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

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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: Scholars & Rogues and 5th Estate

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 7, 2007 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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