Facing dire financial circumstances that have it selling assets to survive, The New York Times is doing
something it had previously refused to do throughout its 157 year
history; placing ads on its front page.

The January 5, 2009 issue of one of the world’s most storied dailies
contains a modest ad, two-and-a-half inches high, at the bottom of its
front page that promotes CBS.

The ad is hardly intrusive (one might even miss it altogether) but it does highlight the fact that more and more newspapers are doing everything they can to make money as print revenue continues to free-fall.

Other major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have sold ads on their front pages for some time and, as AllThingsDigital’s Peter Kafka points out, the Washington Post is now the only major newspaper holding out on the practice.

Given this, some might question the significance of The New York Times’ move. I believe, however, that the decision reflects not only the financial desperation present at major newspapers but the realization that they’ll need to adopt an approach that is already present on the Internet.

Just like a website’s homepage, the front page of a newspaper obviously provides the most valuable, high-impact real estate for advertisers. When times were good and newspapers were one of the few games in town, they could use their leverage over advertisers to make lots of money selling ads on their terms, setting boundaries when it came to the real estate they believed to be sacred.

But that leverage is now gone and to sell ads at a premium, it’s logical that newspapers will be creating and selling premium slots, just as most online publishers do.

The real question now is: will The New York Times and other major newspapers go further than this? Would the Times, for instance, consider maximizing its front page real estate by selling an ad above-the-fold? Would it ever go so far as to brand a brand ‘take over’ the front page (i.e. offer a ‘brand wrap’)?

Online, selling ads above-the-fold is a necessity for publishers and brand wraps are increasingly popular with advertisers looking to get more out of their online ad spend. As I write this, The Huffington Post features a brand wrap for AT&T and the Blackberry Bold.

It’s quite possible that major newspapers will have to do what online publishers have been doing for years;  creating, and selling, the inventory advertisers demand. The only negotiable is price.

This raises a whole host of questions. Will offering prime ad real estate really help newspapers compete? Will it compromise their editorial standards? Will newspapers need to change their formats and layouts to make a new ad strategy work? Will subscribers be turned off by the prospect of spending money on newspapers that are increasingly filled with more intrusive ads?

Newspaper advertising trends will be something to watch closely in 2009. The New York Times and other major newspapers are not only entering uncharted financial territory, they’re entering uncharted advertising territory as well.