Sometimes I get in a certain mood and spend too much time mulling the tone with which magazines and newspapers write about their important advertisers, scrutinizing every adjective and nuance for evidence of punches pulled and reputations gilded. Then I usually get over it and move on. From what I'm hearing these days, others don't.
In mid-July, The Wall Street Journal announced that later this year it will start running ads on its front page -- the lower-right-hand corner of the front page, to be precise. Also, the Chicago Tribune is exploring running ads on the front pages of its internal sections, something The New York Times has been doing for some time. There are, of course, financial reasons for all this. Wall Street analysts nod their approval at management estimates that the Journal's move will bring in around $10 million annually. (Given what's happened to the paper's ad revenues since 2000 -- hey, it helps!)
The announcements made knees jerk in certain traditionalists' circles. Bob Steele, director of ethics at journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, expresses many concerns about the Journal's move. They range from the semi-tangible (an ad means less news space on the front page -- but lead Journal stories jump to other pages) to the fanciful (he cites research that concludes that a reader's eye goes to visuals first, which means the news may be upstaged, which by extension threatens every newspaper and magazine article that's adjacent to an ad). One blogger wondered how it would look if CNN put ads in the ticker-style "crawl" that runs along the bottom of TV screens, which would only be analogous to the Journal if the paper started running ad copy mid-sentence.
PEOPLE, THIS IS STUFF FOR THE CROP-CIRCLES crowd. Does anyone beyond the most navel-gazing of journalists care in the slightest about a small ad appearing on the front page?
"It's arbitrary to say: 'It's O.K. to have an ad facing a page but not have an ad on the page,"' says a top editor at a major magazine. "That's silly and dumb and biased toward the status quo." Make that the very recent status quo. As Steele himself admits, there's a much longer tradition of American newspapers with front-page ads than without. It's only in the past 30 or so years -- the post-Watergate era that solidified "objectivity" as a journalistic ideal -- that such ads stopped appearing.
Irony of ironies, Steele points out, with grace, that one newspaper that ran front-page ads into the early 1980s is the well-regarded St. Petersburg Times. It did so with the explicit approval of its patriarch, Nelson Poynter, whose name is synonymous with stringent journalistic standards and whose fortune endows the institute that employs Steele.
Print is at a disadvantage with advertisers these days. Other media can offer ad opportunities that get products into the fabric of the programming: product placement on TV shows, pop-up ads zooming off an article found on nytimes.com (or, for that matter, businessweek.com).
Some time ago the publisher of a respected magazine grumbled to me that he had to compete for ads with these media "with ankle weights on." If this publisher wants to toss product placement into articles, well, that's stupid, because it hurts the product and, by extension, the value of the enterprise; it's putting sawdust in the corn flakes. But if this publisher can keep profits afloat by selling strangely shaped ads or clearly marked ads in unusual places -- what's the harm?
I don't like the Journal's move on aesthetic grounds. I would prefer that an ad not break up the elegance of the paper's front page, that pleasing expanse of print and pixel portraits. But I don't pretend that argument carries much weight, especially in stingy times like these. This isn't art. It's business. So slam the door on advertisers that demand kid-glove treatment in the news pages. Roundly ridicule those that pull ads from publications that dare hit them hard, as General Motors (GM ) did to The Los Angeles Times last year. But much of the rest is fair game.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
By Jon Fine