Readers owe nothing to publishers

My kids, the children of two former newspaper reporters, love reading the paper in the morning.

Okay, they love the comics, but, hey, it’s a start.

So yesterday morning, as usual on a Sunday, they begged me to get them the comics section. I’d ask them to get it themselves, but experience has taught me that… they can’t. I have enough trouble finding the thing myself.

Whenever I open our door on Sunday mornings, I never see the Los Angeles Times flag staring up at me from the porch. Instead, I see a two-pound advertising circular that, I know only from experience, contains the LA Times buried somewhere within. Yesterday’s paper came wrapped in a plastic bag hawking some consumer product. After pulling the paper out from that, I had to peel away an advertising and a feature section before I could see the “front” page.

The comics? Ugh. The LA Times splits its Sunday comics into two sections. Both are buried among the coupons and flyers in the middle of paper. “Comics I” often is wrapped with a spadia. “Comics II” often is contained within another advertising section, forcing me to thumb through several such sections to find the ones with the comics.

I know, some ad rep is thinking to him/herself, “See? The strategy works! We got you to look through all those ads, didn’t we?” But let’s not forget that I am a newspaper veteran, a journalism instructor and, as such, about the last person in the community likely to cancel a newspaper subscription.

Here’s what normal people do when they can’t find the content they paid for in their newspaper: They cancel. As they have been, in droves, over the past generation.

News publishers like to point to television, free news online, English literacy rates and slew of other reasons to explain their readership losses. But the contempt that newspapers show for their readers by burying their editorial content beneath their remaining advertising surely is not helping keep readers around.

On the Web, we’ve gotten used to thinking about the usability of our websites. But our colleagues on the print side have been committing grave usability errors in their products over the years. And when that type of thinking infects a news organization’s attitude towards its website, news organization set themselves up to repeat its offline failures in the new medium.

Everyday I check the website of the Pasadena Star-News. And every day, the front section of the website’s homepage is obscured by a pop-up widget urging me to take a survey about the site’s new design. Click the red “X” in the corner to close the widget window, and the op-up appears every time you return to the page. (If you click the button decling to take the survey, the window disappears for the remainder of your session.)

If I register with the LA Times website, the Times insists on spamming me with commercial e-mails for products about which I do not care. If I opt-out of the e-mails, the Times cancels my website registration. (Which is why I don’t have a Times website registration anymore, and read the site via BugMeNot. More about that in a moment.)

And let’s not forget the slew of pop-up, pop-under and screen take-over ads that accompany any visit to more newspaper websites than I am any longer able to count.

Again… ugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I want newspapers and websites to have advertisers. Lots of ’em. I know the importance of surveying your online audience. I’ve run several online surveys myself.

But if news organizations are proud of their news content, why do so many insist on hiding it?

Readers owe you nothing. They have no responsibility as citizens to read your reporting, and no responsibility as consumers to look at your ads. The have the right, and ability, to go about their lives without ever once glancing at your publication.

If you want people to read your publication, you then need to do whatever is necessary to make them want to read it.

That means leading with your best shot. Sure, the newsroom tries to pick the most compelling story of the page to put atop P1, or the home page of the website. But that effort’s for naught if the ad or production department buries that news so that potential readers cannot see it. Just because someone has subscribed to your newspaper, e-mail or RSS feed or bookmarked your website does not guarantee that person is your reader. You must convert people into readership every single day.

Here’s the dirty, nauseating truth about the news business: Advertisers do not care about the high quality of your publication’s news content nearly as much as they care about the high number of readers that it attracts. We are all selling access to eyeballs, and that’s pretty much it.

You can, and should, design your website, or your newspaper or magazine, in a way that draws readers’ attention to your ads or in-house promotions. But when your design crosses the line and forces readers to look at ads they don’t want, you encourage those readers to look elsewhere, jeopardizing the readership levels that makes your business sustainable.

A generation ago, newspaper readers didn’t have alternatives, which allowed papers to get away with this stuff. Just as broadcast TV could, too. But look at how TV commercial viewership has declined in the face of ad-skipping DVRs, premium cable channels, DVDs, video games and other viewing alternatives. The same thing’s happening online, as news readers can choose websites, social bookmarks services and other online communities that do not hide their content behind ads and come-ons. And if they do want to see news content that is not otherwise available, readers increasingly are choosing Web browsers and browser plug-ins that suppress pop-ups and strip ad content from webpages. Or they read sites via BugMeNot, to get around registration systems designed primarily to enable publishers to spam their readers.

