In Holiday Season, Some Papers Show Contempt For Readers

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

(Commentary) Four years ago in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I had a long and very interesting conversation with the publisher of the nation’s most successful newspaper, a tabloid that within its first six years exceeded the previous combined circulation of all Guatemalan papers.

Nuestro Diario Publisher Jorge Springmuhl is a voluble man who said many, many things that afternoon, but one I have never forgotten. Nuestro Diario had a rule: Advertising was forbidden in the first six pages of the newspapers.

“If your paper really is reader-driven, then all the best pages should be saved for the reader,” Springmuhl said.

I thought about that this Sunday as three newspapers landed on my front page with a little more thump than usual as the holiday buying season approached — though, of course, without anything like the sound they made in seasons past. Each in their own way showed a certain contempt for readers by saving the best real estate for ROP advertisers.

In the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times that meant short news stories pressed into the top corners of the pages, seemingly suffocated by the ads. The Tribune recently redesigned with the goal of a 50/50 ad/editorial mix; the Sun-Times hasn?t said anything official about increasing the ad percentage, but it sure feels like it to a reader.

But to experience the most intense sense that readers are afterthoughts in this anxious holiday season, I had to open The New York Times. Here’s my reader experience with the national edition Sunday:

On the front page: news, lots of it. Breaking stuff, analysis, an off-beat report on athletes using Viagra to enhance performance outside the bedroom. Exactly the sort of mix that keeps me subscribing.

And then, it all goes quickly downhill.

Second page: The beginning of the New-York-Times-For-Dummies digest section. It’s been a depressing everyday presence since the screwy redesign that also promised to eliminate section jumps — only to replace them with inside stories that than jump farther inside.

Third page: More digests, but both pages have far fewer items than normal as the page is crowded with display ads for luxury items like a $1,400 Tiffany engagement ring, Louis Vuitton shoes, and Tag Heuer watches, I mean, “chronographs.” That Times salespeople manage to sell such high-buck ads on these pages — which nobody I know ever slows down for — is a great untold story of salesmanship.

Fourth page: Yet another digest page, this one reminding me that the Times has a Web site, with video an’ everything, Beav!

Fifth page: Full-page ad.

Sixth page: Full-page ad.

Seventh page: Full-page ad.

Eighth page: International news. Two stories.

Ninth page: Full-page ad.

Tenth and Eleventh pages: double-truck ad.

Twelfth page: Bush is in Peru. He gets one column running all the way down the page, and a nice picture with some more text. The Sharp Aguos TV ad dominates.

Thirteenth page: Full-page ad.

Fourteenth page: Full-page ad.

Fifteenth page: Full-page ad.

Sixteenth page: Full-page ad.

Seventeenth page: ads take up just half the page. Two stories.

Eighteenth page: News gets third of the page.

Nineteenth page: Full-page ad.

Twentieth page: News — and only news, for first time since front page.

Twenty-first page: News gets more space than one-third page ad.

Twenty-second page: Full-page ad.

I know, I know, advertising is content, and readers come to newspapers for ads. While it is true that surveys repeatedly show that newspaper ads are not viewed as intrusions the way Internet or broadcast ads are — newspapers must realize there is a limit to how far news can be crowded out by advertising.

It seems newspapers have reached it in this anxious holiday season when the annual increase in ad volume — even if that increase is not what it once was — comes at a time when decimated newsrooms are filling smaller newsholes.

Anyone reading the first section of the Sunday Times could reasonably conclude there was not much there, that the $5 cover price — $5! — for the national edition wasn?t worth it, at least so far.

Newspapers promiscuously doling out ?premium positions? may not be doing advertisers much of a favor in the long run by kicking readers from the first-class seats upfront.

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