L.A. Times staffers fume over front-page ad

April 9, 2009

The decision by the Los Angeles Times to run a front-page ad that looks like a news story has raised eyebrows in media circles. LAT staffers, meanwhile, are raising their pitchforks.

Horrified by what they see as a deceptive blurring of the line between paid advertising and news stories, some 100 employees at the paper have signed a petition to Publisher Eddy Hartenstein “strenuously” objecting.

“This place already had horrible morale problems with decimating layoffs, but now to have our publisher whore out the front page is more than we can stand,” one editorial staff member told Reuters. “It blurs the line between paid content and content that our reporters are producing.”

The ad, which runs down the left column of the front page, is for the new NBC police drama “Southland.” It’s topped with the headline: ”Southland’s Rookie Hero,” followed by the sub-head “A ride-along on an officer’s first day.”

The ad is surrounded by a black border and has the NBC logo and word “advertisement” above it, but resembles a news story.  Along the bottom of the front page is a more conventional, banner-style ad for the show, announcing that it premieres tonight.

“The NBC ad may have provided some quick cash, but it has caused incalculable damage to this institution,” the petition reads. “This action violates a 128-year pact with our readers that the front page is reserved for the most meainingful stories of the day. Place a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and journalistic standards.”

Newspapers are pushing the boundaries between advertising and editorial content as they struggle to compete in the Internet age.  Many used to run front page ads way back at the beginning of the 20th century, and some, like The Wall Street Journal, are trying it again.

This tends to annoy reporters and editors who say it’s wrong to devote valuable front-page space to ads. They also don’t like gimmicks like this because it could confuse readers and drag down the paper’s reputation.

The argument from the other side typicaly boils down to “desperate times, desperate measures.”  The LAT is owned by a bankrupt publisher and run by a group of people who do not have ink running in their veins

They say that if they can raise big cash by charging for a front-page ad this way, particularly when the ad market for papers is shrinking, maybe they can keep the paper alive and stop laying off employees.

What do you think about ads disguised as news? We’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser (The Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles)

20 comments

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What a travesty. It further diminishes the credibility and reputation of a once-great newspaper. Because of this and multiple other decisions on the part of the LA Times “management” and with a heavy heart, I further decreased my current Thurs-Sunday subscription to Sundays only. I was a daily subscriber for more than 25 years. If Zell, Abrams, Hartenstein, Stanton, et al think these kinds of stunts will attract readers, they are very much mistaken.

Posted by Kaye | Report as abusive

The Times’ decision to feature a large front page advertisement – disguised as a news story, no less – is simply wrong. It detracts tremendously from the paper’s waning credibility and further blurs the line (already thin) between journalism and commercialism. If this practice continues, soon citizens will simply give up trying to distinguish truth from advertising. There will be no point. Anyone who respects journalism knows what that will mean for society. If this is what it takes to save the Times, it’s already dead.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

I read the L.A. Times religiously from the time I arrived in Southern California in 1987. The paper had my trust and confidence, back then. But something happened with print media in America – it started subtly slanting the news in a biased way that can only be described as LEFT of center. Of course, to the liberal staff writers, it would not appear to be so but to us in the hinterlands it became more and more obvious that we had to look at other news sources to get the entire picture. Eventually, with the rise in the internet and cable news – I simply cancelled my subscription and threw them out of my home. That was ten years ago before we had the great news search engines available today. I am far more enlightened than ever before but found that I had to take into my own hands and efforts that endeavor because the L.A Times had become the L.A. Slims – just behind the N.Y. Slimes. Even on Google News, I always click on anyone but the L.A. Times or N.Y. Times. If they think they can insult 1/2 their readers and simply move to the internet – have they got a big surprise coming.

Posted by Keih | Report as abusive

The Columbia School of Journalism is severely critical of Front Page Editorials. This act of the LA Times is ten times worse. Their reaction is going to be something.

Posted by Hartley Lord | Report as abusive

I agree that publishing advertising on the front page of a newspaper blurs the line between paid (biased) content and supposedly unbiased reporting. However, look at this Reuters web site – there is an ad at the TOP of the “front page” of the blogs.reuters.com screen and there are ads running down the right hand side, even on the “front page” of http://www.reuters.com. Why doesn’t that blur the line? Furthermore, although Reuters features actual reporting on their web site, most web sites offering news actually mix together publicity releases (or articles which function as PR) with actual reporting. The PR releases are not clearly labeled as such. It seems to me that on the Internet journalistic standards have been compromised a long time ago, it’s just that the LA Times has taken awhile to catch up.

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

I have to side with the reporters. I already have to winnow out the ad’s, blogs and what amounts to infomercials from reporters articles on the inside pages.

Perhaps we should send letters to the advertisers (and cc the newspaper) to let them know we will not consume their product because it was advertised on the front page?

