Amid a steep decline in revenue, the Los Angeles Times is planning to break with long-standing tradition by selling ads on its front page, Publisher David Hiller said Friday.
When it happens, the newspaper will be the largest metropolitan paper in the country to place ads there.
Hiller said the decision was his. The Times’ corporate parent, Chicago-based Tribune Co., plans to sell Page One ads at its 10 other newspapers as well, said Doug Thomas, a senior vice president for advertising in Tribune’s publishing division. He said Tribune’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale began selling front-page ads this year and got “an incredible response” from advertisers.
Hiller said the initiative “is a meaningful response to the demand for more innovative solutions from advertisers who have a lot of choices about where to spend their money.”
“We aren’t the only game in town anymore,” he said in an interview Friday.
Earlier in the day, Hiller outlined the changes in a two-page memo to Times employees. He said premium-priced ads would raise “several million dollars in revenue” at a time when the newspaper’s financial performance has been extraordinarily weak. In the second quarter, The Times’ overall revenue slid 10% and cash flow plunged 27%, “making it one of the worst quarters ever experienced,” he said. Year to date, ad revenue is down 8%.
In the memo, Hiller encouraged employees to offer comments and suggestions on the possibility of Page One ads, but he said in a later interview, “We are preparing to do this.”
Times Editor James O’Shea said he vigorously opposed putting ads on Page One and advised the publisher against doing so. “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.”
This week, a committee appointed by O’Shea came out against “selling the most valuable real estate in The Times.” The committee, which included senior managers from circulation, marketing and advertising and the newsroom, said the newspaper would risk “alienating readers, who will view the disappearance of an A1 story as yet another cutback.”
Employees in the Times newsroom circulated a petition Friday exhorting the publisher to reconsider.
“Page One has traditionally been sacrosanct among American newspapers,” said Alan Mutter, a media investor and online commentator who used to be a newsroom executive with the San Francisco Chronicle. But with newspapers facing increasingly stiff competition from Internet-based news and entertainment sources, the industry has been scrambling to cut costs and find new sources of revenue, Mutter said, noting that the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle and numerous other papers have been selling front-page ads for months.
“It’s now become perfectly acceptable, just as not running stock tables in the business section and not having foreign bureaus is acceptable,” he said.
It has not been decided when readers will see The Times’ first front-page ad, Hiller said. He said the paper was still working out pricing strategies and standards, so that the ads would “look aesthetically good.” The ads would be confined to the “brand-and-image” category, he said. As contemplated, an ad would be a 1 1/2 -inch “strip” across the bottom of the page.
Hiller said The Times would take steps to ensure that the front-page ads would generate new revenue and not just be a shift of dollars that otherwise would have been spent on spots inside the paper.
The Times earlier began selling ad space on section fronts for the first time. Hiller said the program had been successful, with spending up 30% year over year among advertisers that have bought the ads.
The fact that ads do not appear on the section fronts every day doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of demand, Hiller said. “If you sell out every day, it means you’re not charging enough,” he said.
Martin Kaplan, who holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said front-page ads were disturbing mainly to journalists “and nostalgic purists like me.” On the other hand, he said, “anything that increases revenue for an endangered institution is worth a try.”