Pssst! Wanna buy a piece of my newspaper’s front page?

If you pick up today’s Women’s Wear Daily, you’ll find an ad one and a half inches deep across the bottom of the front page. The ad’s for a Cartier Love bracelet, a pricey token of undying devotion secured around your loved one’s wrist with a screwdriver. Even Katie Holmes wears one.

What, you say? A front-page advertisement? Good lord, say it ain’t so! Well, when the Wall Street Journal began letting ads invade Page One last year, I doth protested, headlining an earlier post “The world’s gonna end now. Really.”

I guess I’d better get used to front-page ads, ’cause everyone’s doin’ it now. Score this win for the media moguls, not the newsroom.

Says the American Journalism Review: Ads decorate the front pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Hartford Courant. And The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Minneapolis Star Tribune, it says, are running ads on section fronts — those pages that lead the pull-out sections of the paper following the front section.

Oh, says AJR, designers are trying to “minimize how distracting — and sometimes garish — they may appear.” (Why bother? Aren’t ads supposed to be distracting and garish? If I bought a front-page ad, I’d sure as hell want it to distract a reader from the breaking news of the day — Iraq, the D.C. scandal of the week, the daily announcement of yet another presidential candidate and predictions of how much weight Paris Hilton will have lost when she emerges from her jail cell.)

But front-page ads are here to stay. Journalists, obviously, aren’t particularly happy about ads sprouting on more and more Page Ones. Sayeth The Times:

Journalists lament the trend as a potential sign that the boundaries between editorial and advertising content are weakening, and because the advertisements reduce the amount of prime space for news and feature articles. But front-page ads seem destined to stay, given the declines in advertising and circulation that newspapers have endured in the Internet age. Prominent ads command premium prices.

Newspaper routinely ran front-page ads decades ago. Why the fuss about all this now?

Says AJR, quoting Gene Roberts, a former managing editor of The New York Times and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

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.'” [emphasis added]

Well, that logic has tumbled. More papers are running front-page ads, and more jobs keep disappearing.

The Tribune Co. is cutting 45 folks from the payroll of the Baltimore Sun, 16 from the newsroom. The Star Tribune (despite that money from running ads on section fronts) is buying out 47 newsroom employees. The San Francisco Chronicle is letting go 10 of its top editors (with 80 more newsroom jobs up for cuts). Guess the Chronicle’s front-page ads aren’t producing sufficient revenue to keep those jobs (or is it that the Chronicle can’t maintain a profit margin? “The Chronicle has lost, by its own estimation, at least $60 million a year since Hearst took over the paper in 2000,” says one observer.).

The LA Times wants to whack 150 employees, about half in the newsroom.

The news biz has a 17 to 20 percent profit margin (depends on who’s doing the estimating) while the average profit margin for American publicly traded corporations is around 7 percent.

For the Women’s Wear Daily top managers, the decision to run front-page ads was apparently not that hard after “ethics concerns” (cough, cough) had been satisfied. Says Edward Nardoza, editor in chief, in The Times:

We’ve come to terms that it’s part of doing business today. I can’t stress enough that it will have no effect at all on the independence of our editorial coverage or our decision-making process. There will be a strict delineation of all editorial material.

And, says Daniel Lagani, president of the arm of Advance Publications that owns the paper: “We are making our best real estate available for our best advertisers.”

That’s the rub: Using the best “real estate” of the front page for commercial messages instead of the important news of the day. That’s what bothers longtime editors like Gene Roberts who see the front page as the paper’s beautifully appointed front porch inviting readers into wondrously newsy rooms within. (Admittedly, it’d be easier to make this argument for something other than WWD.)

But, says Lagani, “This is simply a smart business decision.” That’s depressing, as that flawed excuse lies behind virtually all newsroom “rightsizing” of the last decade.

When will we hear a media company owner say: “This is simply a smart journalism decision”?

xpost: 5th Estate

8 replies »

  1. “The news biz has a 17 to 20 percent profit margin (depends on who’s doing the estimating) while the average profit margin for American publicly traded corporations is around 7 percent.”

