Out Front

By Lisheron, Mark | American Journalism Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Out Front


Lisheron, Mark, American Journalism Review


Starting in October, USA Today will carry small ads at the bottom of page one. Will other papers follow its lead?

USA TODAY, THE NEWSPAPER WITH a reputation for setting trends and ignoring conventional wisdom, is at it again.

On October 1, the paper that popularized extravagant page-one Color, informational graphics and stories that don't jump will begin running advertising along the bottom of its front page.

And while the practice largely vanished years ago in the United States as front pages became symbols of respect for readers, don't be surprised if the erstwhile McPaper soon has plenty of company.

The nation's largest daily circulation newspaper insists it is advertising, and not its soul, it is selling. It plans to employ its color bar, the 7/8-by-13-inch strip along the bottom of the front page, to carry advertising for Marriott International, AT&T, Northwest Airlines and two other companies that have asked to remain unnamed until their ads start running. The companies are paying between $1 million and $1.2 million each for a year's worth of once-a-week spots. Other companies are on a waiting list, to be considered when the initial run is over.

Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, predicts a dozen significant newspapers will jump on the bandwagon within 18 months of the ads' debut. He won't rule out the notion that the American-Statesman will be among them.

"Some of those who are sneering about it now will end up adopting this," Oppel says. "Any editor in this country has got to be thinking about how we can ethically expand our own resources. Obviously, we are not going to whore our good names, but we have to keep an open mind."

Detroit Free Press Executive Editor Robert McGruder agrees that other newspapers are almost certain to follow USA Today's lead. "The $5.2 million they expect to earn in the first year frames the discussion in a stark way," he says. "It writes it in big letters."

Not that he intends to go in that direction. "Most newspaper editors have things they will not surrender, and I'd like to think that the front page is one of those things," McGruder says. "I don't want it to happen. I don't think it's a good idea for my newspaper. But editors also know advertising runs the show. They may not like it, but they know it."

John Morton, a prominent newspaper analyst, isn't so sure the bandwagon will be all that crowded. He says USA Today's approach to advertising is more like that of a national magazine than a regional newspaper. Not only will most newspapers never see the kind of ad rates 2 million-plus circulation USA Today commands for the color bar ads, but most papers are simply too conservative to risk offense, in his view. "I just don't see too many other newspapers following this trend," says Morton, an AJR columnist.

While A1 has long been the exclusive province of news, the USA Today announcement in May elicited a muted response. One reason is that the paid ads will drop into a space occupied for years by promo ads for the newspaper.

Front pages free of advertising are distinctively American. Newspaper readers in Europe, South America and Canada, for example, expect to see advertising on their front pages, says David Gray, executive director of the Society for News Design.

In the Free Press newsroom, the USA Today announcement received a hostile reception "among reporters, who might have thought the end was near," McGruder says. Among editors in Detroit, as with many editors across the country, there was a collective shrug, he says.

In a May 13 piece for the online magazine Salon, media columnist James Poniewozik wrote that critics should be far more concerned about more insidious trends, like the collective hysteria that drove American newspapers to run a week of promotional "news" prior to the release of the latest "Star Wars" movie.

"USA Today's decision is actually conservative and admirable, and not because running ads on a newspaper's front page was common in the 19th century," Poniewozik wrote.

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