Posted by Rich L | Report as abusive

It is no secret that newspapers are a dying medium of communication. What NBC did is an advertisement called an “advitorial”. This is a common practice throughout the newspaper industry that has been practiced for decades. This is an advertisement that is written in a way to appear as being a news story. They labeled it properly as an advertisement. i see absolutely no problem with them providing a revenue stream that will allow them to pay thier employees so that they can keep thier jobs. The employees should get off thier pompous high horse and thank God they have a job.

Posted by Jonathan Daugherty | Report as abusive

When the music’s over, turn out the light and crack open the Craig’s List!

Posted by Biff | Report as abusive

I would have to agree with Bruce that we have, for some reason, accepted this type of thing online but not in print. But newspapers will be a thing of the past soon, so why worry.?

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Calm down, folks. Front page ads have a long tradition in American journalism. The problem with the LA Times ad is its news story look-alike feature. Other than that, I see no problem.

Posted by Factonfact | Report as abusive

Sadly, this advertisement probably contained more truth and fact than any other Liberal Times article has been in the last 10 years.

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

The Los Angeles Times is a series of contradictions – a Los Angeles paper with no Los Angeles section. A paper that professes to support environmental causes while at the same time expressing support for illegal immigration – completely ignoring the environmental devastation this immigration is causing in the state.

Posted by Paul Reagan | Report as abusive

I can see publishing an ad on the front page of a small town weekly paper advertising the latest deals at a local shoe store and done tastefully it works! We are talking about a major daily newspaper here. Surely readers deserve better when they pick up such a newspaper. I don’t blame the LA Times management with “experimenting” with this vehicle for a major advertiser but you would have to deal with a new set of rules and go through approvals in all departments before you published the thing. Surely NBC can use their creative talents and not rely on tricks like this to garner attention.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

What the editors don’t understand is that the first thing you do to get yourself out of a hole is _stop_ _digging_. The revenues are down because the newspapers do not do as good a job as Matt Drudge in providing valuable information. They like to pretend that the money is disappearing when in fact it is moving on to a much tougher market. The Times was a pioneer in the online newspaper business, but failed to keep up with the rising standards of the Internet for objectivity. I personally do not trust them to simply grab a good news story off the wire and print it; forget about creating a good news story.

Posted by Jacob | Report as abusive

I feel that obvious ads on the front page are okay.
BUT if they are disguised (no matter to what degree) as a news piece, it should never be allowed.
Whenever i see ads like that (no matter on which page of the paper) it ALWAYS annoy me.

Posted by Alex- Singaopre | Report as abusive

Ads masquerading as news stories are nothing new. Front page ones though? Also, those who rant about the “left”, “liberal”, etc. biase of the news media need to look at their own biases more closely. ALL news reporting has some interpretive element. The honest (good) ones attempt to distinguish the news facts from the editorializing. Most of the older mainstream print media reporters are of this ilk (confession: I used to work with them). They came a long ways from the days of the Hearst papers’ propaganda sheets.

“Slant”, “spin”, and that sort of thing are more likely used intentionally by the so-called “right-leaning” publishers these days. The NY Times, among others, investigates, repudiates, and publicly apologizes when trangressions cross the line too far. Can that be said for the Murdoch media empire? Produce some public intellectuals and real news reporters of note and maybe they can publish respectable news as well instead of creating an alternate reality. Matt Drudge?? Please!! As for print media losing out, well.. the latest generation is simply not really literate so this comes as no surprise.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

The only excuse I can possibly think of is the LAT needs the money. Wow what a bad way to go about it. Everyone looks forward to reading the front page to find the highlight stories and what is most important in news today. The reporters have a right to be mad because those who had front page stories did not see their stories on the front page. Is it possible the LAT management felt there weren’t any front page stories? Maybe the stories weren’t appealing enough? I don’t know I am just a young college student trying to make sense of this issue.

SEO professionals felt the same way when Google started “monetizing” search results.

It was an abomination to have “paid advertisements” displayed with legitimate and relevant search results that were served up based on quality. The paid ads had no place being presented on a search results page. That didn’t matter. Google wanted money. So much for integrity.

Sucks, doesn’t it?

Posted by Tracy | Report as abusive

Management of the various mediums has crossed the line numerous times over the past several years. It takes only one unnecessary descriptive word to editorialize a news story. Whether print or electronic the news is almost never untainted. This from a journalist/news director/editor of 55 some years in radio, TV and newspapers. On-line seems to be the most fair and unbiased.

Posted by Phillip Barton | Report as abusive

Wow. Next thing you know, they’ll be running ads in MAD Magazine. Most ‘straight’ newspaper stories are slightly edited PR pieces recieved from various advocates anyway – at least this PR piece has an impossible to miss disclaimer at the top of it.

Bob

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

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