Opening Little Windows in That Wall Between Editorial and Advertising

Headlines on page one of today’s Washington Post:

Israel strikes after jet crashes

Trump calls for ‘due process’ in abuse cases

Trump reaps benefits when bad things befall others

Natural pain killer or addictive killer?


The first four headlines are editorial, the last is a bottom-of-page-one-ad for an MGM gambling casino on the Potomac River north of Washington. It promises $5 to $10,000 guaranteed weekly cash and freeplay prize giveaways until March 1. COLD HARD CASH-DAILY PLAY-DAILY WINS.

Along with the casino ad there’s a page one sticker offering $5 off on floral arrangements at Giant Food. The sticker can be peeled off so you can see other page one headlines. Next to the page one sticker is a color box telling readers the paper includes “Save $202 Sunday Coupon Inserts”

All this is a reminder that the front pages of newspapers now might be a mix of editorial, advertising, and promotion. And as print revenues are harder to come by, magazines also are wrestling with the question of how purely editorial their covers should be.

Last year I had to deal with a page one ad problem. I was judging a general excellence category of the annual City and Regional Magazine Association editorial contest. Five judges, communicating by email, picking five finalists and then the winner out of 19 entries.

First we ranked the 19 entries and combined our rankings to help us decide on the five finalists. Then it was time to pick the winner.

I had Memphis magazine ranked number one. But one judge said there was a problem with Memphis. One issue—March 2016—had a cover line “The Faces and Places Issue.” Inside the magazine the Places were editorial but the Faces were a series of ad sections featuring the Face of Cosmetic Dentistry, the Face of Men’s Clothing, etc. All were labeled advertising.

Several of the judges felt strongly that the word Faces on the cover—in effect promoting ad sections—disqualified Memphis. After some debate, that was the decision: Memphis was out.

In the 1980s and 90s I helped judge the National Magazine Awards, the annual contest run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. We were hardliners on cover purity—no mention allowed of anything to do with advertising or promotion.

It’s a different time now—many ad categories have disappeared from print and lots of magazines have cut their subscription rates to under $15 a year, a growing number to under $10 a year.

The New Yorker still tries to get big dollars but it’s a puzzle to go to its website and try to figure out how much a year’s subscription costs if you sign up for one of its 12 issues for $6 deals. Their subscription strategy is pretty close to a carnival game.

So given all the chaos and change in print journalism, should Memphis have been tossed from the city magazine contest? Should the Washington Post keep its page one purely editorial? Readers can handle the changes—I think they want whatever keeps more journalists doing great stories.
A reader asks if the Sunday New York Times also has ads on page one. Today’s Times has an ad across the bottom of  page one for Citi. It shows a woman resting on a surfboard in the ocean, gazing at the sky, with the line: “What if a bank could help you feel a little more like this?”

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