'Southland' 'news' continues ethical debate

A controversial LA Times front page ad demonstrated the disintigration of the traditional "church-and-state" barrier

When the Los Angeles Times ran an April 9 front-page ad for the NBC police drama Southland that resembled a news story, the newspaper demonstrated how the traditional “church-and-state” barrier is being further worn down, partially due to the recession.

The ad, placed on the bottom-left corner of the front page – a spot reserved for editorial content – was clearly labeled an advertisement. But the placement did not get rave reviews from Times employees, about 100 of whom signed a petition calling the ad “embarrassing and demoralizing.” Readers apparently felt likewise, as they peppered the newspaper's Readers' Representative Journal with almost entirely negative reactions.

But that didn't seem to matter to Times' management. The newspaper ran another promotion, again designed to look like news, on April 12, as a four-page advertisement for the movie The Soloist. The ad section not only looked like a news article, but it also featured an interview with a Times columnist.

Nancy Sullivan, Times' VP of communications, declined comment, but said the comments posted by readers are only indicative of “a minute percentage of our [readership].”

The ad might just be the tip of the iceberg as far as nontraditional advertising in traditional media. Joshua Benton, founding director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, predicts that traditional media outlets will find other, and once-taboo, ways to make revenue. One technique, he says, is sponsored content, the inclusion of “brought to you by” opportunities on specific columns or sections.

“I wouldn't be surprised if the next step is [that] we'll see sponsored content,” he says.

That shift, he adds, is especially likely now that the sanctity of a newspaper's front page has come into question.

“Why do we hold page one to a different ethical standard than page two?” he says. “It doesn't seem logical to me.”

Patrick Byers, CEO of Outsource Marketing and author of the Responsible Marketing blog, says that the recession could also result in newspapers offering marketers placement opportunities that, while exceptional, ring more authentically than the Southland ad.

“[Sponsored content] feels more overt and honest than trying to write something that sounds like a piece of news,” he says. “Imagine instead, if [NBC's] Southland, [a crime drama], sponsored the equivalent of the crime watch page... or if Gatorade sponsored the sports page. There are some natural fits.”

However, further, and more grievous, ethical complications could occur, for instance, if an outlet's technology section was sponsored by a company that is often covered in that space, Byers adds.

Jennifer Saba, associate editor at Editor & Publisher, called the Southland advertorial “cheesy” on her outlet's Fitz & Jen industry blog. She also points out that the Tribune Co., the owner of the Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun, has been on the forefront of controversial advertising by using different advertising shapes and watermarks in its content – both online and in print. The media chain also came under fire in 1999 after it made a revenue-sharing agreement with the Staples Center arena, which was the subject of its editorial content.

She notes that readers will be the ultimate judges of these new methods, and media outlets will suffer the consequences if they annoy their readers with the various new marketing opportunities they provide.

“I don't think the front page should be ad-free, but you have to make smart choices in how you style your advertising,” Saba explains. “They should make sure they are preserving their brand as much as possible, and that might mean making sure [the advertising is] aesthetically pleasing.”

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