Print Pressure Grows: Does the New ‘Business As Usual’ Go Too Far?

By: JOE STRUPP

At one time, it was a big deal if a newspaper ran an ad on Page One. Newspaper purists would rail against it, editors would debate the potential plusses and minuses, and ad directors would point out the financial advantages. Today, however, it’s almost a story if you don’t run ads on that once-hallowed real estate. “There’s a concern about revenue, and people have accepted that there are front-page ads,” says Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and president of the American Society of News Editors.

But through that newly opened door for Page One ads, a string of advertising ideas has emerged ? not all of which editors are glad to see. While they admit the need for revenue requires them to consider some ideas they might not have 10 years ago, many editors are reluctant to approve an approach they consider unethical or simply detrimental to news content. “It’s a very tough place to be in,” says Karin Winner, who until 2009’s end was editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We are exploring the same things that everyone else is, and some of them make me cringe.”

In-line ads appearing on the Web, spadias, section sponsorships, oddly-shaped ads, and sticky-note promotions are some of the ideas being pushed more than ever. Advertisers, looking to make the most of limited budgets, are getting more vocal in their requests to be placed adjacent to certain kinds of content in print and online. “There have always been issues with ads, but there are more of them now because of the position [the industry is] in,” says Miami Herald Editor Anders Gyllenhaal. “We review a lot of things each week, and there are plenty of times when we say it is confusing or not working.”

An increase in questionable ads prompted the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to create a joint editorial/ad committee in 2008 to review them “just to make sure advertisers are getting feedback from us, so it is not offered in a vacuum,” says Executive Editor Jim Witt. “For the most part, it has worked great. There are some we have not been able to [run],” he says, involving “something that encroaches too much on the editorial side, wrapped around a story or done so weirdly that they can’t tell the difference.”

Not everyone is strenuously objecting to some of the innovations in ad placement. Online, The Indianapolis Star runs in-line ads, which highlight certain words that, when clicked, take the reader to an advertiser’s site. Also running those ads are The Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, and many Gannett newspapers.

The Indy Star has also run spadias and ads that border a page and wrap around news content. “If we were asked to include certain words or phrases, it would be different,” says Editor Dennis Ryerson. “There’s a lot newspapers can do to integrate content with advertising, without crossing the line. It keeps us on our toes.”

But where is the line between creative advertising and doing something potentially harmful to the news side’s reputation? Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Ethics at The Poynter Institute, says he’s hearing from more editors worried about ethical conflicts when it comes to ad placement: “Just because the public doesn’t complain, doesn’t mean it is not a problem. There’s a danger of the diminishment of the storytelling, if you have an encroachment of the advertising.”

Pushing the envelope
The first week of last November saw two front-page ads that raised eyebrows. The San Antonio (Texas) Express-News on Nov. 6 placed an ad for a new wine and food shop that declared “The Party is Here.” Unfortunately, it ran under the paper’s coverage of the deadly Fort Hood shooting. It was also larger than most Page One ads, running just over a column wide and just under one-third of the page from the bottom.

Two days later, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press drew notice with two banner ads on Page One, across the bottom and the top. The top ad, for Ann Taylor, was placed above the flag and took up just less than a fifth of the page. Editor Thom Fladung defends the practice, saying it took nothing away from his paper’s content.

“We have for months averaged three stories on the Sunday A-1,” says Fladung. “That Sunday A-1 had three stories and all met what I look for in a Sunday A-1 ? local, hard-hitting news and something distinct. I don’t know journalistically what was lost. We have gotten zero negative reaction.

He added, “Advertising is content, too, and it is not content that I control. But it is content that readers need, in many cases.”

Stan Tiner, editor of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., says front-page ads have become common at his paper, but adds that editors need to be more on top of them than ever: “Editors have to be in on the conversation. Business is challenged on their side, and they have to test ideas to be successful. It would not surprise me if someone would push the envelope.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Winner says after allowing front-page strip ads, she’s now being asked to allow larger, two-inch-by-four-inch block ads on Page One, and “We are about to do that.”

David Boardman, editor of The Seattle Times, tells E&P he would have “protested vehemently” against front page ads 10 years ago, but now says, “bring them on.” Still, Boardman says he recently fought a proposal to increase the size of a Page One ad along the bottom from two inches high by six columns to three inches high across six columns. “We didn’t want to do it because it took away another story start on the front page,” he says. “We always have to be concerned about the integrity of the product.”