As a news publisher, you’ve got a choice:

1) Get mad at your readers and take steps to force them to conform to your will. Then, after you’ve paid millions to your lawyers, hope you have enough left in the bank to pay for the therapy you’ll need to overcome the frustration of not being able to control other human beings. Or…

2) Acknowledge that readers owe you nothing. Build your websites to serve them, with editorial and advertising content that you make readily available, easy to see, access and understand, but that you do not force on anyone. Hope that by doing that, you can build a readership that will be attractive to advertisers, allowing you to build and sustain an ad-supported publishing business.

If you think that option 2 is naive, ask yourself this: Has the advertisers-first, readers-second model helped the newspaper industry build its circulation over the past generation? Has that model helped broadcast TV increase its ratings? And if that model has not helped them, what makes you think it will help you and your website?

I want journalists and news reporters to provide the most popular content on the Web. I think that society benefits when large numbers of people read high-quality, accurate and insightful news on a daily basis. But those readers have no responsibility to do so. We, as a news industry, must make them want to do so. And wrapping our reporting with spam, pop-ups, take-overs and irrelevant come-ons is not helping us do that.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Excellent. Jerry Della Femina remarked of adding 30 second spots to ATMs by cautioning, not to be too intrusive with a pitch—consumers will resent it and the product.

    I have to agree.

  2. says:

    Well said, friend.

    I, too, am a bugmenot user, and I’m a recent “non newspaper” worker, after 19 years in the biz at papers big and small. I fear I may be in the last generation of newspaper writers to know a time when newspapers held the cards, when newspapers could decide if ads go on the front page, what the rate will be, etc.

    Reading a newspaper is becoming less and less of a habit for me. At first, I read it online, but in the spate of popups and unders and overs, I now just go to google news or another online compiler … newspapers botched the transition to the Web and now they’re botching the Web.

    Amazing to watch. As an outsider.

  3. Steve Crozier says:

    Right on. I’ve taken to telling my editors that “we’re in the customer service business”–to our readers. I’m not sure they (my editors) get it yet, because they come from the print world you so correctly skewered here. But it’s sinking in over time. And it leads us to make good decisions about how we treat our readers, not only in the content we publish, but in our responses to inquiries, for example.

  4. I too have noticed this recent trend of flash-based ads that roll out over the story text when I move my mouse. More irritating than pop-ups, IMHO, and leaves me less inclined to visit those sites or their advertisers.

  5. Michael Alex says:

    It’s rather simple: If I have a bad experience on your news page, I’m not likely to want to return. If all news sources are equally unpleasant, then I’m likely to not consume news.

    I’ve explained this to writers, editors, and site producers. Our audience has not been given a homework assignment, nor are they being paid to consume our work. Make it palatable, make it nutricious, make it tasty.

  6. says:

    Excellent article!

  7. Glenn Craven says:

    Amen! … My personal peeve among all the self-defeating strategies newspapers have employed lately is the sticky ad at the top of so many front pages (including, for me in North Carolina, the nearby News & Observer of Raleigh).

    Nobody’s likely to buy the paper for that stick-on ad, but they sure might’ve purchased it to read the news story or feature package that was teased above the masthead — a teaser into which your 1A designer likely put considerable creative thought, but now is obscured by “O2 Fitness … Join for only $1!”

    I’m lucky that our paper has resisted such stickies thus far. I have editorialized against these ads, causing my publisher to catch flak from his corporate higher-ups, who admit they might want to force them upon us in the future, but will now “look like hypocrites for doing it.”

    I continue to argue the case with management that there shouldn’t be a thing above the fold on page 1A that doesn’t sell a newspaper off the rack, and ads just aren’t such a thing. Same goes for Web sites — kill all pop-ups and everything of their ilk. Make the news more noticeable than the ads.

    And yet, what you think would be common sense — that we’re in the news business and the news must come first or there are no readers for our advertisers to reach — seems to be lost on everybody but the editorial department.

    Whatever are we thinking?

  8. says:

    Excellent points – glad that you spoke up about this. Editorial content should always be up front. Advertising is a necessary evil, but advertisers have no allegiances to publications or readers. They have only one objective – their bottom line revenue for the current quarter. They are otherwise mercenaries that would undermine the industry in an instant if they felt it would serve their immediate interests. We need to be more vigilant about letting advertsers dictate the policies and priorities of our news and information providers.

