Just Winking At You

Look at it. The front page of your daily newspaper, down at the bottom. Winking at you!

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Every morning when I open my copy of the local newspaper, The Forum, I can’t help but think of Jackie O’Shea’s line from “Waking Ned Devine.” Because at the bottom right of page one, Monday-Saturday, there it is just winking at me – a print ad. It’s no winning lotto number, to be sure, but in the end Jackie and I are referring to the same thing: fortune.

Flip back to the front and take a look. What was once essentially forbidden now takes up space previously reserved for news. Page-one ad placements in The Forum now promote everything from cars to calling plans, real estate to skin treatments.

And the reaction from most people is – Yeah. So?

So. There was a time when a newspaper’s front page was completely staked out for – forgive me if this sounds a bit crazy – news. From the beginning of the modern era of newspapers in the early 1900s, the front page has been sacred ground, reserved for serious news only. No ads. Ever. Period.

I remember the scoff from one of my college journalism instructors when a fellow student asked why he never saw an ad on the front page. The answer: it just wasn’t done. The unspoken assertion: it never would be.

Newspeople and editors liked it that way, with no concern for what advertisers thought about stories, no editorial decisions based on how stories might impact a business, freedom from worry about whether a certain piece might cause an advertiser to pull its dollars. And then, one day….

Wink.

With readerships dwindling in the Internet age, newspapers needed to find new ways to raise revenues. In some cases, the solution was to lift the prohibition on page-one ads. It’s not clear when the first appeared on the front of a major U.S. newspaper, but by June 2007 they were common enough for the American Journalism Review to run a piece titled “A Fading Taboo.” The story included points of view between the extremes: the ads are good for newspapers struggling to make ends meet in the Internet age vs.  they are abominations that blur the ethical division between news and paid-for content.

Today you can see a page-one ad on the front of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or USA Today. Whether it spans six columns across the bottom or is a box in the corner, a bright splash above the masthead or a sticker blocking part of the day’s top story, there it is, winking at you.

Deep down I’ll always be a journalist who thinks the front page should be uncluttered. For me, it was about keeping what was pure and true separated from sales pitches and spin. As an advertising and PR executive, I get the other side, too. Businesses need to cut through clutter to reach time-starved and attention-challenged consumers, and their fortunes depend on convincing more people to buy in new, engaging ways. And newspapers? They need to make enough money to be able to keep bringing us the news.

Front-page ads are not the entire answer for newspapers engaged in daily struggles for relevance and solvency. They aren’t multi-million-dollar winning lotto numbers for businesses that place them, either. They’re simply part of the fortunes – good or bad, today or for the future – of both.

The reality is keeping a free press going is anything but free. If page-one ads are necessary to maintain in-depth, reliable, solidly reported news, I guess I’ll live with them. Still, I’ll always miss my uncompromised view of the daily news.

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