Some readers complain that there is too much advertising in The Post. "It strikes me almost every day how much paper The Post wastes: full-page ads, advertising circulars that go right from the newspaper into the trash (or recycling bin), classified sections that most people never open, etc.," said a reader concerned about "a more socially responsible approach to newspaper utilization." But according to Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., The Post's president and general manager, a lot more readers purchase The Post as much for the ads (and coupons) as for the news content. And advertising, which accounts for something like 80 percent of revenue, is what keeps the newspaper afloat and the daily sales price at 25 cents.
More than complaints about the volume of ads, however, the ombudsman hears from readers who express anger, disappointment or confusion about the content of "public policy" or "issue" ads. These take a variety of forms. Some are open letters to corporations or government officials. Some take The Post to task, as did one last Thursday that was critical of The Post for carrying an opinion column that accused Greece of tolerating terrorism. Some of these ads advocate a position on pending legislation, such as an illustrated one last month urging the Senate to vote for a ban against "partial-birth" abortions. And who can forget Larry Flynt's ad offering "documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations" of members of Congress?
Readers want to know how a responsible newspaper, and one as prosperous as The Post, justifies accepting such ads. The answer lies somewhere between absolute commitment to the First Amendment's free speech guarantee and the bottom line. "We try to be as open as possible," Jones said. Added Marc H. Rosenberg, the manager of corporate and public policy advertising, "We have a higher tolerance for political controversy than most newspapers. We also handle a much larger volume of that kind of advertising."
There are standards, though some ads accepted by The Post are rejected by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Beyond legalities, they include these requirements: The person or organization responsible for the ad must be clear to readers; the ad must be distinguishable from news content; and if illustrations are used, they cannot be of a type that The Post would deem too graphic for publication with news stories. The antiabortion ad, which illustrated how a "partial-birth" abortion is performed and contained statements about the "barbarous" nature of the practice, passed The Post's test. But it disturbed some readers, one of whom said: "This is a family newspaper and shouldn't have such explicit diagrams. I have to rip this out of the newspaper so my son doesn't see it and ask questions."
One ad that failed the test -- but only in hindsight after its publication led to protests from people of Russian descent, among others -- ran last May and was bought by a Minnesota physician who thinks Russians are "the source of all evil" and would like to see them dispersed among other countries, though "no more than 5% in any one country, so as not to corrupt it." Writing on behalf of friends who were visiting from Russia, a reader said: "I was at a loss to explain to my friends, who have been in the U.S. not quite a year now, why this item was published -- and in such a prominent spot." That ad, Jones said, "deserved scrutiny on a couple of fronts." For one thing, it was not clearly labeled as an advertisement. But more significantly, the ad was of a type that is frowned upon because it denigrates an entire group, race or nation. After its publication, Post executives apologized.
If you have questions about what you see -- or don't see -- in The Post, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 334-7582.