The [Tuesday] Papers
Front page ads are coming to Tribune Company newspapers.
It's an abomination.
In a low-trust world in which the brand authority of mainstream media is eroding while the brand authority of new media is still evolving, this is exactly backwards.
This is the exact moment when news organizations ought to assert their journalistic values - not just on principle, though that ought to be enough, but as a business decision about how to rise above the clutter as a trusted, dependable source of information.
The Tribune's account says that newspapers "face even greater pressure to reverse declining revenues and circulation brought on by competition from the Internet and other sources of news," an explanation we've heard for years as justification for hollowing out newsrooms and degrading the product.
It's baloney. When I came out of journalism school in the late '80s, newspapers were instituting hiring freezes, layoffs, and in some cases shutting down altogether. The excuse then was the rising (in reality, cyclical) cost of newsprint.
A.J. Liebling, Ben Bagdikian and others have chronicled over the decades a litany of excuses the suits find to stuff more money in their pockets. Conrad Black, anyone?
"[Los Angeles] Times Editor James O'Shea said he vigorously opposed putting ads on Page One and advised the publisher against doing so," the Times reports. "'Front-page ads diminish the newspaper, cheapen the front page and reduce the space devoted to news,' he said Friday. 'This would be a huge mistake that will penalize the reader.' "
O'Shea is right. Of course, O'Shea holds his job because he's willing to stand by and watch it happen, unlike predecessors Dean Baquet and John Carroll.
"It's safe to say we were opposed [to front-page ads] on the grounds that it wasn't in the best interests of readers," Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski said with all the passion the paper is known for. "But that view did not prevail."
I understand the economics of the industry. But how can acting against the best interests of your customers be good business?
"John Lavine, dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, said that a purist would rather the entire front page be devoted to editorial both because it makes available more of what people read newspapers for and because it makes a statement about the importance of the social mission," the Tribune account says.
"But, he said, the newspaper industry can't afford purists anymore. 'The alternative is no newspaper, and I'm happy to make that trade-off.'"
I worked for John Lavine when I was in graduate school about 15 years ago and it was an amazing experience. But I don't always agree with him, and this is one of those times. The alternative isn't "no newspaper." Newspapers will not go under if they keep ads off the front page. And there are plenty of alternatives for raising revenue. I'm sure the Tribune Company is considering them.
But what if you are no longer even producing a newspaper? Then what's the point?
And if we must make trade-offs, why stop there? Would it be okay to exchange favorable coverage to companies willing to advertise if the only alternative is to not have a newspaper?
I personally would rather not have newspapers than have newspapers that can't be trusted. Perhaps that's the choice readers are already making.
Yes, there indeed is competition from the Internet. But no one is in a better position to dominate news on the Internet than companies like Tribune. And there will always be competition. Newspapers are losing readers for many (self-inflicted) reasons. And revenue projections are on a downward trend. But making your product less attractive is a case study in madness - especially when newspapers are still obscenely profitable. Tribune CEO Dennis J. FitzSimons made $6.3 million last year.
Let's advertise that on the front page every day.
"The city is trying to keep the potentially embarrassing documents under wraps. They include a list of 662 Chicago Police officers - one of every 20 cops on the 13,200-member force - with more than 10 civilian complaints lodged against them between 2001 and 2006."
Yes, is he that great a man?!
"Now Loyola reportedly plans to return the station to its roots as a student-run operation and make it part of the curriculum."
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Posted on July 17, 2007
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