LA Times Pitched NBC on ‘Southland’ Front Page Ad Concept

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In its own explanation of a front-page ad that simulated a news story, Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein said “he decided to run the NBC ad despite newsroom objections because he was trying to ensure that The Times could continue to operate.”

A number of journalists at the Los Angeles Times are mighty mad, and well they should be. Dozens of Times’ staffers reportedly signed a petition Thursday expressing their dismay about the advertisement for “Southland” that ran on the front page that day.

The staffers say the ad –- which is a fake news story about the new cop drama –- is a bad, “quick cash” idea. “Our willingness to sell our most precious real estate to an advertiser is embarrassing and demoralizing,” the petition reads.

They’re right. Even though this ad is labeled as an “Advertisement,” and even though the ad has a different typeface than the Times‘ front-page news content, it’s a bad idea with serious ethical implications.

I doubt most readers will confuse the ad with a real news story, as long as they see the NBC logo and the “Advertisement” label at the top of the story. Of course, not everyone will take notice. Some will be fooled. They will be deceived, and that’s an ethical failure.

But there’s another major problem in this case. The transparency of labeling the ad falls far short of the accountability expected of a newspaper that should protect the integrity of its journalistic work.

The reason the advertiser wants the ad to look like a news story is quite clear, and The Times‘ publisher and advertising execs know it full well.

In fact, the paper reports, “NBC wasn’t planning to buy print ads for ‘Southland’ until The Times pitched this concept, said Adam Stotsky, NBC Entertainment Marketing president.” TVWeek confirms this and offers additional details:

” ‘They developed the idea and came to us with it,’ Mr. Stotsky said, crediting L.A. Times Vice President of Entertainment Advertising Lynne Segall for spearheading the promotion.

” ‘It’s a reflection of the overall media landscape,’ Mr. Stotsky said. ‘We have to innovate or we perish.

“He said the Times ad helps ‘contextualize our message.’ “

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.

Sure, I know the L.A. Times is struggling financially. I’m aware of the arguments that new forms of revenue are essential to protect jobs.

But this is an example of a news organization cutting ethical corners. The Times’ execs are chopping away at the journalistic foundation. They are selling pieces of the paper’s journalistic soul. And this may be only the beginning. The Times reports:

“Staff members also objected to an advertising supplement scheduled to run with Sunday’s Calendar section. The four-page section promotes the film ‘The Soloist,’ which is based on a series of articles by Times columnist Steve Lopez. Although labeled as an ad supplement, the section’s typography and layout mimic those of a regular Times news section.

“Hartenstein said he planned to meet with (editor Russ) Stanton (who objected to the ad) next week to discuss ad standards before the paper commits to another front-page ad similar to the ‘ride-along’ one.”

Times’ staffers express legitimate opposition in their petition: “This action violates a 128-year pact with our readers that the front page is reserved for the most meaningful stories of the day. Placing a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards.”

Well put.

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