Marty Kaplan on L.A. Times Advertorial, ‘On the Razor's Edge’

USC Annenberg School for Communications’ Marty Kaplan weighs in on the L.A. Times’ controversial creation of ads posing as news.

Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg School For Communications, talked about the controversy roiling the Los Angeles Times over Hollywood ads designed to resemble news articles.

 

What do you think of “The Soloist” advertising supplement in the L.A. Times?

It’s more of the same of the more recent advertorial. It’s of a piece with the recent L-shaped ad on the front page.  It looks as if they’ve escalated what it is they’re willing to sell in exchange for what they claim is the future of the paper.

 

The question is whether there’s any of their soul that’s involved in the transaction.

 

Why does this disturb you particularly, since newspapers have been going this route as they try to shake the trees for revenue?

Part of the justification the L.A. Times used was, "We want to be able to pay our marvelous employees, so it’s worth doing this kind of stuff if we have an income stream because of it." The question is: where does that stop?

 

I don’t want anyone who is a journalist at the L.A. Times to lose a job, but I don’t think their job should be held hostage to the advertising manager’s conception of what is editorial integrity.

 

The idea came from the paper’s advertising division, not from the entities who wanted to advertise. That strikes me as a strange understanding of the value of what they’re selling. In the end, a paper is about a relationship with its readers, and that includes being trustworthy and not attempting any kind of deception.

 

In this case, even though you can point at the way the content was labeled as advertising, I think it was licking the razor.

 

Is product placement in the content also justifiable, as a way of paying employees?

This hasn’t happened, but what about assigning stories about products that have some advertising value, a journalistic version of payola?

 

The entire "Image"section is an attempt to create editorial to wrap the ads that they are publishing.

 

There is some sacred real estate in a newspaper. It may not include the bottom of the front page, but it certainly includes the column inches that lead there.

 

They were going to sell the entire right hand column of the front page.

That is as hard news a piece of territory as exists in a newspaper. If that was potentially up for sale, clearly there are no boundaries inside the business end of that paper.

 

How else will newspapers survive?

Not by firing the people who create the content that buyers wanted in the first place. If the expression, cutting off your nose to spite your face hadn’t been invented before, it would be invented for this.

 

But this is a question that plagues the entire business. I won’t claim that I have the secret answer for the future of print. A lot of people are figuring out what that should be right now — organizing as not-for-profit, or charging for content online. It’s in everyone’s interest to figure out how to increase revenue for a paper.

 

But it’s only going to remain journalism if certain lines are not crossed. The question is: what’s worth saving? The L.A. Times is a formerly great institution, arguably a great brand. But it has alienated the people in its community who used to count on it.