Shaky Newspaper Tactic: 'Block That URL!'

By: Steve Outing Web addresses, or URLs, increasingly are turning up in print advertisements. It's an advertiser's dream -- but some newspaper publishers think it's their nightmare.

Say you're a Realtor, or an auto dealer, and you regularly run text ads (a.k.a., "liners") in your local newspaper's classifieds section. With the growth of the Web, you can now add a URL to each liner ad, which can point print classifieds readers directly to a Web page on your site that contains pictures of the car advertised or a virtual walkthrough of the house. It's a great service that benefits the advertiser, and especially the consumer, who can use the newspaper and the Web to preview interesting autos or houses before getting on the phone to the real estate agent or driving to the car lot.

The concept works for large advertisers as well as individuals. The person selling a used car can put photos of it on his personal Web site (using his recently acquired digital camera), then add the URL for the photo page into his print classified ad. The employment agency can run a series of short ads describing little more than job titles and location, plus URLs that point to long descriptions of the positions posted on their own Web site.

Of course, newspapers have to cooperate in this scheme. And some, fearful that allowing URLs in their classified liners will hurt their advertising revenues, are preventing advertisers from including Web addresses in their print ads.

No URLs; no Web site

The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, takes such an approach. Its policy is that Web URLs cannot be included in print liner ads, though an advertiser is welcome to include them in its display ads. The strategy is clearly a defensive one, to deter what its executives consider to be threats to their classifieds livelihood by advertisers taking the Web into their own hands. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the Patriot-News is one of the few U.S. newspapers of its size -- nearly 100,000 circulation daily, and 170,000 on Sundays -- that does not yet operate a Web site.)

That policy irks at least one of the paper's advertisers, The Homestead Group, a realty company in central Pennsylvania. Homestead does about $80 million a year in business, employs 50 people, and purchases about $200,000 a year in liner ads in the Patriot-News. The newspaper is the dominant one serving central Pennsylvania, and Homestead executives feel that it is the best buy to serve their market.

Joe Greene, who manages information services for Homestead (which is run by his brother, Mike), says their company began to include URLs in liner ads placed in the Patriot-News a couple years ago. But after about eight months, Homestead was asked to stop, after newspaper officials decided that the URLs in print presented a threat to them.

Greene operates Homestead's Web site, but he also is president of a sideline business called Internet Photos. That company creates Web pages for individuals who send in photographs, then its customers can publicize the Web URLs for those pages as they go about advertising their offerings (merchandise, cars, houses, etc.). Greene says the service is particularly useful for For Sale by Owner home sellers, who can place ads in conventional media but point viewers of those ads to a Web page where they can see text and photos of the property.

When Greene approached the paper about placing liner ads on behalf of Internet Photos customers that would contain URLs, he was told that he could not. "I said, 'But I already do that with Homestead,'" says Greene. The answer remained no, and eventually Homestead was asked to stop using URLs in print ads as well.

"That was a show-stopper for me," Greene says, and Internet Photos, which operates primarily in central Pennsylvania for now, is severely stymied by the inability to include URLs in Patriot-News classifieds. While he "doesn't like" the newspaper's position, he says he understands why the publisher is taking it. He's contemplated legal action to force the paper to run his URLs in print ads, but the arguments could be shaky. According to two media lawyers I contacted for this article, newspaper publishers have the right to restrict what advertising they accept, and it would be difficult for a plaintiff to prove damages because there are alternative media where an advertiser could run ads with URLs.

Greene says the idea of including URLs in home ads for Homestead was not an attempt to cut back on advertising in the Patriot-News. Indeed, he says, they might place more print listings, and each listing might be longer because of the addition of a URL. Instead, Homestead ads can only contain the company's phone number and a mention that photos are available of the property advertised on the Homestead Web site -- but without offering the URL.

I spoke with a Patriot-News advertising executive about the paper's policy, but he asked not to be quoted directly for this column. He did confirm the no-URL policy for print liners, but says that the paper is taking a wait-and-see attitude and exploring the issue further -- leaving the door open to change the policy down the road. He says he wants to make the right business decision for the newspaper, and for now that means banning URLs in print. The paper's executives prefer not to discuss internal business decisions any further, however, I was told.

They've got company

The Patriot-News is not alone in its stance. Kevin McCourt, director of real estate and online classifieds for the Newspaper Association of America, says he's aware of at least a half dozen papers that similarly prohibit URLs in their print classifieds. It's a hot topic among classifieds managers, and he was expecting it to stir up some debate during a meeting he was having with about 50 newspaper classifieds directors taking place today.

Another newspaper that prohibits URLs in print liners is the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Florida's ninth-largest daily. According to Emery Jeffreys, who manages the paper's online service, URLs cannot go in print liners, but classified ads on the News-Journal Web site can contain either a URL or an e-mail address for an additional fee -- "the same as what we charge for a banner ad," he says.

View from the other side

In reporting this story, I found a common view (which I share) that banning URLs from print classifieds is short-sighted. Says Kevin Barry, publisher of the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times, he allows customers to publish URLs in their ads, "I will be interested to see if the answer is no (don't allow URLs in print) from any newspapers. If it is, that would be very discouraging in terms of our industry understanding what is important to our advertising customers and how we meet their need to distribute information. Could we imagine telling people they could not publish their address or phone number in their advertisements?"

At the Portland Newspapers in Maine, classified advertising development manager David Prizer says customers can run URLs or e-mail addresses in their print ads, and they also show up on the Web. "Our position is that advertisers should point out as many features about their products and services as possible," he says. "We do not prevent advertisers from placing URLs in their display ads, and in fact, encourage this."

Several other papers also report that they allow URLs in print liners. At the Houston Chronicle, "we never pass up a line," says Jack Stanley, referring to print URLs adding to the length of liner ads. At the Knoxville News in Tennessee, URLs also are allowed in print, but they are not made clickable when repurposed on the paper's Web site. That's simply a current technology limitation, says the News' Jack Lail; "we would like to be able to do that."

At the Indianapolis Star-News in Indiana, online services manager Jay Small says his paper has no URL restrictions for advertising. The paper does have a policy of reviewing ads on a case-by-case basis, and conceivably a classified ad could be rejected if it included a URL that was deemed inappropriate. In general, the newspaper doesn't want to anger advertisers by restricting what they can put in their ads.

At one sizable U.S. East Coast newspaper, URLs are allowed in classifieds, and those Web addresses are carried over to the paper's Web site. A problem has arisen, according to an executive of the newspaper who asked that he and his paper not be identified, because dating services and phone sex services are including URLs with their ads. "Their Web sites, of course, are X-rated, so now our online classifieds make it easy to find X-rated sites from our family newspaper," he says. For now, the URLs in the online version of the print classifieds are not clickable, but they may be someday.

"We have not yet had any complaints from parents about us publishing X-rated URLs in our online classifieds," he says. "I have no idea what I'm going to say to those parents when I do get complaints."

Live with it!

Clearly, allowing customers to run URLs in classified ads is a thorny issue. The choices for newspaper publishers boil down to these: Prohibit them, and raise the ire of your advertisers; or accept that this is the latest wrinkle to the publishing business and learn to live with it, and even profit from the trend.

Tonda Rush, an attorney specializing in newspapers and Washington, D.C.-based counsel for King and Ballow, summed up the present situation best in pointing out that history is repeating itself. In the early days of radio, many newspapers refused to accept advertising from radio stations in their markets. That day eventually passed. So, too, must newspapers' fear of the Web URL.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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