A ‘sticky’ situation
Another type of Page One advertisement that’s popping up more often these days, editors contend, are “sticky note” ads that are applied with lightweight adhesive, usually above the fold, and that sometimes end up placed over news content.

“In the past year, advertisers have made more use of them,” claims Carole Tarrant, editor of The Roanoke (Va.) Times. “It is always above the flag, in the teaser space. One time it was placed right on a football player’s head, and it kind of ruined the image.” Given the choice, though, she says she’d rather have the sticky notes than a front-page ad.

Adds Margaret Sullivan, editor of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News: “The sticky notes are tough for me because it covers editorial content. You treat the front page as this special thing, this labor of love. You’re careful about headlines.”

There’s also the growing use of spadias, partial-page ads that often wrap sections, sometimes even Page One. “Readers did object to them initially because it got in the way,” says Gyllenhaal in Miami. “You don’t want to put something in between the reader and the story.”

Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, says spadias have wrapped her sports section, but are not useful everywhere. She adds: “Just because it is different does not mean it is necessarily unethical.”

Ryerson in Indianapolis recalls one spadia his paper ran this year for the WNBA Indiana Fever, the local women’s professional basketball team that made it to the league finals. The front featured an ad for a grocery store, while the back provided news about the finals. “Fans loved it because they long felt we had ignored the team,” he says. “This gave us a premium position for them.”

A word from our sponsor
It’s been nearly three years since The Philadelphia Inquirer accepted daily sponsorship of its front business page. Since September 2007, Citizens Bank has had three different ads on the page, including a large banner ad at the bottom. Editor William Marimow says the approach drew attention early on, but has sparked no controversy or claims of biased reporting of the sponsor.

“In all of the years we have had the Citizens Bank sponsorship, there has never been an issue about the content,” he says. “If Citizens Bank does something great, we give it appropriate play. If Citizens Bank has a misstep, we give it appropriate play, no holds barred. I can’t recall a time when a reader called up and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re giving Citizens Bank a break.'”

Thomas Eveslage, a professor of journalism at Temple University, says the Citizens Bank ads did concern him when they first appeared. “There were a lot of people who were surprised and not pleased when it happened,” he claims. “It was disconcerting.”

The Inquirer also runs a sponsorship on the back of its sports section with an “Express” summary of the news. TD Bank has the sponsor placement there. Says Marimow, “I believe that we are in an era when the newspaper has to be as cooperative as possible with the advertising department, while making 100% sure that the integrity of the news pages is 100% inviolate.”

Ben Marrison, editor of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, says he’s feeling more pressure to have sponsorships, citing a weekend college football tab that has been sponsored by a single advertiser. “We are entertaining them more, but [those] are foreign to us,” he adds.

Other editors aren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of sponsorships. While they will tolerate front-page ads, spadias and sticky notes, sponsorship of a page or section feels wrong to them. “‘Sponsored by’ sounds like they have worked with us to create that content, and that is the last thing that we want to do,” says Winner in San Diego. “Say we are writing about utility rates and it is sponsored by a utility. No one would believe what we are saying, or might believe we are shilling for the advertiser.”

Gyllenhaal in Miami also shies away from sponsorships, if only for appearances’ sake: “How can you have a museum, say, sponsor our science section? Or have a sports section sponsored? It is unclear what the division is between advertising and news.”

Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader at The Poynter Institute, believes the sponsorship approach can tarnish a newspaper’s appearance of fairness. “The public already believes that money talks and content is for sale,” he notes. “But you cannot underestimate the pressure these newspapers are under. ‘Survival’ is an important word.”

Ads (literally) outside the box
Survival has prompted another move in the print edition: reshaping ads to better grab the eye. At some papers, ads are spaced in different corners of a page or, in the case of the Indianapolis Star, border the edges. In other cases, they’re stretched across two pages, a move some editors say can confuse readers.

“It has come up in discussions,” says Carole Tarrant in Roanoke, when asked about the odd shapes. “We have to look and see if the ad is so dominant that you can’t see the news.”

Jim Witt in Fort Worth has rejected shaped ads in the past. “It usually involves something that encroaches too much on the editorial side,” he says, “wrapped around a story so weirdly that they can’t tell the difference. We want readers to know what is an ad and what is editorial.”

