Front-Page Ads: How to Protect the Journalism in the Pursuit of Profit?

When The Wall Street Journal announced last week that it will begin placing ads on the front page of the Journal, the news prompted a good deal of chatter in journalism circles. I was among those with some thoughts, thoughts that had to do with both business values and journalism values.

The New York Times wrote about this development and that article quoted me as saying, “As a traditionalist, I’m not thrilled by the idea.” To be sure, I did say that, and I meant it. I’m not thrilled by the idea of advertising on the front page of the newspaper.  But that quote did not fully capture my views on this matter.  My abbreviated quotes in that story offered fodder to critics such as Business Week columnist Jon Fine.

As I told the Times, I was not surprised by the announcement, since you can already find ads on some section fronts of The Wall Street Journal, as well as on the front page of the Journal’s international edition. And as I pointed out to the Times, “Gannett has changed the equation considerably in the last few years with section-front and front-page ads, and now the Internet has presented a whole new table top.” Examine the home page of just about any news organization Web site, and you will find a mixture of news content and advertising, with the ads increasingly bold in placement, style and tone.

I recognize and accept that news organizations must continually develop new revenue streams to fuel the engines that make the enterprise viable.  Simply put, a news organization won’t have a strong journalism product unless the business side is healthy. I understand why front-page ads can make good business sense. The front page is primo territory and the sales side can command big bucks from those who want their brands and messages out front.

I also recognize that front-page ads are not new. Spend some time looking at newspapers of generations past and you will find many examples of advertising on the front page. Heck, even Nelson Poynter, the venerable and principled owner of the St. Petersburg Times, championed this concept.

If you grab a copy of Robert Pierce’s book, “A Sacred Trust,” and go to page 269, you will see the evidence: “Poynter would not permit pressure from the advertising department on the editorial side,”  Pierce wrote about Nelson Poynter. “But his view of ad placement was strangely incongruous. He believed in maximum use of newsprint, and long before the [executive editor Don]Baldwin era he insisted on selling the ears — the space on each side of the page-one nameplate. To many news staffers this was a gross journalistic indignity, and although Baldwin also detested it, he got nowhere in trying to dissuade Poynter.”

I’m sure I, too, would have made no progress in debating this matter of front-page ads with Nelson Poynter. (Poynter founded the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.) And I doubt that that I would get much traction in debating the issue with the executives at  The Wall Street Journal.

But I hope that there is a healthy discussion going on in every news organization about the tensions that exist between business values and journalism values. That’s where the tradition comes into play.

It’s not a tradition that absolutely rejects front-page advertising, for no such tradition exists. Rather, it’s a tradition that speaks clearly about the public service role of journalism.

This tradition emphasizes the belief that journalism has a very special responsibility in our society. The journalism — both in process and product — should be protected from out-of-proportion commercial interests.

If we are to keep moving toward more advertising content that competes with the premium news space, we must make sure the journalism does not suffer. If we keep cutting the news hole on the front page, the section fronts and throughout the paper, we must find ways to make the journalism all the stronger.

And, importantly, if we are to make more bucks by selling the out-front space, let’s make sure that some of the increased revenue goes right back into the commitment to journalism.  

For more thoughts on this issue, I commend to you the thoughts of Seattle Times’ executive editor Mike Fancher. He devoted his Sunday column to the tensions that can exist between the news and business sides of a newspaper. He is a wise man and a good leader who has a lot of respect for his colleagues in other departments at the paper. He wrote about the importance that all the stakeholders at The Seattle Times — representatives from news, advertising, circulation and marketing — share “the same commitment to journalistic and business excellence.”

Fancher’s words are worth pondering and discussing in every news organization across the land.

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