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Saturday, September 23, 2023

They did what?

The New York Times recently announced that it is now selling advertising space on its front page. The ads will be relatively small and appear below the fold.

This development should be a signal to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention so far that newspapers as we know them are in trouble (much like the boat breaking in half would have been a clue to get off the Titanic).

A newspaper’s front page is sacred; you can’t advertise there, it would be like putting a billboard on the Statue of Liberty. The front page represents all the ideals of what a newspaper should be: a font of information, disseminating knowledge as quickly and accurately as possible.

Articles, photographs, the masthead…these are the primary constituents of a front page. The interior of the newspaper is a clamoring throng of more articles and photos, trying to be heard over the din of advertisements.

The front page is unsullied by the reminder that newspapers are also a business and consequently need to make money by selling space.

Selling ad space, especially in this economic climate, is a challenge. Advertisers are pulling their business from print media and increasing their presence on the Internet. This decline in sold advertisements may only be one symptom of the affliction infecting American newspapers, but the cure is not front page advertising.

Certainly, advertisers want to buy ad space that they think a large number of people are going to see. Hence the high price on full page ads, Super Bowl commercials and those annoying ads projected behind the batter and catcher during baseball games. A lot of people see the front page (obviously), advertisers know this, and should be willing to pay a lot of money to put an ad there.

Lo and behold! Some newspapers are willing to sell ad space there. They’ve made money, the advertisers have maximized the visibility of their product…everybody should be happy!

Except its a terrible idea.

Despite the fact that much of American culture is absolutely teeming with product placement, people don’t really enjoy being advertised at.

When was the last time you asked the person driving the car you were in to slow down so you could read the billboard you were passing? When was the last time any intelligent life form listened to a radio commercial (voluntarily)? Do you read the inserts in The Aggie or do you leave them in the bin like everyone else? Do you read junk mail (hint: it’s junk mail)? What’s the thing that was super exciting about TiVo when it first came out? The fact that you could fast forward through commercials.

So putting an ad on the front page of your newspaper sounds totally logical! Making sure that the daily face of your organization looks like an eyesore sounds brilliant!

Beyond the aesthetic complaints, placing an ad on the front page also makes a statement about the kind of newspaper you are. It says that you are willing to sacrifice just about any of your principles for money. It also limits the amount of news you can fit on the front page. When informing people as quickly as possible about as many things as possible is your business, limiting the amount of news you can fit is a bad thing.

Furthermore, this raises the question ofwhat’s next?” Which journalistic tradition will be discarded in the interest of saving the bottom line? Maybe having product placement in stories?

The situation of any newspaper for the foreseeable future is bleak. Nobody has come up with an ideal solution as to how print media and the internet can be reconciled. Each operation is doing what it can to stay afloat and investigating all its available options. Apparently the New York Times thought this was a good idea, one that would be profitable (who wouldn’t want to advertise on the front page of one of the most famous newspapers in the world?).

It is a terrible idea for the same reason it’s a surefire way to make money: The New York Times, for better or for worse, represents the pinnacle of journalism and leads the way for most other newspapers. By doing this, they have set an example that goes against decades upon decades of journalistic standards.

The front page should belong to news, not the grasping tentacles of an ad agency.

RICHARD PROCTER wants to hear your take on absolutely everything. E-mail him your wild and crazy opinions at rhprocter@ucdavis.edu