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Dyson at Large: Should news or adverts hold the front page?

Ten years ago, the editors and advertising directors of paid-for regional newspapers regularly debated the size of adverts allowed on the front page.

For some titles, a 4cm or 5cm strap across the base was the preferred shape and size; others agreed up to a quarter page; a few added an earpiece, or even two; but the entire front page was rarely considered game for commercial use.

Why? Because page one was considered the paper’s most important marketing tool, selling itself on thousands of shop shelves each and every day.

Back bench staff pored over every word in the splash headline, bouncing around refinements until it read perfectly; the picture was carefully chosen, resized, cropped and positioned until it best-pleased the eye; more time was spent on plugs, nibs, checking the date and cross references.

Readers – the thinking went – would often buy the paper based on what they could see was in it, whereas a full page advert across the front would remove that valuable sales driver.

Today, it seems, those principles are no longer widely held, and if the money’s offered then many publishers will gladly sell a four-page wrap around their newspapers, relegating headline news to page three.

Here’s the Trinity Mirror-owned Birmingham Mail – my local daily, and the one I used to edit – on Friday 23 December 2016:

BM wrap1

I shared the above image on social media to find out what others felt, and some were jocular: “But Steve, just look at that sofa…” said Trinity Mirror’s digital boss David Higgerson, while Archant’s chief content officer Matt Kelly quipped:  “I thought that WAS the splash! A whole sofa for 299 quid??”

Others were more serious: “Just picked up a copy of today’s Bristol Post,” commented my old college pal Tom Henry, referring to another Trinity Mirror title. “Looked at cover – ad wrap – put it back and bought a national instead. I don’t want a new sofa – I want to find what’s happening in the world!”

Tom’s reference to the Post’s front page on the same day made me suspect this was a Trinity Mirror-wide sale and, sure enough, an old colleague up north sent me an image of The Gazette, Teesside, while another pointed out that the Daily Mirror had also wiped out its front with the advert.

Gazette wrap

Midland freelance journalist Richard McComb, in another comment on my Facebook crowd search, said: “Always puts me off buying ANY newspaper. It’s basically saying: ‘Advertising is far more important than journalism.’”

Richard – a former Birmingham Post scribe – has a great gift for words, and summed up his opinion superbly: “If your shop window to the consumer is effectively hawking a sofa/car/lump of cheese, what does it say about your aspirations and core values? It undermines the newspaper/reader relationship.”

Just in case anyone thinks the above fronts were a Christmas season special, here’s the Birmingham Mail from Friday 13 January 2017, this time a summer holiday wrap hiding what would have been an emotive splash on Graham Taylor’s death:

BM wrap2

It’s not just Trinity Mirror, of course, although as the biggest regional publisher it’s bound to have more examples. A contact sent me this example from Johnston PressHarrogate Advertiser, cover price £1.50, on Thursday 22 December 2016:

Harrogate wrap

And another old colleague sent Johnston Press’ Peterborough Telegraph – although on this occasion either the advertiser wouldn’t pay enough or the local editor held their ground, as there was room for a splash headline despite the advert:

Peterbro wrap

Using the entire front page for advertising was commonplace for most regionals until the start of World War Two when news became predominant, as detailed by this fascinating education article in The Guardian.

By the 1950s almost all paid-for regionals were printing page one news, although free newspapers have always had the ‘wrap’ option, as seen here with the London Standard on 5 January 2017:

standard wrap

But when today’s paid-for regionals are suffering sales declines of 10pc and much more, are publishers right to sacrifice the front page, removing any chance of impulsive buys triggered by the splash?

And what about if the advertiser is a political party on a major issue, as happened in the Portsmouth News just before the EU referendum last year? How well does it sit for supposedly neutral regionals to use all of page one to sell a political line?

At the time, editor Mark Waldron said: “The editorial of The News remains democratic, relevant, impartial, free of political bias and unswayed by advertising … We are an independent newspaper but we are also a commercial business and so we do take advertising from a wide range of sources – including political parties.”

Fair comment, and the commercial business line makes even more sense when you peek at examples of the revenues at stake: Adidas paid £2.25m to run cover wraps around the Metro for 17 days during the London Olympics in 2012, while the Metro’s book price for wrapping its national editions for one day is a weighty £250,000.

However repulsed journalists might be by ad-wraps, it could be argued that their titles would be less profitable and more at risk of closure if these extra revenues were refused.

