Why the Newspaper Ad Column Seems to Be Going the Way of the Three-Martini Lunch

Digital Advertising Now Part of General Business News

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Dedicated coverage of the advertising industry in U.S. newspapers may be headed for a commercial break -- except this break may never end.

A host of business concerns, ranging from scarcer editorial resources to shifts in the news coming off the beat itself, has placed pressure on the venerable "Advertising" column and associated coverage. Today, the feature -- which had been a staple in any number of major newspapers since the days of Don Draper -- seems to be in drift, and may even be on the verge of extinction.

"To write about advertising now is to write about Google and Facebook, and there are articles about that all over the rest of the paper," said Joanne Lipman, a media-industry adviser who founded the Wall Street Journal's "Advertising" column in 1987 and went on to become a top editor at the paper. She later founded Conde Nast Portfolio. "Advertising used to be a unique and discrete industry that was worthy of covering in and of itself, and it still is, but the real power in advertising is coming from a different direction," she said.

Also changing are the ways in which newspapers cover the subject. In years past, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times, among others, thought enough of the ad business to earmark space in their pages for an oft-recurring signature feature usually written by a designated columnist. Hard-bitten scribes such as George Lazarus and Phil Dougherty were lionized when they served as columnists for, respectively, the Tribune and the Times.

These days, newspapers have to produce work for venues other than the printed page, many with fewer reporters among their ranks. Add to this the notion that much of the real eyebrow-raising news about advertising comes not from campaigns but from changes in technology, combine it with the fact that many of the agencies that produce ad work have consolidated into larger, staid, publicly traded entities, and it's not hard to discern why traditional coverage of the sector may not be as robust as it once was.

The Sun-Times recently parted ways with Lewis Lazare, its ad and media columnist, while USA Today has tamped down its coverage of the subject due to "resources," according to a spokeswoman. The Chicago Tribune once hosted a column penned for many years by the crusty Mr. Lazarus, then Jim Kirk, but no longer runs the feature.

"We cover advertising and marketing trends, just not with a dedicated column," said Michael Lev, the Tribune's associate managing editor-business. "What we don't do much of any more is write the day to day insider-ish stories about the agencies. Chicago's ad business is smaller and more consolidated; it's a niche we have looked away from because our resources are tighter these days. That said, we continually reassess what we're doing and why, and I'm a big fan of advertising coverage."

The Wall Street Journal, where veteran ad reporter Suzanne Vranica has worked for years, cut back its column from five days a week to two days a week some time ago. The feature has been appearing less frequently -- sometimes not at all. The Journal continues to cover the subject in regular articles, and has news pages devoted to the media business Mondays and Thursdays. A spokeswoman for the paper said editors would like to continue the feature and they are in discussions about how to do so.

Only the New York Times continues to sport a five-day-a-week column about the business. Stuart Elliott, the main writer behind the column, said changes affecting the ad industry make the topic more interesting, not less. "The advertising business is in such ferment and change. It's more dynamic than it has been in many, many years," he said. "It's not just writing about who has the 'Crunchy Nugget' account and some guy changing jobs."

So who will cover it? Certainly, the question sounds self-serving coming from an article in Advertising Age, but the mainstream press clearly has less time and space for regular coverage.

Ad executives have long counted on an experienced columnist to help people make sense of all the hype that often dominates ad-industry headlines. Too often, said one senior advertising executive, news articles about new campaigns, entertaining commercials and boastful agency executives focus overmuch on the "shiny new toy" aspect of what's happening. Executives who work in the business would prefer a journalist try to tie what's happening to broader changes in the way marketing works or to the business or economic factors that may have prompted a new commercial effort.

Putting the columns together has never been easy. Keeping up a spate of fresh stories for a five-day-a-week feature can be draining. This reporter worked on The Wall Street Journal's "Advertising" column between early 2003 and mid-2007, and has firsthand experience in cobbling together something with half an hour to go before deadline hits. The worry has always been that without enough time to do solid reporting or link the news to a unique and emerging trend, a column about advertising can become advertising itself for the campaign, executive or company at the center of the story.

The Times' Mr. Elliott believes he still has heady competition, just not from the usual crowd. He cites any number of websites, including Mashable, which have intensified coverage of the industry as others pull back. While some digital outlets may be prone to issuing short bursts of news rather than deep analysis or investigation, the Times writer thinks readers can still find such stuff useful. "There's possibly much more coverage of trees than forests, but eventually, people who read these stories can connect the dots" themselves, he said.

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