We’re not where we used to be

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New York Times [your ad here]

It’s axiomatic of modern times, and especially of any new year: Nothing stays in place. Watch this space. It’s about to happen at the highest level in a few weeks, when Barack Obama takes the oath. It’s already happening in fits and starts: a movie here, a Web site redesign there. And then there’s the New York Times.

Excuse us — that’s The New York Times, archetype and arbiter of all that is central to American journalism, for generations a machine that would go of itself, justifiably a thing apart. Even in the whirlwind of changes that have brought other, lesser newspapers to their knees, The Times has maintained, in its presentation and style, a respectable distance from those journals. To some degree, that ended last week.

On Monday, The Times ran the first display advertising to appear on page one. It was a two-and-a-half-inch high ad bought by CBS, lying horizontally at the bottom of the front page -- "below the fold" of newspaper jargon. That day there was no tsunami recorded; the sun rose in the east and set in the west, right on schedule. But something changed: the ad that ran on perhaps the most prized real estate in American news signaled the Times’ concession to the same winds that are blowing hard against everyone else.

Some will say it’s no big deal: The Times’ online surrogate, nytimes.com, has been running ads on its homepage for years now. Newspapers in Europe have been running splashy display ads on page one for decades. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have had ads out front for some time. And readers of the Times’ dead-tree editions know that almost invisible two-line ads have been a part of the newspaper for at least as long (see the edition in November 1920, when Warren Harding was elected president; a glance down the page shows that tickets were available for “Mecca,” playing at the Century Theater that evening).

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Display ads change the game. They generate much-needed cash for a company in dire need of it; the Silicon Alley Insider reported that page-one graphic ads sell for $75,000 apiece, $100,000 on Sundays. (The New York Times Company, parent of the newspaper, is also reportedly putting its share of the Boston Red Sox on the block.)

But with the introduction of page-one display ads, the firewall between advertising and editorial was breached, if only a little. They’re a concession not only to the current economy, but also to the long and furious onslaught of advertising in the modern world. From corporate logos on NASCAR vehicles to the more tastefully appointed company logos on clothes worn in professional tennis … it’s an AdWorld, and has been for all our lives.

In some ways the front page of The New York Times was the last redoubt, the final holdout for marking a line in the sand between the salesman and the news. But we might have seen it coming. The Times’ tastefully-designed surrender to market forces and the economy makes a brutal sense — it’s a visible connection between the news you come to read and the advertising that makes publication of that news economically possible.

For news junkies and purists (and for those of us lucky enough to have actually worked at the Gray Lady), it’s a bit of a bringdown, but an apparently necessary one. These days, now more than ever, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” requires all the ads they can fit in the print edition.

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