The Los Angeles Times came under criticism Thursday after it ran a front-page advertisement that resembled a news story.
The ad for the NBC drama "Southland" appeared in the left column, starting below the fold and above and beside a banner ad for the television show. The ad, which was labeled "advertisement" and carried the NBC peacock logo, was written from the perspective of a reporter on a ride-along with the show's main character, a Los Angeles police officer.
The Times appears to be the first major U.S. newspaper in modern times to have run a front-page ad in a format that could be mistaken for a news story, said Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
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.
"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," he said.
The Times, like other newspapers, has struggled with shrinking revenue and has laid off hundreds of employees in the last year. Industrywide, advertising revenue in 2008 declined 17%, to $38 billion, according to the Newspaper Assn. of America. Tribune Co., which owns The Times, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2008.
Hartenstein said the ad netted a "significant premium" over traditional rates but declined to be more specific.
NBC wasn't planning to buy print ads for "Southland" until The Times pitched this concept, said Adam Stotsky, NBC Entertainment Marketing president.
The advertisement, which drew complaints from about 70 readers, ran over the objections of Editor Russ Stanton. In addition, a dozen editors had e-mailed Hartenstein on Wednesday night asking that the ad be "withdrawn or revised."
"There is not an editor in this nation -- including me -- who really wants to see something like that on the front page of his or her publication," Stanton said.
The Times has been running ads on its front page since mid-2007. But the "Southland" ad was different, industry observers say.
"It's unwise and ethically problematic to have advertising morph into news content and style," said Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute and a professor at DePauw University. "Each step may seem like a small one. But each time you cut a corner, you create weakness in the overall product."
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 Stanton next week to discuss ad standards before the paper commits to another front-page ad similar to the "ride-along" one.