The hooker with a heart of gold

USA Today has gotten flak for selling ads on its front page -- but at least its money-grubbing is right out there for all to see.

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There is a case to be made for never, ever, reading a news report in which a dean of a journalism school is quoted, unless the article involves, say, a high-class call-girl ring run out of a graduate J-school. That case was bolstered last week when USA Today announced it would begin selling ads, beginning Oct. 1, in the one-inch color band at the bottom of its front page. Orville Schell, journalism dean at UC-Berkeley, told the New York Times he was troubled by “the direction [the ads] suggest. My view is that big serious newspapers of record — or even not of record — are something like schools, churches, national parks. They should not be completely enslaved to the imperatives of larger and larger profits.”

It’s not quite made clear what precisely pains Schell about USA Today’s decision, but we can venture a guess. Ads on Page 1 are no different, in terms of editorial corruption, from ads on Page 2. But they’re pink flamingos on the steps of the Met. They’re unseemly. They’re not what our kind of people do. They appear — to quote the coverage in both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune — “cheesy.” And I for one applaud USA Today for introducing them.

You could always count on USA Today, of course, to cause the distressed gentlefolk of journalism to reach for their clove-studded oranges: Though it’s a perfectly good, and steadily improving, national paper, it is still the newspaper — the “McPaper,” ha, ha! — that people of quality can breezily disparage among one another. It’s owned by Gannett, which has helped homogenize papers nationwide. It contains charts! And sin of sins, it uses color liberally, which is strike three among that thickheaded set for whom an appealing package is sufficient proof of shallowness.

But USA Today’s decision is actually conservative and admirable, and not because running ads on a newspaper’s front page was common in the 19th century — so were slavery and foot-binding. Nor because the New York Times itself runs motley classified ads at the bottom of its front page (though it would be a great stride for cultural diversity for readers in Bismarck to have a four-color “JEWISH WOMEN: REMEMBER TO LIGHT CANDLES FOR SHABBAT!” land on their doorsteps). The reason is that it is a blatant and obvious way of grubbing for money.



The greater threat to media independence comes from hidden or camouflaged sources of influence: corporate-owner networks, e-commerce arrangements, advertorial sections, celebrity publicists, marketing deals, online “stores” and sponsorships. Say what you will about ads — at best, you know they’re ads. And media outlets need more cheesy, crass — that is, easily recognizable — means of supporting themselves, not fewer.

At least until counterfeiting is legalized, the cash to run media will come either from an independently wealthy publisher or from an outside source, which can always corrupt. (Even funding from the readers comes with strings attached: You challenge your readers’ comfortable orthodoxies at your peril. Consider how many political publications thrive on donations and on being “remembered” in wills.) Given that, some forms of corruption are better than others. The more transparent, the better. And you can’t get much more transparent than a banner on your front page. If anything, these ads could be a boon, reminding readers graphically — as they should be reminded — that the news is made possible by more than their two quarters a day.

Take a look at a newsstand this week. You’ll see some examples of what one can put on the front of a publication. For instance: ample reference to, stills from and hype for “The Phantom Menace.” That’s not advertising — oh, no! It’s simply an exchange of something of monetary value to the publication (readers) for something of monetary value to the filmmaker (viewers) — but this exchange is news, because, after all, blessedly few people know that a new film in George Lucas’ obscure “Star Wars” series is opening next week.

Rather than twisting our knickers over “cheesiness” (i.e., making it obvious that we take cash) we should encourage publications that find new ways of making money from clearly identified, cordoned-off advertising. (Making the world receptive to ads on the front page — where they’re the visual equivalent of banner ads on a home page — may be the one positive business contribution that online media, too often a petri dish for sleazoid advertorial practices, has made to print.)

Instead, we set up little white-picket-fenced districts of phony sanctity. People criticize newspapers for selling op-ed space to groups and corporations, but those paid soapboxes are among their most honest offerings. We know who’s paying for them. We know why. Just as readers often don’t know, say, an editorial board member’s social contacts or a “real” op-ed writer’s lecture fees from an industry or interest group he or she defends. Sell anything! Sell everything! Just tell me who’s paying. As it is there are enough petty, hidden influences behind journalism that we’ll never see disclosed. This column was made possible by James Poniewozik’s craven need to ingratiate himself to readers. This fawning band profile was made possible by the author’s need to make his monthly car payment, in cooperation with his vague sexual attraction to the bass player and the magazine’s need to get the group on the cover.

It’s a sad irony; newspapers are an endangered medium, yet to reap praise, they need to reject advertising. Take the New York Times’ decision to forgo tobacco ads, which was principled but, at this juncture in the tobacco wars, a bit like joining the French Resistance in 1946 (though most major newspapers haven’t even done that). And for the protection of whom, exactly? The children? I’m sorry, but any minor who’s going to take up smoking from seeing ads in the New York Times Magazine has probably already been seduced to the evil weed by his or her extensive collection of Serge Gainsbourg records. (“I couldn’t help it! I was 13 years old! And those damn Marlboro ads were right next to Molly O’Neill’s warm yet practical cooking column week after week!”)

USA Today may or may not spend its money well, but at least it may have found new revenue for papers that would. Whether or not they teach it in J-school, money is editorial ammo. I’d want my local newspaper to run ads for whorehouses above the nameplate if it meant hiring one more staff writer or photographer, rather than relying on yet more wire-service filler, which has made even the down-homiest broadsheets into far greater McPapers than USA Today ever was.

Are newspapers like national parks and churches? Perhaps more than we know. They shouldn’t aspire to be tightly fenced game preserves, curiosities doomed never to expand and lucky if they don’t shrink further. And if they are churches, better that they find honest ways to thrive with clearly identified money-changers than to become exquisite ruins, patrolled by kindly docents, fronted with pristine and beautifully preserved façades.

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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