Two prominent April 2009 Los Angeles Times advertisements which were designed to look like news stories raised questions about whether the newspaper was blurring the lines between advertising and news content in response to declining revenue.
On April 9, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page ad in the left hand column for a new NBC show, “Southland,” about a rookie Los Angeles Police Department police officer. The ad was labeled as an advertisement and featured the NBC logo. It contained content resembling a news story describing a fictitious reporter’s ride-along with new police officer Ben Sherman, a character on the new show.
The advertisement raised the ire of media commentators and readers because of its resemblance to a news story.
In response, the Los Angeles Times said in a statement, “Today’s NBC ‘Southland’ ad was designed to stretch traditional boundaries,” according to an April 10 Wall Street Journal story. Los Angeles Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein said that he ran the ad over objections from the newsroom because the newspaper needed the advertising revenue.
“Because of the times that we’re in, we have to look at all sorts of different—and some would say innovative—new solutions for our advertising clients,” Hartenstein said, according to an April 10 Los Angeles Times story. The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2008. The April 10 Los Angeles Times story reported that, according to the Newspaper Association of America, industry wide advertising revenues declined 17 percent in 2008.
The Los Angeles Times approached NBC with the idea for the advertisement, The New York Times reported April 9. Hartenstein said the Los Angeles Times received a “significant premium” over its traditional advertisement rate for the “Southland” ad.
NBC Entertainment Marketing President Adam Stotsky told Variety magazine for an April 9 story, “We thought it was an interesting, provocative, breakthrough idea. … The L.A. Times has to strike a balance between creating innovative solutions for marketers and the editorial integrity of the product.”
LA Observed, a Los Angeles news Web site, reported April 9 that Hartenstein had originally reserved the entire right-hand column of the front page, which generally features the main story in a print newspaper, for the NBC advertisement. After objections from the newsroom and advertising department, the ad was moved to the left column. According to LA Observed, the ad was wider than the Los Angeles Times column width. Consequently, it was not delineated as the newspaper’s advertisements usually are by “the usual thin lines separating ads from news.”
Los Angeles Times Executive Editor John Arthur, who was on vacation when the ad was printed, called it “horrible” and said “I never dreamed it would be filled with news-looking content like it was,” according to an April 12 interview with The Wrap, a Web site covering entertainment and media. Arthur said he would not comment on whether the paper would run similar advertisements in the future, but said he looked forward to creating an agreement with Hartenstein regarding advertisements “because we need advertising revenue in a big way.”
MediaFile, a Reuters blog, reported April 9 that 100 Los Angeles Times staff members had signed a petition sent to Hartenstein objecting to the ad. “The NBC ad may have provided some quick cash, but it has caused incalculable damage to this institution,” the petition read. “This action violates a 128-year pact with our readers that the front page is reserved for the most meaningful stories of the day. Place [sic] a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and journalistic standards.”
Many major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, run ads on their front pages, although they are rarely designed to look like news content. The New York Times reported April 9 that the Los Angeles Times has been running front-page ads since 2007.
A Los Angeles Times blog called Readers’ Representative Journal reported April 10 that the newspaper had received more than 80 e-mails from readers regarding the advertisement, many of whom stated they were cancelling their subscription to the newspaper. Reader Michael Bruce Abelson wrote, in an e-mail reprinted on the blog, “While I understand you guys are under tremendous financial pressure to stay afloat, today’s front-page faux news story (really an advertisement for NBC’s new show ‘Southland’) goes too far. … By squandering this valuable journalistic real estate, you’ve now lost all (remaining) credibility as [a] serious newspaper.”
Other readers objected to the ad’s deceptive nature. But NBC marketing president Stotsky said, “I think most consumers will recognize that this is an ad,” The New York Times reported in its April 9 story.
Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, said “Some people say readers are smart and they can tell the difference, but the fundamental concept here is deeply offensive. Readers don’t want to be fooled, they don’t like the notion that someone is attempting to deceive them,” according to the April 9 New York Times story.
Bob Steele, a DePauw University professor, Poynter Institute ethics scholar, and Silha Center National Advisory Board member, wrote in an April 10 post on PoynterOnline that while many readers may be able to distinguish between a news story and the “Southland” advertisement, the idea of selling ads that look like fake news stories has ethical implications. “Making the ad look like news in story style and writing trades on the credibility of news content, with the hope that readers will be more inclined to read the ad and give it greater credence,” he wrote. Steele acknowledged the Los Angeles Times’ financial struggles, but, he said, “The Times’ execs are chopping away at the journalistic foundation. They are selling pieces of the paper’s journalistic soul.”
But Dan Kennedy, media critic for The Guardian of London, said that “Given that we’re in pretty desperate times, far better that The L.A. Times do this than say no to the revenue and end up having to cut back on their actual news coverage,” according to the April 9 New York Times story.
The Los Angeles Times raised some controversy again with an advertisement on Sunday, April 12. The ad, promoting the movie “The Soloist,” was laid out like a four-page section in the newspaper’s Calendar entertainment section. “The Soloist” is based on the experiences of Los Angeles Times columnist Steven Lopez, who chronicled his friendship with homeless and mentally ill musician Nathaniel Ayers – formerly a student at the Juilliard School in New York – inhis columns and a book. The advertisement included an interview with Lopez.
The New York Times reported April 10 that a spokeswoman for the film’s distributor, Paramount Pictures, said that the Los Angeles Times initiated the advertising deal with Paramount that featured Lopez. The deal included promotional ads for the movie on Los Angeles’ KTLA Channel 5 Morning News and a contest on the Los Angeles Times Web site.
The “Soloist” advertisements were labeled as an advertising supplement and the text of the advertisement was in a different font from news stories in the newspaper.
In an April 19 Washington Post profile, Lopez said that “The Soloist” advertisement may have been “inappropriate.” But he said, “It’s a story that came from the newspaper and touched all these people. Why not play up some of our work that has captured the imagination?”
– Amba Datta
Silha Research Assistant