That said, others might argue that ad-wraps progressively result in fewer newspaper sales, in the long term negating the extra windfall through faster-falling circulation and cover price revenues. There’s more good reading on this subject:

Cultural references aside, this is a debate that anyone interested in the future of UK regionals should be having, and eponymously there’s no better place than here, on HoldtheFrontPage. So, what do you think?

5 comments

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  • January 18, 2017 at 8:01 am
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    In my view its pretty clear cut,a newspaper is / was brought to read the news so the cover will always be the hook to attract the reader and thus should carry the minimal amount of advertising,if any ( put a true value on your content if you believe your content is good enough) whereas a free paper is generally seen as just an ad grabber,no more than a collection of cheap and cheerful assorted adverts for local busiensses,nothing more,nothing less ,therefore these could in effect carry as much commercial space as they can get ,no ones paying to buy the thing so advertising could be given priority.
    However,when asking an individual to shell out hard earned money for a news paper only to find it swapmed (they wish) with advertising,generally thrown together with no design ethics,simply to hit a deadline,then ad space must be kept to a minimum.

    With copy sales in free fall and ad revenues at all time lows,with ad rates unaligned to the number of copies being sold and with quality content sacrificed to easy to obtain social media scrapings and readers own stories,there needs to be more thought given to how the end product is viewed,do you want to be taken seriously as a local news medium? or happy to be seen as publishers of a collection of pages stuffed with adverts with the odd lifted space filler story to fill the ad gaps? this really ought to detemine the level of commercial space given,however with ad revenues at all time lows and looking to fall further in 2017,the commercial priority will always be given and it would take a brave, but laudible person to hold firm when the demand for a four page cover wrap,an extra ear piece,another 1/4 page, an extra strip,another ad on pagve 3,5,7,9 ..one more front solus (?) be forced on the editor by the commercial chiefs whos only interest is clawing money from local businesses irrespective of just how awful these front (and back ) pages look.

    What sales managers fail to realise is that a better looking,nicely presented publication,with well designed adverts,properly planned on pages aligned to news or features are likely to attract more readers and return better response for the advertiser than those thrown together with no thought on pages just to fill a space,if it works for the advertiser and they get respoinse they are very likely to return.

    Time to stand up and be counted and to decide what`s more important;adverts anywhere and at any price or the quality, appearance and end user satisfaction of the end product,sadly i think i already know the answer.

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  • January 18, 2017 at 10:15 am
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    Am I the only one who, when confronted by a weekly or daily wrap-round in a supermarket (I buy an extra paper on the weekly shop, on other days they are delivered to keep my local newsagents alive in his battle against unfair supermarkets moving in next door) , rips it off and pays for it at the till with the bar code on the ‘proper’ paper?

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  • January 18, 2017 at 11:23 am
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    The paper that consistently provides an authoritative, intelligent and well-designed front page is more likely to be taken seriously than one smothered in ads, earpieces, splashes of yellow, or gimmicky strips.
    And it is that perception of quality, authority, honesty that attracts the reader and, if sustained, gets the reader back for more.
    How often do you see a cracking splash totally undermined buy a garish double glazing ad or 10p off! promotion.
    Ads of course have their place, but it’s not on the front page.
    I’m with Employee X – I too know how it will go.

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  • January 18, 2017 at 5:29 pm
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    Interesting article, my background is on the commercial side, and whilst I accept wraps on free papers, I think they are wrong on paid-for titles, esp. if they have an eye-watering £1.50 cover price.

    Our publication, HERE & NOW, is a monthly free what’s on & community magazine, delivered to 30,000 homes & another 8.000 copies into pick-up points.

    You would expect us to take front page ads or even wraps, but we don’t, our front pages are basically a [almost] page full image, i.e. minus the masthead & a strap promoting the mag and/or what’s inside.

    What we will do is sell that image, but only if it’s to promote something that’s in keeping with magazine, so we wouldn’t carry any of the examples above.

    So far, we have only allowed Worthing Theatres to take the front page, our December front page promoted Peter Pan & Feb. 2017 promotes David Williams’ The First Hippo on the Moon, in both cases it doesn’t even include Worthing Theatres’ branding.

    We’ve turned down plenty of offers for the front page in the five months since we launched, and I will do my best to continue to resit the temptation.

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  • January 30, 2017 at 11:04 am
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    If your paper has a wrap on it, you might as well put the weather forecast as the front page “splash”. OK for free papers perhaps, but not good if you are trying to sell papers with a good front page story.

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