Brent Boyer: Advertising, news and the front page
March 25, 2010
Even after seven-plus years at the Steamboat Pilot & Today, I'm still occasionally surprised at what elicits reaction from our readers and what doesn't.
For instance, there are times when the management team here wrings its hands about a particular decision or initiative that we think might be controversial or upsetting to some in the community, and then we implement it and never hear a peep.
And then there are other times when we feel a decision is sensible, justified, reasonable and unlikely to cause a stir, and a day later, our phones are ringing off the hook.
An example of the former is our decision several years ago to sell advertising on and around the front page of the newspaper. We agonized long and hard about it, ultimately agreeing that not only was it an effective way for advertisers to get their messages to readers but that it wouldn't take away space previously used for editorial content or influence our coverage of local issues.
In the past couple of years, we have introduced advertising tools such as glossy front-page wraps (Central Park Liquor, Prudential Steamboat Realty and Strings Music Festival are among the clients who purchased those wraps), sticky notes (Let's Vote and Cari Hermacinski have used the front-page notes for their political campaigns, as have numerous Steamboat Springs and Routt County businesses), and more recently, newsprint front-page wraps such as the ad purchased by Good For Steamboat the day before the Steamboat 700 election, and the weekly Tuesday coupons that first appeared wrapped around the March 9 edition of the Steamboat Today, as well as the two Tuesdays since. It is those coupon wraps that inspired this column.
We've discussed the pros and cons of such advertising methods every step of the way, and we've also anticipated stronger reader reaction. But there's been surprisingly little reaction to any of our advertising methods that use the front page of the paper.
So what to make of the non-reaction? I think it goes to show that most readers know the difference between news and advertising.
Put simply, they're creative advertising options, and readers understand as much. Just because there's a wrap around the newspaper doesn't mean there's not a front page with the most important or interesting news story of the day. Just because there's a sticky note doesn't mean there's not a front-page article and photo underneath it, almost always having nothing to do with the content of the ad itself. The two times that hasn't been the case is when Let's Vote purchased a sticky note on a day in which the front-page article was about the previous day's Steamboat 700 debate, and when Good For Steamboat purchased the front-page wrap on the same day that featured a cover story, ironically, about campaign spending on the election, in particular the tens of thousands of dollars spent by Steamboat 700 to get the annexation agreement passed.
What none of our front-page advertisements and wraps have done is blur the line between editorial and advertising content. I think those ads have been clearly presented as such.
I also think it's significant that the front-page ads and wraps we have offered advertisers have not taken away space previously dedicated to editorial content. Wraps go around the newspaper, and sticky notes on it. That is to say, neither of these forms of advertising takes up regular newspaper column inches. And that's a big reason why I've been supportive, as editor, of our efforts to generate additional revenue without compromising our editorial ethics.
Traditionalists have a hard time accepting front-page advertising, and I understand why. For a long time, the front page of a newspaper was considered sacred territory for news. I'd argue that it still is, with the difference being that newspapers such as the Pilot & Today have sought innovate ways to capitalize on the value of the content they offer, and there's no more prominent space to display an ad than on or around the front of the paper.
Some of the country's most important and highly regarded newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and Los Angeles Times, sell display advertising on their front pages. Closer to home, many readers probably have noticed The Denver Post's recent inclusion of front-page Safeway grocery store wraps.
It makes sense for newspapers to capitalize on the tremendous value of the news content they offer. The value of that content is precisely why advertisers are attracted to publications like the Pilot & Today. So long as the distinction between advertising and news is clear, I think coming up with creative ways for advertisers to get their message out to readers is OK. And based on the lack of reaction from our readers, it seems you agree. But I've been wrong before. Feel free to drop me a note sharing your opinion.