On Wednesday morning, CBC’s David Cochrane emailed me a photo of that day’s Telegram.
It appeared, on first glance, to be a full page ad. However, if you looked closer, there was The Telegram’s front page banner across the top. Except there was no news, just a big, full-page ad underneath, for the MegaCatch, The Telegram’s in-house group buying promotion (not unlike Groupon).
The note accompanying the photo was a little snarky. “This is the paper you both write for,” Cochrane wrote (it was also copied to Bob Wakeham). “But it’s the turkey drives and the pancakes that are over the top.”
Apparently, I was being goaded into writing about it. So fair enough.
But first, one needs to make some distinctions. Because we are talking here about two different things. A full-page advertisement on page one of a daily newspaper is not a good thing, but nor is it the same as a charity event that dominates the radio and TV airwaves for a month.
On the one hand, we have a daily newspaper selling its own front page, presumably for a pretty penny. On the other, we have a public broadcaster devoting many hours of coverage to a charity event. There are different issues at play, but I can see how one could regard both as going “over the top.”
In my view, selling a front page is more worrisome than protracted support of a charity event. The motive in the first case is profit, whereas the second is raising money for a needy third party.
A front page is the most important editorial space in a newspaper – it’s where the top stories are played. The biggest are placed “above the fold,” so that the headline catches your eye on the newsstand and compels you to buy the paper. It also tells readers, by its position alone, that the story is important and merits their attention. When the space above the fold – indeed, the whole front page – is sold to an advertiser, it sends a confusing signal indeed. It may even affect retail sales, since there is no headline to grab the attention of consumers.
More importantly, a newspaper builds what I call “trust equity” with its readers. Selling the front page is selling off a piece of that trust – if indeed, the paper is really selling that space.
Because here’s where we enter a gray area.
The front page ad on Wednesday’s Telegram was actually a four-page spread, devoted entirely to its MegaCatch promotion. It was, in fact, a “wrap-around.” Inside was the real front page, with the paper’s banner and top headlines, as usual. So, technically, one could argue that the paper didn’t sell its front page at all.
This may sound like mere semantics, but, believe me, they are extremely important distinctions for the reporters and editors who, every day, compose page one.
Without doubt, they watch carefully whenever the advertising department rolls out a promotion like this. I’m just speculating, but I expect this one was mediated by the publisher, who must make decisions that strike a balance between the editorial and advertising departments. In this case, what seems to be page one is an advertisement, while the real page one appears inside. It hasn’t really been sold – it’s hidden.
Do I like it? No, I don’t. I think the spread should have appeared inside. That’s my take. I think it is, indeed, “over the top.”
Of course, this is easy for me to say, from where I sit. On the flip side, newspaper readership is slipping in a wired world, and revenue generators are crucial. I do understand what they’re up against.
This is not the first time that front-page space has been marketed in this way. I’ve seen it at least once before on The Telegram. And I’ve seen glossy magazines with specially-cut covers that feature an intruding ad, but the reader can turn that page to see the real front cover, underneath. The equivalent on the web are those ads that pop up, enlarge or even drive across the page (I’ve seen car ads do this); you have to click the x to make them disappear. I find them all irritating.
It is hard to discuss this, and the CBC’s turkey drive, in the same context. They are different. However, my post on that subject has generated considerable feedback, both online and in private messages, so I will follow up on that soon.