code in 1926.

"In the 1920s, there's a growing self-consciousness of journalists being in a profession and wanting to distinguish themselves as a profession," Schudson says. Journalists' efforts to codify their increasingly lofty ethical goals--about unbiased truth and "freedom from all obligations except fidelity to the public interest," as the ASNE canon states--distanced newspapers from their commercial origins.

None of this might have mattered so much to publishers, but it happened to coincide with another important development: Prospering financially, the publishers were shedding their partisan affiliations. They gambled that a less biased approach would elevate their standing in the community--and create an opportunity to profit from that standing. "So the commercial interest of publishers and owners converged with the professional aspirations of news workers," Barnhurst says, "and that's the moment, by the 1920s and 1930s, when what you would call the modern newspaper emerged, and that's when the model of page one emerged"--a model that did not include so many ads out front.

But today, with fewer newspapers to choose from, increasing competition from the Internet and decreasing reliance on street sales, the model is changing again. "Newspapers are in big, big trouble," Stephens says, "and I think if I were in a newsroom right now, I'd be more worried about whether I'm putting together an interesting read, a read that justifies the expense...and I'd worry less about the particular arrangement of the advertisers."

Barnhurst has a similar view. "There is a notion out there that somehow commerce is dirty--the sacred is what the journalist does and the profane is what the advertiser does," he says. "In fact, this is a profound confusion." What gives a town life, he suggests, is its Main Street businesses, which need to be "rubbing shoulders" with the commercial activity of the local newspaper.

ASNE Executive Director Scott Bosley says that while his organization has no official position on front-page ads, "it's not earth-shattering new ground in my view..it's a change, obviously, for people in this era." He recalls that when he was editor of the Journal of Commerce from 1991 to 1995, "we had a quarter-page ad on page one forever." (The Journal is available now in electronic format only.) The ad, Bosley notes, "was not the favorite thing of layout people or even of me, because sometimes it seemed intrusive."

Bosley believes most editors have arrived at the decision to accept page-one ads in consultation with their publishers, as opposed to being ordered to run them. He also thinks editors understand there's a bottom line that must be reached, and they have to help figure out how to get there. "I think we've come to the point where a lot of newspapers have realized that there's not just revenue but enhanced revenue from selling those positions, and in the market we're in, we need revenue," Bosley says.

John Kimball, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for the Newspaper Association of America, believes the challenging economic climate for newsrooms necessitates more flexibility, but he strongly rejects the notion that the page-one ad is compelled by a sense of desperation. "That just really, really drives me nuts, because that is far from reality.... To think that we are somehow in this death spiral, I just don't understand that," he says. He can see why that view prevails in newsrooms that have endured repeated cuts and reduced circulation, "but that's not an industry that's fighting for its life – that's one that's going through transition."

The primary impetus for the page-one ad, Kimball says, is that advertisers are increasingly demanding "new and unique and different ways to creatively use the newspaper. I think not necessarily coincidental to that is the fact that newspapers are looking for options for new revenue streams."

Advertisers want "creative shapes, things you might not have seen 10 to 15 years ago, but are exciting and fresh," Kimball says. "What's that somebody said, 'Pain helps make you focus?' When business is great, it's easy to do things the way you've always done them; when it's not so great, you look for new opportunities."

Those options include the six-column strip across the bottom of a page; the "jewel box," a rectangular, two- or three-column ad; and the "stair steps" or "cascading stairs," an ad that steps up from the left to the right of a page. More controversial are the "watermark" or "shadow" ads that appear behind sports agate or stock tables, because such ads are not separated from news content.

Will page-one ads net more business for advertisers than those inside the paper, making it worth the additional cost for them? It's too soon to tell. "We do have clients who are interested in them," says Bob Shamberg, chairman and chief executive of Newspaper Services of America, a Chicago-based firm that places newspaper ads for more than 50 clients, including Sears Holdings, Home Depot and Rite Aid. "Over time, once an advertiser gets experience with it, then they'll decide what it's worth." But if they get the same response as an interior ad, "then obviously it doesn't merit a premium."

Newspaper executives are tight-lipped about how much they're charging for page-one ads, but it's clear they cost significantly more than those inside the paper. Page one is "a premium location, so probably it's as much as the traffic would bear," says Miles Groves, a media economist and consultant in Washington, D.C.

"It is an expensive ad," says Anne Gordon, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which started running page-one ads on April 15. (Gordon left the Inquirer in early May to become a partner at Dubilier & Co., a private investment firm for which she oversees media, technology and entertainment companies.) She agrees that advertisers are waiting to gauge their effectiveness, and says editors wrestled with surrendering that special page-one space. "The reality of it is we spent a long time talking about it and considering it--18 months," she says.

