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.
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.
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:
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 Press’ Harrogate Advertiser, cover price £1.50, on Thursday 22 December 2016:
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:
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:
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:
- media commentator Liz Gerard has discussed how wraps feel so wrong on national papers when major stories break;
- Liz also penned an entire blog headlined ‘Memo to the Telegraph: don’t hide your assets’; and
- if you enjoy funny headlines, you’ll just love this post from Canadian blogger DCMontreal: ‘My newspaper needs a mohel; bring back front page news and keep ads inside’.
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?