Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Press Herald to host section-front ads

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram will begin publishing paid advertisements on the front pages of its Business, Outdoors, and Sports sections starting October 1, according to employees who spoke on the condition they not be named, for fear of losing their jobs.

The move comes two years after the paper spent $500,000 to redesign its material to fit a narrower page (a change, according to company statements at the time, that reduced newsprint costs by five percent), and at a time when the paper’s Seattle-based parent company’s commitment to Maine is in question.

Section-front ads represent both a throwback and a look at the future. In centuries past, when newspapers’ editorial copy was unashamedly partisan, many newspapers melded advertising and reporting with little apparent worry that readers would perceive bias in news coverage of a paper’s large advertisers. In recent times, the practice has been considered a violation of the strict division between editorial content and advertising. But page-one advertising is becoming increasingly common as publications scramble for additional ad revenue. And in years to come, the industry may see more publishers adopt the strategy of selling such very-high-profile advertising positions.

Maine daily newspapers are split on the topic. Richard Warren, publisher of the Bangor Daily News, says section-front ads are “not a topic of discussion” at his paper, and though he says he “wouldn’t rule it out . . . it would be a change in our traditional approach.” But the Lewiston Sun Journal sells ads on its front page.

The New York Times and the Times-owned Boston Globe began selling section-front ads earlier this summer. And this month, the Wall Street Journal began running ads on its front page, selling for a reported $75,000 or more per day.

In July, the executive editor at the Press Herald/Telegram’s parent newspaper, the Seattle Times, wrote a column defending his paper’s section-front ads in parts of the paper where “content essentially is a consumer guide and the ad content is an important part of the total content mix, such as Motoring, Job Market, and Travel” — not the news-oriented sections that are getting section-front ads at the Press Herald/Telegram.

The trend worries newspaper ethicists, such as Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, who wrote in July that his major concern was not ad placement, but the possible shift away from using newspaper profits to pay for improved journalism.

“We must make sure the journalism does not suffer,” Steele wrote. “If we are to make more bucks by selling the out-front space, let’s make sure that some of the increased revenue goes right back into the commitment to journalism.”

On another front, though neither publisher Chuck Cochrane nor editor Jeannine Guttman returned calls seeking comment, three postings on the newspaper’s help-wanted Web site suggest that at least departing staff is being replaced, perhaps signaling the end of a year-old hiring freeze.