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Web publications place ads first

Publishers including Salon.com and Microsoft's MSNBC.com require readers to look at a sponsor's ad for several seconds before they can see the story they came for.

Web advertisements are becoming a forced pit stop on the Internet's byways.

Forget, for a minute, ads that "pop" under or over requested Web pages and that have promulgated on such major sites as Yahoo and The New York Times on the Web. Now publishers including Salon.com and Microsoft's MSNBC.com require readers to look at a sponsor's ad for several seconds before they can see the story they came for. In some cases, readers must click on a link within the ad to reach requested content.

"As most of you know, this has been a difficult year for advertising-supported publications, online and off. Like many other companies, we've responded by trying to innovate for our advertisers," Salon Managing Editor Scott Rosenberg wrote in a letter to readers Monday, explaining the site's new ads.

The move is part of a trial-and-error period in Internet advertising. Dealing in a down economy, Web publishers are desperately trying to perfect the size, shape and delivery of online ads to lure tight-fisted marketers to their pages.

Competition is fierce. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an ad trade group, reported Monday that online ad spending in the first two quarters of this year declined 7.8 percent to $3.76 billion.

The slack ad market and overall economic slump has forced many dot-coms and New Economy publications out of business. Technology news site UpsideToday threw in the towel Monday citing a lack of funds. Earlier this year, tech publication The Industry Standard filed for bankruptcy and Red Herring laid off more than 17 percent of its staff.

Some Internet magazines have tried to dodge a bullet by adopting subscription models or becoming increasingly flexible with their ad formats. In August, MSNBC started running full-page ads before showing requested content in what it called "next-generation" advertising. Its ads appear for up to 10 seconds before readers are delivered to an article.

Others have turned to paid, ad-free services. In April, Salon launched a subscription service called Salon Premium, which lets customers choose an ad-free format. After 11 weeks, the company said it had amassed more than 10,000 subscribers.

Salon's new ads should only appear once a day per reader because of technology known as "cookies," electronic data files that remember how often a reader visits. However, if readers turn cookies off in their browsers, the timed feature will not work.

Salon spokesman Patrick Hurley said the new ads are "in response to marketplace demands." Although he wouldn't say how much the ads cost, he said they claimed a premium. Sprint, Salon's first advertiser for the full-page ads, also bought what the company calls a "roadblock," where the long-distance phone company's ads dominate the home page.

Hurley said the company has discovered a "small smattering of readers who are adverse to it."

Salon hopes its letter to readers will mitigate some of that adversity. "We know that some Web users find this sort of ad intrusive," the letter read. "But before you send in that irate e-mail, we ask you to consider that the content you come to Salon for...does not come free."