Front Page for Sale: Newspapers go back to the future.

Media criticism.
Sept. 7 2006 6:34 PM

Front Page for Sale

Newspapers go back to the future.

So hidebound and dimwitted are U.S. newspapers that it's predictable that their idea of breaking all the rules is something U.S. newspapers were doing a century ago. The latest example is running ads on Page One and section fronts, as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal now do, with more papers to follow.

As W. Joseph Campbell writes in his excellent history The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms:

Some leading regional newspapers, such as the Boston Globe and Cleveland Press, routinely devoted large portions of their front pages to display advertising, for products such as patent medicines, men's suits, and the latest models of bicycles.

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Even though the placement of profane pitches on the sacred acreage of Page One hasn't corrupted USA Today, which has long run them, nor the European press, some press ethicists worried that they might give advertisers too much power over newspapers. Business Week's Jon Fine ridiculed their worries in August, observing that ad placement only becomes an issue if it causes newspapers to coddle advertisers. How ads on Page One are more potentially corrupting than ads on A16 is something I don't understand. In any event, Page One of today's (Sept. 7) Wall Street Journal shows that while prime space can be bought, the paper can't: It features an HP ad on the front page, and the lead story is about the ongoing HP boardroom scandal.

Last spring, when the New York Daily News experimented with a "new" ad concept in which it distributed 40,000 free copies of the paper containing front- and back-page ads, Kelly McBride, "ethics group leader" at the Poynter Institute, gasped in revulsion.

"To give the whole front page away seems to me a dangerous message to send to readers," she told the New York Times. "The front page is for the news you consider most important to the community." Oh, yes, it would be much better if the Daily News messaged its readers that it's folding instead of selling Page One ads in the tough New York market.

The Daily News' sellout may horrify you, but it's hardly unprecedented, as this second historical nugget from Campbell's book explains:

The front page of the New York Herald in the 1890s contained no news at all. The first two or three pages of the Herald were typically devoted to classified advertising, including personal advertisements that were sometimes fairly risqué.

The advertising side of the newspaper industry is desperate for new ideas. Ad revenues have been flat-lining since 1998, and not all the blame can be laid at the feet of Craig Newmark. What was the last big idea to come out of daily-newspaper advertising? Full-color printing, something magazines beat them to by almost a century? Those annoying "sticker" ads that some low-rent newspapers glue onto their front pages? Telephone personals, which the alternative weeklies pioneered?

The most remarkable thing about today's newspaper advertising is how unremarkable it is. When was the last time somebody nudged you at the water cooler to say, "How about that newspaper ad!" The only current newspaper showstoppers that come to mind are the wacky advocacy ads placed by Dr. Matthias Rath and other promoters of world peace that read like the copy lifted from Dr. Bronner's soap bottles. (The PDF format makes it possible for you to experience Dr. Rath's ad from the Aug. 26 Times in its complete typographical glory.)

While your standard newspaper ad exudes all the life of flattened road kill, other media are investing research and development dollars in inventive attempts to reach people. A few examples: magazines stitch talking and singing ads to their pages; television runs "fake" commercials for products; ad agencies place big-budget commercials exclusively on YouTube, ignoring regular television; and Budweiser creates an entire online entertainment network for its ads.

Newspaper companies do experiment with ads, but mostly in their online ventures, which sends the message to advertisers and readers—the boomers-and-older generation still habituated to newspapers—that they've given print up for dead.

None of this is to suggest that the tired newspaper ad template can't sell goods and services. Of course it can. Indeed, one of the main reasons people read newspapers is to consume classified, real estate, and entertainment ads. But ask anybody who has ever tried to place a stimulating advertisement in a newspaper and you'll hear all about antiquated rules about ad location, size, configuration, and taste that are designed to prevent imaginative ads from running. Newspapers are as complacent in today's competitive ad market as they were when they held a near-monopoly over advertising.

Instead of treating the arrival of front-page ads as some sort of last straw for a distressed industry, newspapers would be smarter to treat it as the first step in their modernization. If they don't tell anybody that that their revolutionarily idea is a retread from 1800s, neither will I.

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I have the vague recollection that European and South American newspaper advertisements are more creative, compelling, and offensive. Am I right? Send word to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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