Get used to it, readers: page 1 ads

Rising costs and demand for greater profits muscle ads onto front page

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For years there's been one place advertisers were not invited: the front page of the newspaper.

But readers across the US are finding logos for car dealers and phone companies staring back at them from page 1 as papers look for ways to offset rising costs and meet the demand for greater profits.

On Sunday, The Arizona Republic will become the second paper in as many months to print more ads and less news on the front page. It joins a growing list that includes The Albuquerque Journal - which debuted its ads in December - USA Today, and The New York Times.

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"Many papers are doing this, and consequently it's become a prime advertising position," says Sue Clark-Johnson, CEO of The Arizona Republic, in an e-mail interview. "Given newsprint prices in double digits over last year's costs and the significant slowing of the economy, now is as good a time as any," she adds.

Demand is so great, some papers are having to turn away advertisers who are willing to pay top dollar for a spot on the front page. It's one way for journalists to keep their jobs and readers to keep their news, but both groups give the practice a mixed reception.

"The front page really is the sacred document of the newspaper," says Ken Bode, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "We all know about the pressure for profits, but is the added value of the front-page [ads] so important that you give that up?" he asks.

American papers have long shunned Page 1 ads, which are common in Europe, Canada, and Latin America. They disappeared from US newspapers around the mid-1900s, and American journalists have worked hard to keep it that way - wanting to protect their territory and ensure that readers trust their independence.

One exception is the The New York Times, which has published tiny ads for decades on page A1 with little notice. But more newspapers have become converts in the last year or so, including USA Today, as of Oct. 1999. Since then other papers also owned by the large Gannett Co., including The Arizona Republic, have followed suit with the company's blessing. The ads bring in more than $5 million a year for USA Today alone, which didn't give up editorial space for them, but replaced its own promotional advertising.

That's not the case at The Albuquerque Journal, where the inch-high ad across the bottom of the page is cutting into space editors reportedly already thought was tight.

Even so, the ads are a big hit with advertisers, says Brian Fantl, general manager of the Albuquerque Publishing Co. They were added at the request of the publisher, he says, in part to give the paper a new look - like that of European papers.

Initially, a few readers weren't pleased with the outcome, saying there are too many ads already and they should stay on the inside. "It's new and it's different and some people don't think ads belong on the front page," says Mr. Fantl.

That's old-media thinking, argues Ms. Clark-Johnson at The Arizona Republic, where ads also quickly sold out. "Take a look at any website," she says, "banner ads proliferate on news pages, including the home page. What's the difference?"

Some journalists break ranks and suggest that front-page ads are not the industry's biggest concern. Instead, they say, it should focus on more-problematic practices -such as "advertorials" -which make it difficult for readers to distinguish between reporting and advertising.

"I'm more worried about this trend to make advertising look like news," says Geneva Overholser, who is currently on the faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is a former editor of The Des Moines Register.

She once thought front-page ads were the enemy, but now she says journalists need to be practical. "What really is the harm, except aesthetically, of having an ad on the front page?" she asks.

New Arizona Republic editor Tom Callinan is also more concerned about "advertorials." Though he didn't play a role in the decision to sell front-page ads, and won't judge its necessity, he will try to rally his staff when the ads debut this weekend. "It's one more place where we have to make better decisions because we have less space to tell our stories," he says.

The ads won't affect the quality of the paper's journalism, he says, just the space it's reported in.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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