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For sale: Your newspaper’s front page

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You’d expect a furor to emanate from the newsroom. But, aside from a few Romenesko letters, the full-page ads on the front pages of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press last week brought nary a peep from either newsroom — or, apparently, any significant place in NewsroomLand. (See the E&P story.)

According to E&P:

Marshall Field’s approached Detroit Newspapers — the retailer was shopping the idea around to newspapers in other cities as well — and that the agency gave the idea “thoughtful consideration” before agreeing to run the ads on [May 25].

The front-page wraps carried a red, white and blue flag theme to hype a Memorial Day sale.

Neither newspaper’s editor would comment on the wrap’s effect on single-copy sales, newsroom attitudes about the wrap and future front-page ad sales. (Odd: Newspaper editors always want information about other industries but are adamantly closed-mouthed about their own.)

I’m neither shocked or dismayed. Selling the cover is common. Consider the magazine biz. As E&P reports:

As the advertising environment remains soft, newspapers are looking for innovative ways to attract revenue. The idea of selling the front page, and putting the publication’s logo on top, is known in the magazine industry as a ‘false cover.’

It’s an old story now. Newspaper circulation is down. Ad revenue is dropping as newspapers find national advertising an increasingly difficult sell. Consider the new avenues national advertisers now have: Your cell phone. Your video game. Your favorite Web site. In other words, many more places exist where your eyeballs come to rest. That place — wherever and whenever it is — is for sale.

So one of the few places that newspapers can tout as a prime resting-place for eyeballs — if only for a fleeting glance — is the front page. You’re already seen front-page ads on your paper. Remember that Post-It note pushing a product or service that you had to yank off the front page? Those front-page sticky ads have been around for a decade. They emerged as a widespread alternative to ROP ads (that’s Run Of Paper for you non-news junkies) in 2000 and by 2003, most of the top 25 papers routinely used them. (See Mark Fitzgerald and Jim Rosenberg’s excellent E&P story). That little Post-It has spawned an industry … and heightened front-office willingness to sell front-page ads no matter how loud the squeals from the newsroom.

Well, so what?

Newspaper are discovering — and ad buyers are telling them — that newspapers have other advertising revenue possibilities. In Jennifer Saba’s terrific E&P piece — “Advice from Ad Buyers” — carries sound advice if you’re a newspaper owner wanting to pump up the ad volume.

For example, one ad buyer complains that newspapers don’t track change in retail environments and are unwilling to accept last-minute ads. That’s called turning away a customer with money to burn.

Many ad buyers want ZIP code level distribution of their ads. They want newspapers to put their ads only in front of readers who have the ka-ching to spend. (Can you say, “Redlining”?) Newspapers are used to printing local copy by zones; why not for ads, ask buyers?

Saba’s article carries a host of comments and ad buyer advice. All of it, of course, is aimed at getting an ad in front of person most able to act on that ad — and effectively measuring that response.

Given this climate of falling circulation, a desire to maintain profit levels, the increasing desire of advertisers to place their messages effectively, is it any wonder that the front page is now for sale?

At some point — maybe it’s passed by now — the drive to maintain profit margins by such intent focus on increasing the gimmicks to maintain ad volume at the expense of the ability to produce credible editorial content will become self-defeating. Even the editor of The Washington Post, Len Downie, argues content is overlooked as a road to profitability as the front office takes whacks at newsroom resources and hands the keys to the car to advertisers.

An E&P story reports:

Downie criticized newspaper owners for cutting resources in the name of seeking higher profits. “That continues to worry me,” he said. “They are doing it to maximize profit in the stock market. Some [editors] resist the pressure, but it is hard.”

When a full-page, front-page ad comes to a newspaper near you, don’t ask what it did for the owner’s wallet.

Ask what it stole from the reader.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 1, 2005 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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