Margaret Sullivan in Buffalo states: “I have seen some print advertising stuff that is pushing the limits for me, weirdly shaped ads. I have accepted some of it, some of it I have pushed back against.”

For her, what constitutes an unacceptable ad shape? “It is a little bit of ‘you know it when you see it,'” she says.

The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., ran one of the more unusual ads in October on a local events page. A lower-right-corner ad for Green Mountain Coffee showed a cup of steaming java, with the steam image rising up through the page, splitting the text above it (see p. 19).

Editor and Vice President Henry Freeman says he has to sign off on such unusual ideas before they run, and found no problem with the approach since it was not with a hard-news section: “I would not want it to be on a page where we are reporting a murder. We knew it was coming, and we could think about it. There have been some ad configurations that have been too disruptive and we chose not to use them.”

Among the types of advertising that Freeman objects to are watermarks, which print on a page a background image of an advertiser’s product or logo.

Miami’s Gyllenhaal cites an ad that was an image of letters to Santa Claus that spread them across two pages. He had it changed. “It wasn’t clear what it was,” he says, noting the ad was changed to place the letters in a bordered box. “It was a matter of fiddling around with it so that you get it instantly when you look at it.”

Bennie Ivory, executive editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., won’t cite specifics, but says he has to keep a closer eye on proposed ads ? and has had to reject them or seek changes more than in the past.

“The issue is when they are too intrusive and make it difficult for someone to read a story,” he explains. “When I see something that is problematic, too intrusive, the advertising department has been very agreeable about changing it.”

Along with all of these new kinds of ads are some pressures that can alter the way content is presented. Karin Winner says that a proposal to add a strip ad to the bottom of the comics page would force the paper to remove one of the comics: “That is one of the few value-added things we have as a newspaper.”

In Columbus, Editor Marrison says requests to be near certain kinds of content are on the rise. He says that’s not an ethics problem so much as a logistical headache at times: “We can’t move ads as much as we might have in the past. Newspapers are being more accommodating of those requests than they used to be.”

In Fort Worth, editor Witt recalls a Target request to be placed near school-related news. “We didn’t think that was a problem,” he says, adding, “but you can’t promise everybody everything, because you wouldn’t be able to make the paper work.” In Buffalo, one advertiser requested to be placed near World Series coverage, which sparked some changes in where some stories were placed.

“We did refigure things a little bit,” says Editor Margaret Sullivan. “But I don’t think it was a conflict of any kind. It is getting harder to say no.”

At the Des Moines Register, editor Washburn recalls a November 2009 request by the advertising department to repeat a University of Iowa football wrap around the sports section. The paper first ran such a wrap when Iowa was in contention with Big Ten Conference leader Ohio State for a potential Rose Bowl bid. But when the ad department asked for another one the following week, she pointed out to them that doing so would make no sense. “Ultimately, if we can’t come up with something that feels comfortable, we won’t do it,” she says.

The online disputes have ranged from in-line ads to the newer contextual ads (see feature, page 16). Some editors who spoke with E&P say they have to make sure Web ads that employ rolling images and peel-back styles aren’t too intrusive. “We make sure that they hit you only once,” says Tarrant. “You don’t want the annoyance factor high. If your site gets that reputation, it’s a hassle.”

Jim Roberts, associate managing editor/digital news at The New York Times, says his staff “gasped for air” years ago when the paper’s Web site ran its first large homepage push-down ad for Apple. But today, they are common and accepted. “What I like is they don’t cover up the news content,” he adds. “In general, users get used to them, and they don’t have to wait long for the page to refresh itself.”

Paul Block, executive producer at the Times Union’s Web site in Albany, N.Y., also supports such ads, as long as they’re not intrusive for the reader. “We try to avoid those that don’t go away quickly or block content,” he says. “We are not doing any contextual ads at this point.”

At Boston.com, the Web site of The Boston Globe, Editor David Beard says he has rejected some push-down ads that can interfere with stories. He cited one ad in early December that pushed down so far that those who clicked on the “close” button could have accidentally hit a tab for a photo gallery. “It’s a balance,” he says. “You don’t want to be hurting the company, but you don’t want to drive away readers.”

In Iowa, Washburn also points to online ads that get in a reader’s face. “The only concern I have is with ads that drop things down and shoot them across content,” she says. “We have heard some things from readers about it. I don’t have an ethical problem with it, I have a reader-experience problem with it.”

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