What’s wrong with this cover?


Anything? Take a look at the front page of yesterday’s L.A. Times, and then after the jump I’ll give my two cents about what I think is a bit bizarre about it.

Hint: Look at the bottom left

Hint: Look at the bottom left

UPDATE: Five minutes after I wrote this post, I disagreed with my own conclusions. I really do not think that, no matter the circumstance, this kind of advertisement should run on the cover of a newspaper. Selling ads on the front page is one thing, but this kind of ad can’t be a last resort just for the money.

What I want to know (along with lots of others) is how much the Times got paid for this ad. Apparently (see below), it was the paper’s advertising department that came up with the idea.

Below is my original post. Keep in mind that I mostly don’t agree with its conclusions after some more sober thought. For the sake of discussion, though, here it is.

It’s hard to catch on this screen capture, but the headline of the story in the bottom-left corner of the page is “Southland’s Rookie Hero”. You’ll also notice that there is an NBC logo above the headline. As it turns out, this is not a news story at all.

Instead, it is an example of front-page advertising in an era of financially challenged newspapers. It is a story about a character on NBC’s Southland. The network also purchased some space for a not-so cryptic ad for the same show, as you can see.

The strategy is not exactly brand-new to American journalism, according to an AP story:

University of Southern California journalism professor Bryce Nelson said it seemed to be the first time in recent history that an ad resembling a news story appeared on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper — something once common in 19th-century newspapers.

“This kind of highly intrusive front-page ad has not been a feature of American journalism in recent decades,” said Nelson, a former national correspondent for the Times.

OK, so it’s been awhile.

Adam Stotsky, the president of entertainment marketing for NBC, said that the idea for the ad came from the L.A. Times‘ ad department. He explained his company’s intentions to the New York Times.

“What was great about this ad unit is it gave us a quote-unquote ‘editorial voice,’ ” Mr. Stotsky said in an interview. “The more relevant you can make your advertising, the more contextualized you can make your advertising, we find the more engagement can be created, and ultimately the more effective your marketing can be,” he said.

There was no intent to fool readers, Mr. Stotsky said. He said the ad used fonts that differed from the standard Los Angeles Times fonts, and it included the NBC logo. NBC staff wrote the ad, and The Times’s business staff approved it; the editorial side was not involved, he said. “I think most consumers will recognize that this is an ad,” Mr. Stotsky said.

Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, raised concerns in the same New York Times piece.

“Some people say readers are smart and they can tell the difference, but the fundamental concept here is deeply offensive,” she said. “Readers don’t want to be fooled, they don’t like the notion that someone is attempting to deceive them.”

“Newspapers are facing a really remarkable economic challenge, but to me, this is exactly the wrong way to go about surviving,” Ms. Overholser said. “This breaks perhaps the most important bond that newspapers have with their readers, which, to me, is a bond of trust.”

According to a Reuters blog, the ad was quite controversial among L.A. Times staffers:

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.

The petition says, among other things:

The NBC ad may have provided some quick cash, but it has caused incalculable damage to this institution … 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 a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and journalistic standards.

What do I think? I don’t disagree with the opinion of the petitioners, but I also understand that when newspapers are sinking, they need to do what they need to do to survive. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.

It kills me to say this. But running fake news stories as advertisements can be legitimate. That is only if it is clear where the news ends and the advertising begins. It should always be abundantly clear that such “stories” are indeed fake. There can never be any doubt among readers about which stories are real and which are fiction. If there is, then that is a different story.

Man, it really sucks that it’s come to this.

Oh, and one more thing. I think “wrap” covers are the pits. It’s one thing to sell some space on the front of a newspaper, but it’s another thing entirely to relegate the day’s most important news to Page Three. See this (h/t Fishbook) for a disgusting example of advertisers taking advantage of student newspapers.

Then again, where do you draw the line?

(That N.Y. Times story, by the way, offers a lot of insight into how American newspapers are responding to financial woes by running front-page ads. Definitely worth a read.)


2 Responses to “What’s wrong with this cover?”

  1. Interesting that multiple instances of this ethical dilemma were described in the news lately. I talk a bit about it in the last two posts on my blogs (In these tough economical times…), and one of them is about the ASUC (Berkeley’s student union) / Panda Express deal.

    I should note that the Daily Californian (who like other papers are having their share of difficulties) nonetheless criticized the ASUC executive director for setting up this situation of ultimatum (planning started one year and a half ago, before the crisis) where “there is no alternative” to bringing fast food on campus.

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