Critical Thinking: Should Front Page Print Ads Get a Pass like Their Digital Homepage Counterpart?

Critical Thinking: Should Front Page Print Ads Get a Pass like Their Digital Homepage Counterpart?
“When an American Airlines ad recently appeared printed on the front page of The Los Angeles Times many people were outraged. Should front page print ads get a pass like their digital homepage counterpart?”

Steve Cavendish, 45, editor, Washington City Paper (Washington, D.C.)

Steve Cavendish
Steve Cavendish, editor, Washington City Paper (Washington, D.C.)

Prior to his current position, Cavendish has been a designer, reporter, graphics editor, manager, editor, and critic at newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and Nashville (Tenn.) Scene.

The quick answer is no. But the better answer is that no ad should get a pass, and there are indeed limits on digital ads (sometimes external, more on that in a bit).

The American Airlines ad in question was bad because it fundamentally altered the L.A. Times’ editorial judgment for that day. Not only were they forced to reduce story count, but they also were severely limited in how they could display those stories. That interferes with what readers expect from the Times every day and those expectations matter — print subscribers are paying actual money for that product.

Newspapers should be very, very cautious about pissing these readers off: They’re loyal and they are serious about the news. Unlike 20 years ago, when news organizations thought they could pull in younger and marginal readers and expand their circulation, today’s print readership will likely only decline. It makes absolutely no sense to jeopardize that trust for marginal revenue. My hunch is that the L.A. Times heard from a lot of angry readers.

On the flip side, digital readers have generally been willing to tolerate even high amounts of ads because the entry price — free — is so low. But even with that audience, there are limits. Whether it’s clickbait story galleries like Taboola, pop-unders, or ever-increasing load times caused by serving up ads, digital readers are turning to ad blockers, and those represent a direct threat to revenues. Sure, this week’s Hollywood blockbuster can do a site takeover, but if you do that too many times, how many readers just don’t come back or, worse, turn to AdBlock Plus?

Ad departments began calling these front-page monstrosities “innovative ads” when they first rolled out. But there’s nothing innovative about being penny wise and pound foolish with our readers.

Stephen Dana, 48, vice president of digital and audience development, The Fresno (Calif.) Bee
Dana has spent 26 years in the newspaper business, with 20 of them focused on digital media.

Stephen Dana
Stephen Dana, vice president of digital and audience development, The Fresno (Calif.) Bee

Advertisers are going to try and “push the creative envelope” with local media, whether it’s newspapers, broadcast or digital. As long as publishers feel a line exists between content and advertising, newspapers should be able to retain their credibility with readers.

In the case of the recent American Airlines advertisement on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, that line clearly exists—even though the presentation pushed the look of the traditional main page. The creative delivered a certain “shock value” for readers who were used to seeing the typical format of the front page. This effect was exactly what American Airlines was seeking. Having a media partner like the L.A. Times, who is willing to experiment with new ways of communicating its message, ultimately will strengthen the relationships between the airlines and the publisher. This flexibility could also lead to additional opportunities for the newspaper with this advertiser, and potentially others, who recognize the value and impact of these types of high-profile print creative.

Some readers might actually have a tougher time distinguishing between of the industry’s new “native ad” print and digital placements versus what we saw in print from American Airlines. In the digital sphere, the increase in smartphone-based consumption of content makes the challenge for the reader to distinguish news from “advertorial” stories all the tougher. The small screen size often makes sponsored “native” headlines and content nearly identical to those articles generated by journalists.

That said, newspapers consistently deliver a highly-engaged, premium audience for advertisers. Publishers know, in order to keep that audience, they need to continue to be vigilant with new creative placements—despite the pressures to drive revenue. L.A. Times showed that you can find that balance and continue to deliver a high-quality, trusted product.

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Published: December 16, 2015

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