There’s been a running argument over the last 20 years or so about whether or not newspapers should run ads on their front pages. The front page is sacred, the old school guys insist: all news and only news, because this is how we show the reader that they’ve come to a serious source of news. Yes, of course we need to sell ads to stay in business, but we don’t run them on the front page. We just don’t.
This is one of those fights that the old school guys have been losing, slowly, one paper after another. A few years back the American Journalism Review ran a good, short history of the issue and outlined reasons for and against.
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.”
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!’”
Imagine what they would say if they got a look at this Sunday’s edition in my hometown. Today, over at Houston’s Leading Information Source, they threw in the towel on this argument. Not only do we now run ads on the front page, we run two pages of ads in front of the front page!
After the initial shock, I decided I’m not really surprised. More’s the pity.