Ad Nauseam

I received the following e-mail from an Arizona Republic insider who shall remain nameless:

Employees at The Arizona Retarded were recently dismayed to learn that under its new and ever-so-wise owners, the illustrious Gannett chain, the newspaper's front page would be whored out to the highest bidder. Perhaps this is a more honest approach to the paper's goal of acting like big business and less of a guise at real journalism. The offense is to take the form of a six-column, 1.25-inch ad an A-1.

Here is an excerpt from one of the most insulting pieces of pollyanna-ish dribble in recent memory, sent out via e-mail by an editor to his staff recently, verbatim:

"Anyway [sic] who wants to talk to me about the A1 advertising, feel free to stop in. We can also chat about it at our staff meeting a week from Monday. of course, probably you all will want to talk to [new editor] Tom [Cullinan] about it, and I am trying to arrange a visit from him in the next few weeks. I would urge all of you not to get too stressed about it. And I truly do not say this as a management toady. I don't think it's that big a deal as long as it doesn't become underwear ads taking up quarter panels. I'm not sure how A1 got to be considered sacred ground, but as far as I am concerned, if a discreet strip at the bottom of A1 will help keep all you in jobs and even reward you down the road with raises, I sure am not gonna be holy about it. However, I am not trying to dis any of you who are genuinely concerned. As a hard news guy for decades, though, i just want to tell you my feelings: There are far worse things newspapers can and have done in the name of the buck. And if this is all we do, you can all hold your head up high no matter what those sanctimonious and hypocritical folks at New Times might write down the road."

Let the sanctimony begin.

I'd suggest that the Republic has struck a Faustian bargain, but that requires the assumption that the Republic has a soul.

When Gannett bought the Arizona Republic's parent company for $2.6 billion last summer, Valley residents read the obligatory and solemn pledges of editorial rectitude.

Yet to the Republic's credit, its stories about the sale of Central Newspapers Inc. did not disguise Gannett's devotion to profits over community service. Gannett executives revel in their lust for the bottom line. The pecuniary undercurrent diluted platitudes about commitment to news and community.

For example, Gannett, the largest newspaper group in North America, had 1999 revenues of $5.3 billion and aggregate circulation of nearly 8 million. The Gannett Foundation donated $8.3 million to charities in the communities in which it operates. The Republic, with a circulation of less than 450,000, claimed charitable gifts of $9 million in Arizona alone.

During the Reagan Administration, when the Republic was still owned by the sleepy Pulliam Family Trust, its profit margin hovered in the single digits. But Central Newspapers went public in 1989, inaugurating an era in which nutritious and sustainable profits were no longer tolerable -- to stockholders, that is.

After USA Today, the Republic is the largest daily in the Gannett firmament. At the time Gannett acquired Central, the Republic's margin was a robust 32 percent. Central's stock languished anyway, and its top executives seized on that lethargy as a pretext to sell out. Gannett's bean counters promptly demanded that the margin be fattened even more.

News gathering is a labor-intensive and costly business. Newsprint, too, is astonishingly expensive. When the master decrees that profits must grow inexorably, something's got to give.

The first casualties came in November, when the Republic's information technology staff was cashiered. Sixty heads were lopped. This was incongruous; the Republic's purported grasp of the Internet had been touted as its strong suit. A memo about the downsizing informed employees, "Our advertising revenues continue their five-month downward trend. There has been a sizeable deterioration in year over year revenue growth since May. Those revenue realities are expected to continue on into next year." (Note that revenues were not declining -- they simply were not burgeoning satisfactorily.)

Gannett set about groping its new cash cow for a fresh udder, and it came up with Page One.

Advertising will debut on Page One on January 28, in the form of a strip across the bottom of the page. Purchasers will pay a premium for the 7.5 column inches, which will consume enough space to display a news story.

"I think it's a very bad idea," says Ben Bagdikian, a respected media critic and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "I think for a really good paper, the front page is supposed to indicate the high-priority stories. Anything that clutters that up with non-news detracts from what readers expect."

The Republic, which ranks 15th in the nation in circulation, will be the largest American newspaper to feature such garish hucksterism on such a scale.

Gannett's flagship, USA Today, sells small ads in two spots on Page One. The New York Times has for generations sold occasional "readers" -- tiny classifieds that appear on the bottom of A-1. It's an aberrant tradition for the Times, which many consider to be the finest newspaper on earth.

The Wall Street Journal, the nation's largest-circulation daily, has adopted the motto "Adventures in Capitalism." Yet it keeps its front page pristine. So does the outlandish New York Post.

A retail sales manager at the San Francisco Chronicle cackles when asked if her publication's front page is for sale. "The front page is for news," she says.

An advertising representative for the Houston Chronicle is similarly bemused. "The editorial department would skin us alive if we tried to do that," she says.

In this age of mainstream media monopolization, compromises in the name of ever-greater revenue -- and satiated stockholders -- are commonplace. Ads appear at the top of pages. Ads float in the center of the stock tables. Massive sections are devoted not to critical or relevant reportage but to sycophantic promotion of the real estate and automotive industries. The term "advertorial" is a hoary entry in journalism lexicon.

Daily-newspaper employees know -- and readers suspect -- that advertisers call the shots. Yet, at most papers, Page One remains a bastion of editorial piety, the cradle of the vital news of the day, the last line of defense against the insidious buck.

The only page more hallowed is the editorial page. I've heard of no Gannett plan to begin marketing ads there, though the Republic began selling ads on its op-ed page several years ago.

With its vending of Page One, the Republic has dashed all pretense of editorial integrity. The Republic has never been admired in journalism circles, so the advent of ads on Page One is yet another insult to the scribes who toil there. (And there are some talented ones in residence.)

But they are timorous in the face of management's unbridled avarice. Journalists did not rise up indignantly to challenge the new stain on their newspaper's reputation. Acts of conscience are reduced to e-mails.

"Everybody is concerned that it could cheapen the paper," one newsroom veteran tells me. "There's a concern that this is Gannett's first big move, and it could affect the quality of the product. There's a feeling that they're going to squeeze us for all the profit they can."

Contact the author at his online address: [email protected]

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Jeremy Voas