  9. says:

    … “Readers owe nothing to publishers” …

  10. Much to my chagrin, back in J-school, I had to cut a story to make space for an ad. The prof winked at me reminding me that, if not for ads, there would be no paper. Didn’t like to hear that then, don’t now. I prefer to think that, if not for READERS, there would be no paper!

  11. says:

    Any editor of a small town daily will tell you that the obits and wedding announcements are the best-read parts of the paper. People have long turned to their local newspapers for gossip and the hope of seeing themselves or their neighbors. Then they

  12. says:

    A couple of the most recent posts are a bit more adversarial toward advertising than, I believe, the original article warrants. Ads are not evil- the advertisers’ desires for profit are no worse than the newspapers’ desires for profit (and many more of the advertisers are actually locally owned and put their profits back into the community… what percentage of today’s newspapers can say that?)

    The point of the original article- which I enjoyed very much- was not that ads are bad, but that the presentation of editorial content of the publication should not be submerged to the presentation of the advertising.

    Unless you’re putting out an independent newsletter or something along those lines, advertising IS content. The industry just needs to keep in mind that editorial is also content, and that each flavor of content has its own place and purpose in the publication.


  13. says:

    Well Bob, you’ve nicely summarized how annoying pervasive advertising can be.
    But that is a problem, not a solution.
    Oh, put readers first and disregard the needs of advertisers? Sure, that works. I think that’s called “public television” or “national public radio”…and it works fairly well, so long as donors and benefactors pick up the tab.
    Hmmm…what’s at the center of the storm here? Oh, money – money to pay salaries of professional journalists.
    I subscribe to Consumer Reports. No ads. I pay about 4 times as much for that mag as I do for Golf Digest. I was in the business for 17 years – we all know how it works. We can be “mass media” or we can be “elite media.”

  14. says:

    Publishers have been too quick to rely on advertising gimmicks to halt declining circulation. One paper I worked for began slapping those stickies on the front page – usually right over the top right headline. Another is using its Saturday teaser spot to promo the coupon savings inside. So, that means there’s no news worth reading? The hyperlocal I’m now working at is trying to balance content and advertising in a redesign. No pop-ups; no constant “survey” questions. Editorial and advertising are working together to create space for both. Of course, we’re so small its hard not to collaborate. But after having worked at papers where marketing and news barely acknowledged each other, it’s very refreshing.

  15. says:

    Here’s a “rule of sixes” that Newspaper sites are ignoring when they design and add content (including advertising) to their websites:

    *) Six good experiences and you have me for life.

    *) Six bad experiences (including bad ads) and you
    lose me for life.

    Most News sites are very good at the bad experiences corollary. Their traffic stats show this: In a time of explosive growth for general news and comment websites; daily paper sites especially, just can’t find a way to grow. Here’s what I would suggest:

    *) Don’t give me a bad experience.
    *) Don’t make me register, charge me a fee or
    otherwise harvest my name, or even let me
    suspect that you might be.
    *) Don’t make me click more than three times to
    get to one of your top 25 stories.

    These guidelines will make your troubles disappear.

    milt brewster

  16. says:

    There is a broadcast corallary derived, I think, from the same mindset. The CBS, nee Westinghouse, radio stations that tout themselves as “all news all the time” are rapidly becoming “all promotion all the time.” Last night, a New York City television station teased a tease.

    The prevailing attitude seems to be that there aren’t very many people of ordinary intelligence who would find value in useful information. Consequently, content is sacrificed to bells and whistles at every opportunity.

  17. says:

    After 17 years I failed to renew my subscription to the Houston Chronicle. It wasn’t any one reason that drove me away but many small ones that simply added up. Some of those reasons were discussed in this fine article. The Chronicle still doesn’t get it.

  18. says:

    Some good points, but get real. The push to make money to support the bloated reporter/editor (whole infrastructure) salaries is what gets news sties into this trouble.
    Of course they are wrong. No one wants to admit they will never make the margins necessary to support even the most cost-effective print newsroom in the market.
    But your dream “ad-supported publishing business” would never support a newsroom of professionals.

  19. says:

    I am not in the newspaper business. I’m ‘just’ one of the readers out there.

    I would gladly pay a small monthly fee to access an ad-free version of the paper. I suspect you’d find a lot more people like me if you investigated a bit.