A new eye-grabbing advertising design in The Indianapolis Star has some wondering where ad content stops and news
The ads, which create a frame around an entire page, are a way to attract more advertisers at a time when newspapers are struggling through a difficult economy and the onslaught of the Internet and other emerging technologies, Star officials said.
And the framed ads are gaining wide attention from potential advertisers, said John Kridelbaugh, the Star’s vice president of market development. The Kroger Co. grocery store chain was the first to sign a deal for the ads, with their spots appearing around the cover of the Star sports section.
“Two or three years ago, we got together with the Star and said, ‘How can we be more creative with our advertising?’” said Mike Newsom, Kroger advertising and marketing manager. “We wanted out-of-the-box ideas, and this is a good example of that. It certainly is attention-getting.”
What further raised eyebrows among journalism ethics experts is that the Kroger ads often frame positive stories about the Indiana Fever, the city’s WNBA franchise that Cincinnati-based Kroger sponsors.
“Certainly, newspapers must be more creative in their fight for survival,” said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. “But the nuances of this perimeter ad concept can raise questions.”
Steele pointed out that in some cases the pictures and copy of news stories extend into the
ad itself. The look of the layout makes it unclear whether the entire page is paid content, news copy
or a mix.
“Even if the journalistic independence is recognized and honored by the newsroom, this blurring in terms of design and tone where editorial and advertising intersect can be problematic,” Steele said. “The integrity of a newspaper can be challenged even on the basis of perception.”
Kridelbaugh and Star Editor Dennis Ryerson said the advertising relationship with Kroger has nothing to do with Fever articles that were placed within the ad borders. The prominence of Fever articles, Ryerson said, has been driven solely by the team’s success in the WNBA playoffs and the Fever’s rising popularity in the community.
Ryerson said not only do Star news staffers approve of the new ad layout, they actually took the lead in designing the concept. He said a special panel of news staffers in the last years studied new ways to convey information to readers via news and ad layouts. The development team, Ryerson said, was led by Scott Goldman, the Star’s senior editor/visual. The Star, Ryerson added, is among the first papers of Virginia-based Gannett Co. to try such a border ad.
“We presented this to a readers’ focus group, and they weren’t the least bit concerned about any kind of impact on our news report,” Ryerson said.
The feedback since the launch of the ads in September has been largely positive, Ryerson and Kridelbaugh said, with few reader complaints and an outpouring of interest from advertisers.
“I think it’s safe to say you’ll see other Star advertisers signing up for these kinds of ads,” Kridelbaugh said.
He wouldn’t divulge how much the ads cost or who the other advertisers using the framed ads would be. He said those deals would be revealed as the new ads began to appear in the next several months.
Local media buyers said the framed ads—especially on the cover of the sports section—would be considered a “premium” buy, costing in the low- to mid-five-figure range for a single day.
This isn’t the Star’s first foray into new ad designs. Star officials have rolled out front-page sticker ads and ads that sit in the middle of the page surrounded by copy.
No matter how lucrative, limits have been put on the placement of the border ads. Ryerson said they will be used only on sports and features pages, never on news pages such as the paper’s front or city and state sections.
Steele said that’s a curious distinction.
“The sports section is not just about scores,” Steele said. “It’s about substantive news much of the time involving public financing, gender, race and economic well-being of the community. I’m not keen on saying it’s OK to do something on the cover of sports and not the metro and state.”•