LA Times runs fake-news front-page ad, staff protests

Everyone knows that the newspaper industry has hit hard times, and that they need to find a new way to monetize their product.  The Los Angeles Times thought it had hit on one new vehicle for revenue — selling an ad on their front page that looked like a regular news story:

NBC is promoting tonight’s premiere of “Southland” with a front-page ad in today’s Los Angeles Times that appears to be unlike any other front page ad the paper has run previously.  That’s because the ad is designed to resemble a news story.

As part of the next phase in its extensive marketing campaign for the John Wells-produced drama, NBC has bought a traditional strip advertisement that will run across the bottom of the Times’ page one and will feature key art from the show. It will be adjacent to another paid ad unit: an advertorial-type feature story documenting the first day on the job of a fictional Los Angeles Police Department rookie cop.

The faux story, headline “Southland’s Rookie Hero,” will promise readers a ride-along with new LAPD officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) during his first day on duty. To avoid reader confusion, the story will be printed in a different typeface than normal Times stories, and will also feature a prominent disclaimer: The NBC peacock logo and the word “advertisement” will appear just above the ad’s headline.

This has the reporters at the LAT up in arms.  Peter Kafka reports that over 100 of the staff have signed the following petition to management:

We the journalists of the newsroom strenuously object to the decision to sell an ad, in the form of a phony news story, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times.

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. Placing a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards.

The Los Angeles Times stands apart from other sources of news and information in Southern California because of our willingness to report the truth, even when it angers powerful interests or puts us in peril.  Our willingness to sell our most precious real estate to an advertiser is embarrassing and demoralizing.

What might make them more embarrassed was the fact that NBC didn’t have to do any arm-twisting to get this done.  The LAT’s ad staff came to NBC with the idea, apparently with the blessing of the news division, or at least their tacit participation.  Their press release said that the Times was willing to “stretch traditional boundaries,” which apparently includes coughing up ad space on the front page for fake news stories.

This isn’t really all that new for newspapers.  Other advertisers in papers have been using variants of the same idea for years, perhaps decades, in order to give an appearance of actual news.  The papers insist on a solid border and different font type in order to set off the ad from the real news, usually for health-care and beauty products rather than TV shows. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a newspaper use its front page for that kind of advertising.  The staff has a point in this objection, although at some point, the entire concept of “pages” is going to disappear down the digital obsolescence hole.