Ultimately, Gordon adds, the Inquirer decided "we needed to be supportive of our advertisers" while maintaining enough control to make the ads palatable: "It needed to be a more dignified advertiser than, say, a mattress company." So the paper has a one-year contract with the University of Pennsylvania Health System for a page-one ad every Sunday, and is expanding that to Monday as well. The Inquirer also has been using those fluorescent stickers atop the front page. Editors assigned an Inquirer reporter to write a story explaining the economic necessity of violating the "sacred province of news."

The paper has received a handful of complaints from readers, Gordon says, but in most cases, "I think people read past this."

It's another manifestation of the Inquirer's more aggressive approach to attracting advertising dollars under its new ownership. When a local group led by former PR and ad executive Brian Tierney bought the paper last year (see "Life with Brian," August/September 2006), Tierney trumpeted his belief that former owner Knight Ridder hadn't done enough to court advertisers. In announcing that it would sell page-one ads, the Inquirer also said it would publish a new business column sponsored by Citizens Bank. The column is boxed in green, the bank's color, and the bank also has been running ads elsewhere on the business section front.

At the San Francisco Chronicle, Rosenthal says only a few readers have called to complain about his paper's page-one, lime-green boxes for utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. "We created a couple of info boxes next to it to deal with it, so I don't think it looks that bad, personally," he says. His opinion was reinforced when he asked some friends for their views. "They didn't see it," Rosenthal says. "Journalists are very much aware of it, but I think the general public doesn't think of it as a bad thing."

He does point out one possible pitfall: There may come a day when a newspaper has to publish a negative story about a page-one advertiser, so "there's a potential for embarrassment if an advertiser..does something inappropriate."

At the Star Tribune, Clonts says reader reaction to section-front advertising has been minimal. One exception is a design known as the spadea, an advertising flap that wraps halfway around the front of a section, obscuring the editorial content. Clonts says it provokes "heavy and aggressively negative reader reaction. When a spadea runs, we know the following day we will get reader calls. Sometimes a few, sometimes dozens." (A 2006 study sponsored by the NAA notes that while few readers like them, 75 percent notice them, and about four in 10 usually notice what's being advertised.)

Designers tasked with making page-one ads blend with the overall look and feel of the page generally aren't thrilled about them, but they're learning to adjust. At the Star Tribune, the deputy managing editor for visuals and presentation, Cory Powell, works with the advertising department "to ensure section-front ads are as clean, simple and attractive as possible," Clonts says. The designers also have discovered that as pages get narrower, the page-one ad does have some benefits, because it works with both horizontal and vertical layouts.

"Drawing pages for the 52-inch web was easyish," Clonts says. "It got harder for the 50 and gets [harder] still for the 48. To put an ad on the front..to some extent simplifies things because you have to pare the elements of your fronts down to the essentials." And as the web narrowed, "the page got a lot more vertical, and things that worked best on that page tended to be vertical." He says the six-column strip ad helps square off a page, giving a design team more flexibility.

Occasionally, though, Powell will suggest that an ad be redrawn to make a page look better, Clonts says, and he'll be told it's not possible--like the time the ad department came up with a six-column strip filled with distracting automobile logos. This is what the client wants, the ad department replied. So it ran.

Denise Covert, a copy editor and page designer at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, works on regional publications that are inserted into the mainsheet. In an e-mail interview, she wrote that on some of the regional section fronts and also on the mainsheet's local front, "there are occasional front-page ads, usually 2 by 4. It works if you have a columnist or something that can easily square off with it on the bottom, but it can be a pain for some centerpiece treatments."

She adds: "In all, my personal opinion is that they're OK as long as they're not too distracting. Distracting means they are a) oddly shaped, b) garishly colored, c) black and white on a color front--we get that fairly often--or d) inconsistent, appearing some weeks and not others, so they're impossible to plan around."

Ultimately, though, newspapers may be worrying too much about ad placement. "For me, the bottom line is: Put some better stories on the top of that front page. Don't give me the same story I saw 20 hours ago" online, says NYU's Stephens. "Give me good stories, and I don't care what you put in that little ad on the bottom of the front page."

The Courant's Hunter is pragmatic, too. "I'd rather see ads inside the paper," she says. "But reality has changed."

Shaw wrote about hyperlocal Web sites in the magazine's April/May issue.