    There’s a word there that we have to address and make some hard decisions about, Denny. That word is “biz.”

    As one working in a university where making money is clearly becoming object #1, I can only say this – using the “business model” for institutions like the 4th estate, higher education, medicine, and government is the greatest single evil we face as a culture.

    The abandonment of news reportage for advertising dollars is a clear indication that we are losing that war at this point. One can only hope that as new models such as the one you suggest here emerge that journalism, at least, might start, in a grass roots way, to fight back against the trend toward sublimating every single institution of our culture to %$#$#@ money….

  2. Listen, I’d be glad to sell out if the money’s right. 🙂

    But I’m too old to know what to do with it, so I’ll just have to keep yelling about this. Besides, I believe that good journalism = good business.

    But none of the news monoliths is willing to take that risk. Imagine what the newspaper industry could do journalistically if it collectively said (forget anti-trust for a minute) it would take 16 percent profit instead of 17 percent.

    That’s a lot of money. If poured back into newspapers (and not just the newsroom), then we might get increasing quantity and quality of journalism about … ” higher education, medicine, and government” and plenty of other topics now buried behind a wall of profit protecting.

  3. The legacy media should just put all the adds up front in their publications. Then they can put the wire service articles and syndicated “columnists” next. This way we won’t have to flip through the whole damn publication to get to the part we want to read. That should be placed on the back cover so all we would have to do is flip the publication over to view it. What they would then do with the empty half of the back cover is another question 😉

    The scientifically impossible I do right away
    The spiritually miraculous takes a bit longer

  4. A good observation. Thanks. A few thoughts:

    These “legacy media” weren’t always filled with “wire service articles and their syndicated columnist.” Before mergers beget acquistions beget Wall Street greed, they had sufficient reporters to write local news. Folks forget that. Over time, the expense (i.e., drag on the profit margin) of covering local news as a “paper of record” led to reduction news staffs.

    That space, formerly filled with locally generated copy, was then handed over to wire copy. A newspaper still needs sufficient pages to run its ads, and advertisers don’t like being on a page that is ALL ads. Hence the wire copy.

    When you “flip through the whole damn publication,” what, exactly is the part that you DO want to read?

    Your answer literally holds the future for the “legacy media.”

    I appreciate your comment.

  5. Very recently the active anti-war movement in the city where I live started to get some real coverage of our events in our ONLY local newspaper and our ONLY local tv news program. We have been staging anti-war events for almost 5 years without any coverage.

    Now, because of regular people like us doing things like blogs and YouTube channels, readers and viewers for the local news monopolies are becoming fewer. There is only one thing the legacy media can do to retain viewers. That is to give them something they can’t get anymore from the legacy media. Local news about local people.

    My useless congressman has been quoted as saying that I and our local groups now get more local press then he does. So we should. We are now setting about forcing our elected officials to face the fact that they no longer can use their control of the media to bullshit the voters into voting for them. One of our local groups is setting up a citizens media center where we will be able to produce our own TV and radio programs. They have applied for a local radio broadcast license and intend to have a 24/7 radio station up and running next year.

    We have gained access to the info powerhouse and are ready to zap our useless mis-representatives in the ass. To finally answer your question, I want to see more about local people working to fight the corruption of our political and economic systems. That is the only way local media can survive. By giving us our place at the table, lest we feast at different place settings elsewhere!

  6. Newspapers have always been engaged with business; there never was a golden age of journalism. Front page ads are completely normal in most parts of the world – especially in South Africa.

    After the Newspaper Congress I have a pile of stats about what they’re doing, what they “have” to do, and how they intend to engage. Newspapers are trying to regain their competitive advantage but are finding it ever harder to do in a world of citizen journalism and blogging. The shakeout is part of that process.

    I have a feeling you are likely to see far fewer, but significantly better, newspapers in a few years time. In the way of capitalism, those newspapers that lose their relevance will lose their markets and, ultimately, their lives.