Andrew Trench
4 minute read
4 Dec 2013

Advertising-drenched world

Andrew Trench

LAST week, an interesting item dropped into my Twitter timeline concerning a front page of the Los Angeles Times...

LAST week, an interesting item dropped into my Twitter timeline concerning a front page of the Los Angeles Times .

I’m not an LA Times reader usually, but there was so much buzz about it, I went to check it out. The front page that had the punters atwitter involved a bold Disney advert on page one, basically bracketing the front-page content, which broke pretty much every rule in the book, from an editor’s perspective.

You can see the front page I’m writing about on this page to get an idea of how it looked.

Traditionally, a newspaper’s front page is sacrosanct and an advert like this in the past would have seen editors resign rather than agree to carry it. But times have changed and in the face of declining revenues and circulation, things that were once considered no-go areas are now being considered, especially when confronted with digital-media platforms where innovation and experimentation in advertising are building new frontiers.

The change that is coming to print seems to be inevitable.

If you are a reader of the South African Sunday papers, you will have noticed that “wraps” are now common. These are essentially replicas of the top half of the front page of a title like the Sunday Times or City Press, with the rest of the wrap taken up by advertising. The “real” front page lies inside the outer wrapper.

In years past, editors would have balked at this even, maybe entertaining it only going around editions being delivered to subscribers, thinking that since these copies have already been sold, the wrap around the front page would have no impact on the paper’s sale.

Out of interest, I posted a copy of the LA Times front page on my Facebook page to see what my circle there had to say about it. Unsurprisingly, since most of my Facebook friends are media people, they were generally unimpressed.

Anne Taylor, a veteran journalist and sub-editor, commented: “The surround-sound ads? As an old-school layout sub, they make me itch, but I think readers are used to them now. Perhaps it is not so much that they may bother the reader, but that they may subtly affect the way your content is perceived/received?”

City Press editor Ferial Haffajee gave it the thumbs-down and Edwin Lombard, senior editor at Die Son, pointed out that such adverts are already commonplace in the tabloids and predicted: “It’s going to get worse.”

But is what journalists and editors see as “getting worse” the same as what readers see? We live in a media- and advertising-drenched world, where the media literacy of consumers has probably never been more sophisticated, and whose ability to filter commercial and news messages is increasingly honed.

Paddi Clay, the Times Media Group training programme head, picked up on this: “I do think especially younger [readers] — 40 and under — have a higher tolerance and are not so precious. Websites look like this.”

Mandy de Waal, a prominent media commentator, said she “absolutely” hated it and that she thought newspapers needed to be “smarter about how they appeal to readers — and they should start looking at value, rather than attention disruption”.

But she also added: “That said, I think newspapers have to get a hell of a lot more inventive with advertising, without relinquishing integrity.”

My own thoughts on this are mixed. My knee-jerk reaction is to say: “No way!” However, research shows that advertising is viewed by readers as an important and valuable part of the content mix, in contrast to journalists, who see advertising as something that messes with our glorious layout and scintillating words.

So, if the research is right, it would follow that if an advert is well-designed and offers compelling value to a reader, surely that enhances our total offering too? Perhaps editors have been a little precious about this, so I’d be interested to hear what you think. Would you find a Witness front page, like that produced by the LA Times, to be offensive or crossing a line that you would feel uncomfortable with as a reader?

If not, I’m inclined to give it a try as a once-off and see what happens.

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