The Piety of the Editorial Purists Finally Gives Way to Page 1 Strip Ads. That is real innovation!

Mick Gregory

Finally realizing that there has been a steady exodus in revenue, the Tribune Co. plans to run advertisements on the front pages of most of its daily newspapers, breaking a long-standing tradition of keeping Page 1 of its biggest dailies ad-free. The editors had no problem giving free Page 1 editorial promotion for Hillary/Obama or Bush bashing.

Chicago Tribune Publisher Scott Smith said Monday that his paper will offer select advertisers a 1.5-inch strip along the bottom of the Tribune’s front page, a format that will be duplicated across Tribune Co.’s other papers.

The Los Angeles Times, Tribune’s largest newspaper, reported on Saturday that it also planned to launch Page 1 ads. But Times Publisher David Hiller said the paper is still sorting out pricing and guidelines and that he had not determined when the paper would start selling front-page ads.

Tribune’s decision to sell front page ads isn’t unique. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today already do, as do most of Gannett’s larger papers. But for many journalists, the practice has become the last straw in the struggle between newspapering’s social mission and the need for profits. What was that social mission again?

Both Hiller and Smith have faced stiff resistance to the idea of front-page ads from their editors (the elite editorali). But as the company strives to close its $8.2 billion plan to go private in conjunction with Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, they face even greater pressure to reverse declining revenues and circulation brought on by competition from the Internet and other sources of news.

“There is real demand [for front-page ads] that will turn into real revenue,” Smith said Monday. “But we have to do it with high-quality standards. That’s important to both readers and advertisers.”

Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski said Monday that Smith had sought input from the newsroom but had not followed the editors’ advice.

“It’s safe to say we were opposed [to front-page ads] on the grounds that it wasn’t in the best interest of readers. But that view did not prevail,” she said.

Los Angeles Times Editor James O’Shea was also opposed to the possibility of Page 1 ads.

“Front-page ads diminish the newspaper, cheapen the front page and reduce the space devoted to news,” O’Shea was quoted in the L.A. Times saying. “This would be a huge mistake that will penalize the reader.”

Smith said Tribune will limit the front-page ads to advertisers looking to burnish their brand names with tasteful, full-color ads — not those promoting price-off promotions or other blaring messages.

O’Shea, just think, after about four days of ads, your salary is paid for. Get it?

The Tribune chain will use a standard ad size, Smith said, so it can give national advertisers an easy way to reach multiple markets.

The ads will also be made available to local advertisers for brand-building campaigns, and the same strip will be used across the front of other sections in the paper, he added.

A source at the Chicago Tribune said the front-page ads will be priced in a range between $25,000 and $45,000.

John Lavine, dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said that a purist would rather the entire front page be devoted to editorial both because it makes available more of what people read newspapers for and because it makes a statement about the importance of the social mission.

But, he said, the newspaper industry can’t afford purists anymore. “The alternative is no newspaper, and I’m happy to make that trade-off.”

Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, agreed that expectations in the world of journalism have changed dramatically.

You think? As the San Francisco Chronicle lays off 1/4 of its editorial department, they bend the rules a little. Hello! The New York Times has had Page 1 ads for 20 years.

“We’re all less purist than we used to be,” Hoyt said. “We’ve given up on [ads placed on] section fronts without much sorrow. We live by advertising, that’s true. But the front page is sort of sacred territory.”

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